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Details: Task force releases report on UC Davis pepper spraying incident

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The task force charged with investigating the November pepper spraying of peaceful protesters at UC Davis publicly released their report today finding the incident "should and could have been prevented" and that a breakdown in communication and leadership, plus a lack of proper protocols.

The 32-page report includes a hefty appendix with the 131-page independent inquiry by New York-based investigative firm Kroll, which details the events leading up to the pepper spraying incident on Nov. 18, and also includes interviews with campus officials and police officers, whose names have been redacted.

The 13-member task force, headed by former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso, was tasked with reviewing the Kroll findings and incorporating them into a report "assigning responsibility for these events."

It found UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, her leadership team, UC Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza, her incident commander, and Lt. John Pike who used the pepper spray on protesters responsible at varying levels.

The task force report states Chancellor Linda Katehi "bears primary responsibility" for deciding when to send police in and not delineating in what manner to do it — such as avoiding force. She only said she didn't want it "to be like Berkeley."

The inquiry found large gaps in communication and a lack of leadership throughout the events leading up to the pepper spraying incident. Because the university's leadership team didn't activate standardized emergency management planning protocols, the team continued to make decisions ineffectively as a loose body.

The report also found that campus officials acted prematurely without considering other reasonable alternatives or taking time to discuss the outcomes of their actions.

"Possible alternatives for protecting students in the encampment seem almost self-evident," the task force report states. "For example, police officers could have been posted to monitor and provide security for the encampment overnight...There is a financial cost to such arrangements, and providing security for the encampment might not be feasible as a long term solution to the problem. The question here, however, is not whether this approach is practical long term, but rather whether it could have been utilized at least for a few days."

In interviews after the pepper spraying incident university officials said they had been concerned that "non-affiliates" were on campus protesting with students and potentially endangering them. These fears were never investigated, the Kroll inquiry found, and were primarily based on media reports from other campus protests and one campus police officer's unsubstantiated comment.

Katehi said in a Dec. 20 interview:

"We were worried at the time about that because the issues from Oakland were in the news and the use of drugs and sex and other things, and you know here we have very young students...we were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from outside without any knowledge of their record...if anything happens to any student while we're in violation of policy, it's a very tough thing to overcome."

The Kroll inquiry did not find any evidence that these "non-affiliates" were involved in the encampment on the quad and a review of the protesters arrested also did not support that theory, the report states.

The task force found that Katehi should not have been the one to make what was viewed as an "executive decision" of when to clear the tents; it should have been decided by the campus police chief. But Police Chief Spicuzza was found responsible for not challenging the Chancellor's decision, or trying to clarify the police role and handling of the operation.

"The Leadership Team clearly believed that the removal of the tents served the goal of maximizing safety," the report states. "It is less clear how they could effectively evaluate the costs and risks of conducting the police operation when there was no common understanding of what that operation would entail," the report states.

The task force also assigned responsibility for what happened to an unnamed officer who was the incident commander that day and who did not fulfill his leadership duties. Pike was assigned primary responsibility for his "objectively unreasonable" decision to use pepper spray.

Kroll staff also found a breakdown of leadership in the UC Davis Police Department with Spicuzza absent from a pre-event briefing. She did not serve an authority figure during the incident and her directions, such as not to wear riot gear, were directly contradicted by Pike and other officers.

"Indeed, at least one officer stated in his interview that during the most turbulent minutes of this operation he observed the chie standing opposite him in the crowd filming the police actions with her cell phone," the report states.

Though Pike was given no defined role in the operation, he "appears to have made the command decision to use pepper spray" when there was "little factual basis supporting Lt. Pike's belief that he was trapped by the protesters or that his officers were prevented from leaving the Quad. Further, there is little evidence that any protesters attempted to use violence against the police," the report states.

The task force report said the pepper spray that was used, the "MK-9, First Aerosol Projector" was not an authorized weapon for use by UC Davis campus police and they were not trained for its use. Pike also did not use the MK-9 correctly. It is a higher pressure type of pepper spray designed for crowd dispersal and recommended to be used at a minimum distance of 6 ft. 

No after-incident briefings or reports were conducted, which made it more difficult to ascertain what happened, the report states. Spicuzza, Pike and another officer were put on administrative leave after the incident.

An ongoing Internal Affairs investigation will look at determining whether disciplinary action is necessary for police officers involved.

Meanwhile, the Yolo County District Attorney has declined to charge arrestees cited for unlawful assembly, failure to disperse or illegal camping.

Stay tuned for a post on the task force's recommendations.

Previous reporting on the pepper spraying incident.

Watch the task force presentation of their report and a question and answer session with the public.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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