A judge in Oakland temporarily halted the release Tuesday of a report on the pepper spraying of students at the University of California, Davis, setting up a legal fight over how much protection police officers can receive from public scrutiny.
The report, which had been set for release Tuesday, now remains in the hands of the task force assigned to investigate the Nov. 18 incident and a select few others.
"It's upsetting, and it doesn't give us much hope," said Fatima Sbeih, 22, a UC Davis student who has joined a lawsuit against the school over the pepper spraying. "This hasn't really done much good for the students, the school or the faculty relationships we're trying to rebuild."
UC Davis officials said they have not seen the report but emphasized after the judge's order that they want it made public as soon as possible.
"We're tremendously disappointed by the delay," said campus spokesman Barry Shiller, adding that officials had hoped by Tuesday afternoon to be having "the first airing of what we are told would be a very comprehensive, objective assessment of what occurred last November."
Instead, a lawyer for the union representing campus police won a temporary restraining order after citing concerns that the report would name police officers and could contain potentially damaging personnel and other information about them.
Under state law, such information cannot be released, union attorney John Bakhit argued.
Attorneys for the university system disputed that, as did a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which was allowed to intervene in the case.
"We believe those provisions were intended to cover internal affairs investigations," said UC Vice President and General Counsel Charles Robinson. "We believe this is a completely separate review ... (with) a much broader scope."
Alameda Superior Court Judge Evelio M. Grillo ordered release of the report delayed until March 16, saying he would read a copy privately. He also agreed to allow the task force to provide a copy to Bakhit with the agreement that he would not divulge its contents.
Lawyers for the union, the university and the ACLU must provide briefs on the case by March 13, with the legal arguments promising to explore just how far authorities can go to shield police from public disclosure of their actions on duty.
The dispute marks the latest twist in an episode that dates to November, when UC Davis police officers used pepper spray against students and supporters gathered on the campus quad to protest rising education costs. Video clips that went viral on the Internet showed an officer methodically spraying students seated in passive resistance after they failed to obey orders to disperse.
Three campus police officials were placed on paid leave following the pepper spraying, including Chief Annette Spicuzza and Lt. John Pike, the officer shown in the video.
Amid the uproar that followed, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi maintained that the officers had defied her orders by using force on the students, and commissioned an investigation.
Kroll, a security and investigations firm headed by former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, spent months interviewing officials, including active campus police officers who witnessed the pepper spraying and were told to cooperate by acting UC Davis Police Chief Matt Carmichael, Robinson said.
Neither Spicuzza nor Pike cooperated with the investigation.
Kroll turned its findings over to a task force headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, a retired law professor at UC Davis who also has said the report should be released in its entirety.
Andrew Lopez, president of the Federated University Police Officers Association, which represents campus police, said Tuesday that the union wants the report released but not if it violates statutes designed to protect officers.
"Our concerns are about the confidential information about our officers that are contained in the report," he said in a statement. "This is not an attempt to stifle the investigative reports."
The union cites state law, which says records regarding an officer's personnel file or performance on duty "are confidential and shall not be disclosed in any criminal or civil proceeding" unless it is conducted by a grand jury, district attorney or the attorney general.
Law enforcement experts say such laws, some of them decades old, provide necessary protections for officers wrongly accused of misdeeds on duty.
"When an officer becomes the person investigated, it is as if their world has been turned upside down," said Sacramento defense attorney William Portanova, who has represented many accused law enforcement officials.
"We want to know what happened, we want to know the truth. But not at the expense of sacrificing a constitutional right."
Others question whether those protections have gone too far, particularly in the pepper-spray case.
"The public has a right to know what police officers are doing," said Michael Risher, an ACLU attorney who represents 19 plaintiffs suing over the incident.
"These are not undercover operatives, these are officers whose faces have been seen on videos throughout the Internet," Risher said.
"This is a report that the university needs to issue as part of trying to repair some of the damage that was done on Nov. 18. It's a report that the people of the state need to have access to so they can know what is being done with taxpayer money in their name."
Complicating the issue is an internal affairs investigation the school is conducting of police actions during the Nov. 18 incident. That investigation is expected to be completed soon, but UC Davis notes on its website that the probe's findings will not be made public.
In an ironic twist, the school cites the same confidentiality statutes that the police union used in its bid to delay release of the task force report.