Pepper spray report blasts UC Davis leaders

Sophia Kamran, a UC Davis student who said she was pepper-sprayed Nov. 18, speaks to the investigative panel that released its report on the campus protest and police reaction Wednesday, April 11, 2012.
Sophia Kamran, a UC Davis student who said she was pepper-sprayed Nov. 18, speaks to the investigative panel that released its report on the campus protest and police reaction Wednesday, April 11, 2012. The Sacramento Bee

This story was originally published April 12, 2012.

As Occupy protests spread last fall from New York to the West Coast, leaders at UC Davis braced for them to hit campus and started planning for how to respond.

But despite weeks of discussion as protests turned violent at some other UC campuses and California cities, UC Davis administrators were woefully unprepared to manage the demonstrations when tents went up on the quad in November.

Instead, they responded with such a lack of communication and decision-making that it represented "systemic and repeated failures" by university leaders.

Those are the harsh conclusions of 190 pages of investigative reports released Wednesday on the Nov. 18 pepper-spraying of students and activists on campus during a tuition protest. It found:

* Some campus officials contended most campers on the quad were outsiders, not students, despite a lack of evidence to support that assertion.

* UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi failed to make clear she wanted no force used in dispersing the protesters, leaving top-level officials with completely different understandings of her position.

* Campus police operations were so dysfunctional that officers simply ignored Police Chief Annette Spicuzza when she told them not to wear riot gear or carry batons into the demonstration to avoid a confrontation.

The result of the failures has been broadcast worldwide with the images of campus police Lt. John Pike calmly pepper-spraying seated protesters that Friday afternoon.

Wednesday's report was unveiled to a few dozen students and others at UC Davis' Freeborn Hall with one blunt main finding: The pepper- spray incident "should and could have been prevented."

Cruz Reynoso, the former state Supreme Court justice who oversaw the task force that produced the report, also issued recommendations on how to prevent future problems, including a complete review of the UC Davis Police Department.

Gordon Allen, a freshman philosophy student, said he had read the report online and found it "really objective."

"It's clear from the report that there are egregious failures, " he said. "There was a breakdown of communications."

Katehi released a statement saying she "will ensure that students' safety and free-speech rights are paramount."

"We can all learn from the difficult events of last November; this report will help us do that, " the statement said.

Despite the overall condemnation of how UC Davis officials responded to the protests, the investigation provides a more nuanced view of how things went so wrong, and paints some of the principals in the incident less as villains than some might think.

Pike, for instance, has been criticized for using the pepper spray against students and protesters. He used a canister size, the report found, that had not been approved for campus use and which officers had not been trained to use. But the report also said he expressed concerns about officers moving in to remove the students in an operation dubbed "Eco-Friendly."

The morning of Nov. 18, according to the report, Pike and another officer contacted the campus lawyer about whether a daytime operation was legal. Campus policy forbids overnight camping, but there was some question about whether it was legal to try to remove tents in the middle of the day rather than late at night.

Two hours before the 3 p.m. deadline for the tents to come down, the report said, Pike listened in on a conference call with university leaders and Spicuzza and at one point interrupted: "Student affairs should talk to them rather than bringing in the PD at this point, " he said.

Spicuzza waved him off and Pike "looked like he almost got disgusted with the conversation" and briefly left the room, investigators were told.

Pike, who is on leave pending an internal affairs investigation, also is described as having a "heated" exchange with Spicuzza over how to prepare for the removal of the tents. Spicuzza objected to officers wearing riot gear or carrying batons, but Pike and another lieutenant argued that while they didn't want to have to use force, they needed non-lethal equipment to protect themselves.

The officers ended up ignoring Spicuzza, the report found, although just before heading to the quad Pike was overheard saying, "This is a bad idea."

Pike first deployed the pepper spray after protesters were warned at least six times to leave, investigators were told. Officers interviewed by investigators made it clear they felt surrounded by a hostile crowd, though the report notes that there may have been alternatives to using pepper spray.

For instance, "Officer F., " who is not named because of a court order that redacted most officer names, was able to walk through the crowd and place suspects into a police car.

After the incident ended with 10 arrests and the use of pepper spray, Pike returned to campus police offices. "Oh, my God, " he said, scratching his head, according to what investigators were told. "I hope I'm not the scapegoat for this one."

Spicuzza, who also was placed on leave, is portrayed as wanting police to withdraw if they encountered resistance, but her command over her officers was not strong enough for her to prevail, the report concluded.

She supported her officers' position that the tents should be taken down at 3 a.m. when the chances of the crowd interrupting police were less likely. But the report indicates she did not strongly challenge Katehi when the chancellor said she wanted the tents removed by 3 p.m. that Friday.

Spicuzza also appears to be the one who planted the idea with administrators that up to 80 percent of the campers and demonstrators were "non-affiliates" -- people from outside the campus who were not students and could pose a threat to the campus population.

The report found no evidence to back up that contention, with student affairs staff arguing that most of the protesters were UC Davis students.

The campers were extraordinarily organized, the report found. Despite police being present on the quad Nov. 17 to prevent tents from going up, students appeared in the area around 3 p.m. that day with carts carrying supplies and tents.

"They had 15 tents set up in 10 minutes on the quad, " John Meyer, a UC Davis vice chancellor, told investigators. "They were up in a flash. It was a work of art."

After a series of phone calls, officials planned to oust the students at 3 a.m. Friday. Spicuzza decided later she could not come up with enough officers and wanted to wait until 3 a.m. Saturday.

But Katehi did not want to wait until the late hours of a "party night" when students might be heading back from bars as police moved in, she told investigators. Instead, in a conference call Thursday night, Katehi suggested a 3 p.m. Friday deadline, and "the group didn't object."

In that same call, the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, Griselda Castro, urged restraint, saying "there is a lot of support for this movement and that we had to land on the right side of history on this one."

Castro suggested there were alternatives to moving in, saying "it's going to be Thanksgiving, it's going to rain, the finals are coming, it'll blow over."

The response to her 40 minutes of speaking, she told investigators, was "dead silence."

Katehi has maintained for months that she did not authorize force against the students, and the report found that the common understanding before police moved in was that it could not "be another Berkeley, " where police broke up an earlier protest with batons.

But investigators found top-level leaders with conflicting views of what was decided, when the decisions were made and why they were made.

Katehi told investigators her understanding was that there was to be "no violence, " and she has said she thought police would withdraw if the students resisted.

But Meyer told investigators he believed the decision was that no violence meant "no batons" and that "hands-on use of force by police was acceptable."

The failure to communicate created a "cascading series of errors which set the stage for the use of pepper spray, " the investigation found.

The report does not recommend discipline for anyone, but makes it clear that the university leadership failed from the top to handle the protest appropriately.

"It was the systemic and repeated failures in the civilian, UC Davis administration decision-making process that put the officers in the unfortunate situation in which they found themselves, " investigators concluded.