UC Davis pepper spray files released

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi listens to former Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso during an Assembly committee to review the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis on Tuesday, May 15, 2012.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi listens to former Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso during an Assembly committee to review the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis on Tuesday, May 15, 2012.

This story was originally published October 10, 2012.

Nearly a year after police pepper-sprayed students on the University of California, Davis, campus, UC officials released more than 9,500 pages of internal documents and emails Tuesday that provide the greatest glimpse yet of the incident's impact and aftermath.

The documents, released in response to Public Records Act requests from The Bee and numerous other media organizations, illustrate how quickly university officials were bombarded with thousands of angry emails from around the world, many demanding the resignation of Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

The term "Hitler" is repeated 22 times in the 9,526 newly released pages, while "Gestapo" is used 16 times in incendiary messages to various UC Davis officials.

"You must feel very powerful right now having been directly responsible for the bodily harm to students, " read one email sent to Katehi the morning after the Nov. 18 incident. "Good job there chancellor."

"What on Earth is wrong with you?" wrote another man who indicated he had worked with her at the University of Illinois.

But Katehi also received strong support from academics nationwide who offered statements on her behalf and advice on how to handle the controversy.

"Meet with the students (soon) -- preferably the ones that got pepper-sprayed, " one colleague wrote to Katehi. "Small groups, quiet room. Let them talk. Take someone you trust with you. ... Take someone from the faculty known for caring about students."

Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school, weighed in with advice to a UC Davis public relations executive on how to go beyond Katehi's call for a task force investigation into the incident.

"Besides the task force, the campus might consider something immediate, like banning the use of pepper spray against peaceful protesters or something like that, " Johnson wrote. "The video is devastating and law school alums are screaming. I am sure the same is true for the campus.

"I noted from the press conference that even the Police Chief was distancing herself from the officers. Maybe others need to as well."

Katehi rejected calls for her resignation and apologized publicly for the incident, and on Tuesday, as the documents were being released, her campus was receiving more attention for a visit from former President Bill Clinton than for last year's disturbances.

But the protests and Occupy movement of a year ago sharply rattled UC Davis, an institution that takes pride in its status as a world-class research university.

Internal investigations into the aftermath of the pepper-spraying found a woeful lack of leadership within the campus police, as well as among the campus administration hierarchy.

The final bill for the incident is expected to top $2 million, with about $1 million of that going to students hit with the pepper spray as they sat on the university quad protesting rising tuition costs.

Those payments are the result of a settlement reached with 21 students who filed a federal lawsuit against the university. Additionally, Katehi has agreed to write personal letters of apology to the plaintiffs.

The chancellor has insisted that she never would have authorized the police to move in on the demonstrators if she had known they planned to use force.

Media organizations filed requests for the documents immediately after the Nov. 18 incident.

However, university officials delayed their release while internal reviews and a criminal probe were under way. They also have rejected the release of documents that they say are confidential because they contain legal advice.

Still, the mountain of documents released Tuesday provides new insight to how overwhelmed UC Davis officials were at the immediate and worldwide anger over video footage of two campus officers spraying students.

"At this point we have 133 videos on YouTube under the search for 'UC Davis pepper spray, '" one official wrote in an internal email. "Most have fewer than 10 views (many zero) but one is in (the) category of going viral: 154,553 views... "

Eventually, the videos would be seen millions of times, and campus officials tried to keep track of the mushrooming crisis through Google alerts on the terms "Katehi" or "UC Davis."

Michael Heenan, a Sacramento crisis communications expert, offered his advice to the UC Davis communications shop as Katehi was preparing to appear at a massive campus meeting three days after the pepper-spraying.

"As you know, this is just getting started, " Heenan wrote. "Even if your prayers are answered and the news cycle for this is shortish, there will be repair work to keep you busy for a long, long time."

Hundreds of pages of the documents are brief, sometimes one-word messages to Katehi demanding she resign. Some contain profanity; others were lengthy and polite suggestions for why she should step down.

Many of the documents were from people emailing the chancellor to inform her they had signed an online petition seeking her resignation that was started by Nathan Brown, an assistant English professor at the campus.

Katehi took note of Brown's public stance in an email to Karl Engelbach, her chief of staff, at 10:19 p.m. on Nov. 18, roughly six hours after the pepper-spraying.

"Karl, look at this 'Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi' from Nathan Brown, " she wrote, according to the documents.

Engelback apparently was not impressed, replying that Brown "is but one faculty member who apparently either has forgotten or lacks true research skills."

"I frankly think his article should be ignored, " Engelbach added. "His viewpoints are uninformed and do not warrant your time."

"I agree with you, " Katehi wrote back.