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UC study criticizes, places blame in pepper spray use at Davis

April 11, 2012 |  1:44 pm

University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school's quad

UC Davis 'pepper spray incident' task report A UC investigatory report released Wednesday sharply criticized UC Davis campus police for using pepper spray on student demonstrators in November and said the school’s administrators and security force were to blame for poor planning and bad decisions in dealing with protests.

“Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly. The pepper spraying incident that took place on Nov. 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented,” declared the lengthy report written by a university-appointed task force chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.

The study strongly refutes campus police assertions the band of Occupy demonstrators posed a violent threat and it also says administrators wrongly assumed that many off-campus troublemakers were part of the tent-city protest that officials wanted evicted. It details a chain of miscommunication and poorly timed efforts to remove the protesters, leading to the incident that gripped the nation via an online video showing campus Police Lt. John Pike spraying a line of seated students at close range.

“On balance, there is little factual basis supporting Lt. Pike’s belief that he was trapped by the protesters or that his officers were prevented from leaving the quad. Further, there is little evidence that any protesters attempted to use violence against the police,” the report stated.

The task force and an accompanying study by the Kroll security firm described UC Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi’s leadership in handling the protests as inadequate.

“Chancellor Katehi failed to express in any meaningful way her expectation that the police operation was to be sharply limited so that no use of force would be employed by police officers other than their demand that the tents be taken down," the study said. "The lack of effective communication by the chancellor at this time not only contributed to misunderstandings that made it difficult to evaluate the decision to use police to take down the tents. This communication failure also substantially undermined the goal of avoiding a physical confrontation between the police and protesters.

The report did not make any specific personnel recommendations but called on UC and UC Davis to review its police policies and training and for the campus to set up a better system for making decisions about protests.

The episode led to much soul-searching within the UC system and campuses across the country about the balance of civil rights and security at a time when the Occupy movement was burgeoning. Katehi, who became the school’s leader in 2009, faced calls for her resignation, but she apologized for the incident and overcame an attempt by some faculty to pass a no-confidence vote against her.

In February, 19 students and alumni who were sprayed or arrested filed a federal lawsuit claiming their free speech and assembly rights were violated in the controversial incident. The suit names Katehi as a defendant, along with other campus administrators and police officers and seeks financial damages and changes in how the UC system handles protests.

Ten protesters were arrested and cited with unlawful assembly and illegal camping, but the Yolo County district attorney subsequently said no charges would be filed against them because of a lack of enough evidence.

The report itself was at the center of legal drama over the last month as the police union sought to limit how much of the report could be publicly released, contending that some parts would violate privacy rules and put officers at risk of harassment and danger. Police attorneys say Pike has received death threats along with unwanted pizzas ordered to his home by pranksters.

This week, UC and the union agreed the report could be released but with many of the names of the officers removed except for Pike and UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza. As a result, the report  uses references to officers H, I, J and K, among others.

Pike, the chief and a third unidentified officer have been on paid administrative leave since shortly after the incident. The UC Davis police department is concluding its own internal affairs investigation about whether any of its officers should face disciplinary action, according to a campus spokesperson.

Meanwhile, a separate committee headed by UC Berkeley law school Dean Christopher Edley is looking at the wider issues about how campuses should react to student protests in the future. That group’s recommendations are expected to be released in the next month or two, officials said.


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Photo: UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters on Nov. 18 while blocking their exit from the school's quad. Credit: Wayne Tilcock / The Davis Enterprise