UC Davis pepper-spray case ends with $1 million deal

In this Nov. 18, 2011 file photo, 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 in Davis, Calif.
In this Nov. 18, 2011 file photo, 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 in Davis, Calif. The Davis Enterprise

This story was originally published September 27, 2012.

After 10 months of investigations, angry demands and lawsuits, the final chapter in the pepper-spray saga at the University of California, Davis, was written Wednesday with the announcement of a $1 million settlement.

The payout for the students pepper-sprayed during a Nov. 18 campus demonstration: $30,000 each -- about the cost of attending the school for a year -- and a written apology from UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

The payouts for the lawyers, consultants and others who dealt with the messy aftermath? Quite a bit more.

The final bill likely will exceed $2 million, with the $1 million settlement deal announced Wednesday covered by the UC system's self-insurance program.

That settlement includes $250,000 in legal fees for the attorneys who filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the 21 student plaintiffs in February. Documents released this week to The Bee reflect other costs, including:

* $320,000 paid to the Munger, Tolles & Olson law firm in San Francisco for work on a systemwide review of how UC campuses should respond to demonstrations.

* $88,686 paid in salaries and other fees to UC Berkeley officials who worked on that review.

* $119,714 paid to Marsh Risk and Insurance Services of San Francisco to provide "real time crisis management support for UC Davis."

* $445,879 paid to the Kroll consulting firm for an independent probe that reported its findings to a panel headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.

Kroll's billing included more than $10,707 in airfare, $3,181 in ground transportation and $8,800 in hotel charges.

Another $230,256 was paid out for an internal affairs investigation into the actions of Lt. John Pike, one of two campus police officers who deployed the pepper spray. Pike ultimately was fired. Police Chief Annette Spicuzza retired in April after an independent panel issued a critical report on her management of both the department and the incident.

All this occurred because campus police were sent out to remove tents set up on the university quad during a days-long demonstration against rising tuition costs. The effort turned to chaos after some students refused orders to disperse and encircled officers, chanting for the release of protesters being arrested.

The police response -- Pike and another officer pepper-spraying students who remained seated in defiance, arms linked -- was captured on video that went viral online and brought national attention to the case.

No one was charged in the episode, and students hit with the pepper spray say the money coming their way hardly makes up for the anguish and outrage.

"Pepper spray is unimaginably painful, " said Fatima Sbeih, who was on her way to the campus library when she joined the demonstration. "You feel like your eyes are boiling, your skin is burning."

Sbeih, 22, spoke at a news conference Wednesday on the same quad where the pepper-spraying occurred and said she suffered panic attacks and nightmares afterward. The upshot of the experience for a time, she said, was that "the university silenced me."

Sbeih and fellow plaintiffs Elizabeth Lara and Ian Lee said the most important aspect of the $1 million settlement agreement is that it has put the UC system on notice that free speech on campuses must be defended.

The settlement, approved in closed session this month by the UC regents, is expected to bring to an end a federal lawsuit filed on the students' behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union and Sacramento attorney Mark Merin.

The deal, which becomes final with the approval of a federal judge, calls for the 21 plaintiffs to split a payout of $630,000. The agreement also transforms the suit into a class action, which will allow others who were hit with pepper spray to submit claims for payments of up to $20,000.

That part of the deal envisions five to 10 additional claimants coming forward, with a sliding scale that reduces the payout for each of those depending on the final tally. Those claimants will be paid from a pool of money limited to $100,000.

The settlement agreement notes that the regents are not conceding wrongdoing and that the defendants "acted reasonably and with good intentions."

But Merin and ACLU attorney Michael Risher said the scope of the settlement makes it clear to them that the university was in the wrong.

"One should learn from one's mistakes, " Merin said. "We hope the university will recognize this as a big mistake."

UC Davis issued a statement Wednesday vowing to avoid a repeat of November's incident.

"The university has done everything possible to demonstrate accountability for the events of last Nov. 18, and a commitment to seeing that nothing like it ever occurs again, " spokesman Barry Shiller said.

The deal allots $20,000 to the ACLU for legal fees to advise UC Davis on policies for handling demonstrations. Risher said he hopes the aftermath of the incident will bring more attention to the right of students to express themselves freely.

"Free speech is valuable, " he said. "The response to free speech should not be to send in the police with pepper spray."

In a touch of irony, as the group was speaking to journalists, a campus police officer rolled up on a mountain bike and asked bystanders on the edge of the crowd what was going on.

At one point he appeared to reach for his radio, but when a TV reporter explained what was happening, the officer rode off to a vantage point farther away.

The incident spawned numerous investigations and reviews of how officials should respond to protests on campuses, and on Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation asking university leaders to appoint liaisons to work with students during demonstrations. The measure was sponsored by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego.