Wayne Tilcock / (Davis) Enterprise file, 2011

UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move protesters from the school's quad last November. The incident was captured on video that went viral online and brought national attention to the case.

UC Davis marks a year since pepper-spraying by cops

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 1:45 pm

It's been one year since UC Davis police infamously pepper-sprayed students who were camped out in protest on the campus quad, and university officials say they have learned a valuable lesson.

During a Wednesday interview, school officials reflected on the event and vowed again not to repeat the mistakes of last fall.

"It was clear that we needed a different philosophy," said Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter. "That would be patience."

The episode unfolded a year ago today after campus police were sent in to remove tents set up on the quad during a multi-day demonstration against service cuts and tuition hikes. The situation grew tense as students refused the orders to disperse and encircled officers, chanting for the release of protesters who had been arrested.

The police response – two officers systematically pepper-spraying students who remained seated in defiance – was captured on video that went viral online and prompted international condemnations.

The months that followed brought both internal and external investigations into how campus administrators handled the incident.

Ultimately, the university agreed to a $1 million settlement with 21 students who were pepper-sprayed. As part of the settlement, the university agreed to pay $20,000 to the ACLU for legal fees to advise UC Davis on policies for handling future demonstrations.

Hexter highlighted changes in the Police Department, as well as new policies for protest management as signs that the university indeed has changed. The two UC Davis officers who deployed the pepper spray no longer work for the department. Chief Annette Spicuzza retired in April after an independent panel issued a report critical of her management.

The new campus police chief, Matthew Carmichael, has reiterated his "commitment to community policing." Carmichael said he has worked to ensure all officers understand and practice the new guidelines, but conceded not everything will be perfect.

"You have to understand, we are human. We will make mistakes," Carmichael said last week.

Administrators say the new approach was evident in the university's handling of the U.S. Bank protest in the spring. A daily sit-in outside the campus branch was monitored by police, but they refrained from physically removing protesters. Instead, university staff passed out leaflets informing protesters they were in violation of the law.

In late March, with the sit-in still in force, officials unexpectedly pressed charges against 11 students and one professor who had been blocking the bank – an outcome Hexter called a "good exemplification of being patient," noting that no force was used.

Critics of the administration argue that the oppression has only taken a new form.

"They have replaced pepper spray with court orders," said student activist David Roddy. "It's no less repressive."

Commemorative activities to mark the anniversary of the pepper-spraying are expected to be low-key. Some activists accused the university of "co-opting" a planned Monday rally. Several speakers pulled out after the administration asked to participate, said Ian Lee, one of the students sprayed last November.

As of Saturday morning, a Facebook event for the rally had 92 attendees. Last year, a rally called two days after the pepper-spraying drew 6,000 people.

Justin Goss, a senator from the student government, acknowledges that progress has been made but said "not enough was done in the aftermath of the incident" to change direction at the university, which increasingly relies on private funding.

"We had tons of media exposure – media trucks were everywhere," he said. "I felt like we had enormous power that didn't get capitalized. The students were right, the administration was wrong."

Students and faculty remain divided on whether Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi should have kept her job. Katehi withstood calls to resign, but was censured by the UC Davis Academic Senate.

Proposition 30's passage two weeks ago has many administrators, including Hexter, breathing a sigh of relief. Approval of the tax measure means the University of California cannot raise tuition this year, and will get an additional $125 million in state funding next year.

"Had it not passed, we would have expected fairly sizable protests," Hexter said.

Still, Goss cautions the campus against forgetting the events of last fall.

"The best protection students have is the memory of what happened," he said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Richard Chang

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