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Judge tentatively OKs release of UC Davis pepper-spraying report

March 15, 2012 |  7:52 pm

An Alameda County Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling Thursday denying a request by a campus police union to block a University of California investigative report about the pepper-spraying of UC Davis student protesters in November, saying much of the report deals with administration decisions.

The tentative ruling by Judge Evelio Grillo could change after he hears arguments in the case Friday but signaled his thinking on the matter, which has spurred outrage among students and UC officials arguing for the release of the report they commissioned.

Grillo had issued a temporary restraining order blocking release of the report last week after the Federated University Police Officers Assn. argued that state law forbids public disclosure of such information as the names of UC Davis campus police officers involved in the spraying incident and personnel information garnered from interviews with them.

On Thursday, Grillo noted that much of the two reports under dispute deal with administrative and policy issues and said he probably would order those portions of the report released “immediately” after Friday’s hearing.

Grillo’s tentative ruling also expressed skepticism with many union assertions that material about officers was protected under state law as “personnel records.” But Grillo indicated he would stay his order requiring release of that material through April 2 to give police an opportunity to appeal. 

Images of UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike casually dispensing pepper spray into the eyes of seated protesters quickly went viral, becoming what Grillo called in his tentative ruling “an Internet meme.”

Taking issue with the officers’ efforts to suppress the material, Grillo said: "It cannot be the law that a public entity cannot collect, compile, and distribute public information about its police department without running afoul of” the laws drafted to protect officers facing discipline.

The Nov. 18 student protest took place as part of the Occupy movement. Afterward, UC Davis placed three officers on administrative leave and began an internal affairs investigation.

Separately, the university convened a task force headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso to make recommendations regarding police procedures in light of the event. Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm headed by former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, was retained to collect information on the incident and make policy recommendations.

Grillo called the Kroll report “extensive and detailed,” and noted that it specifically claims not to contain “information obtained from any interview of any officer whose use of force is being reviewed or who has been deemed a potential subject of discipline; only witness officers have been interviewed.”

Meanwhile, Reynoso’s report, based on Kroll’s material , “considers various decision points … and describes how and why those decisions were made by specific individuals,” Grillo wrote. “The report then assigns responsibility to specific individuals, including police officers, for various specific decisions,” and goes on to make policy recommendations that extend to the entire UC system.

“The report is a compilation of public information that would have been available to an investigative journalist or member of the public who took the time and expended the effort to make a Public Records Act request, review videos posted on YouTube and elsewhere, and locate and interview witnesses,” he wrote.

Police probably would fail to prove a privacy right would be violated by release of the report, he added, “given that the Incident has been the subject of public scrutiny and videos of the demonstration and the [UC Davis Police Department's] use of pepper spray have ‘gone viral’ on the internet.”

Police union attorney John Bakhit could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Michael Risher, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which has joined UC officials in opposing the injunction, said, “obviously we’re please that the judge believes the report needs to be released. Our position is as it always has been that as much information as possible should be released to the public as soon as possible.”

Attorneys for the Sacramento Bee and The Times also filed briefs in the case, seeking access to the full report.

UC General Counsel Charles Robinson called the tentative ruling "a positive development" but declined to comment further before Friday's hearing, saying it would be premature to do so.


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