UC-Davis Pepper-Spray Report May Name Names

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The University of California, Davis, may have to identify police officers involved in the pepper-spraying of student activists, an appeals court ruled.
     National attention and widespread criticism befell the school after video went viral of UC Davis police Lt. John Pike methodically pepper-spraying a row of seat protestors at point-blank range on Nov. 18, 2011. The students had gathered to protest rising college costs in the wake of California’s fiscal crisis.
     Regents for the University of California system hired former LA police chief William Bratton and his consulting firm Kroll to provide an “independent, unvarnished report” of the incident, and appointed former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso to chair the task force reviewing Bratton’s report.
     Bratton interviewed 14 UC officers on the condition that information they provided would not be used against them in disciplinary proceedings. State confidentiality rules also led Bratton to skip interviewing officers who faced citizen complaints or internal affairs investigations.
     While Bratton’s report acknowledged “a cascading series of errors which set the stage for the use of pepper spray,” the Reynoso task force assigned blame to nearly everyone involved – the UC Davis administration, campus police and the UC system in general. Both reports used pseudonyms for the officers involved with the exception of Pike and then-UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, whose identities were already widely known.
     A first round of litigation sought to entirely quash release of the reports. UC regents wanted the reports published without redaction, but eventually settled with the Federated University Police Officers Association to release the reports with the pseudonyms in place.
     The agreement expressly stated, however, that it did not affect any obligations to produce the full records if requested under the California Public Records Act. And indeed, the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee filed petitions to compel UC officials to disclose the full unredacted reports under the PRA in May 2012.
     An Alameda County judge granted the request – over the police union’s objections – and held that law-enforcement exemptions in the PRA created by the Legislature and the California Supreme Court do not extend to officers whose conduct prompts an examination of police actions, procedures and policies.
     The trial court stayed its ruling, however, to allow the union to file an appeal, which it did unsuccessfully in the First Appellate District. That court also granted a stay, and the case went to the California Supreme Court in October 2012.
     There, the justices sent the case back to the appeals court, ordering the judges to vacate their decision and in turn order the trial court to show cause as to why the records should be released.
     On Tuesday the First Appellate District again ordered the release of the full reports, finding that the officers’ names alone do not trigger an automatic PRA exemption.
     “Unlike a citizen’s complaint procedure, which addresses a specific complaint about a specific police officer’s actions, the reports’ focus took a larger view and examined the internal workings of the UC and the UC Davis Police Department,” Presiding Judge Ignazio “Nace” Ruvolo wrote for a three-judge panel. “They assessed how the policies and procedures that were in effect on Nov. 18, 2011 influenced how the police officers handled the protestors and whether institutional changes were appropriate. Most telling, while the reports make policy level recommendations, they expressly do not make any recommendations regarding whether it was appropriate to admonish or discipline any officer in connection with the pepper spray incident. These facts demonstrate the reports are not the result of a de facto investigation of a citizen’s complaint, and disclosing the redacted police officers’ names would reveal nothing about officer discipline.”
     Ruvolo also noted that the complete reports reveal nothing of the officers’ personnel records, another exemption the union relied upon to quash the reports.
     “The Legislature easily could have included names as a protected category of information, but chose not to do so,” Ruvolo wrote.
     He continued: “It is clear that the names of officers interviewed or involved in the pepper spray incident are not within the classes of information designated ‘personal data’ protected from disclosure. Indeed, police officers release their names to the public every day when they put on their uniforms, which are required to have name tags unless anonymity is required, such as officers who are working undercover. They routinely indentify themselves when they go about their official duties – such as signing the tickets and citations they issue, writing police reports and stating their names when they testify in open court.”
     The appeals court also noted that hundreds of people witnessed the incident, which has also been memorialized in dozens of still photos and video recordings. Several news accounts have even identified the officers involved by name, according to the ruling.
     “Section 832.7, subdivision (a) – the sole exemption relied upon by FUPOA – defines two categories of information protected from disclosure under CPRA. They are: (1) records relating to a mandated investigation of citizens’ complaints as defined in section 832.5, and (2) police personnel records, as defined in section 832.8, subdivisions (a) through (f),” Ruvolo wrote. “Giving these categories of information the requisite narrow construction the law requires, we conclude that FUPOA has failed to meet its burden of proving that the information the newspapers seeks is exempt from disclosure.”
     The union’s fight may not be completely over however, since the panel left its initial stay in place – giving FUPOA the opportunity to again appeal to the California Supreme Court.
     More than 20 of the pepper-sprayed UC Davis students filed a federal civil rights action against UC Davis officials, Pike and Spicuzza in February 2012. The university forked over $1 million to settle the case last fall, giving $30,000 to each of the plaintiffs who also demanded – and received – a personal, handwritten apology for incident by UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi as part of the settlement.

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