California lawmakers to hold hearing on excessive force by police at UC campuses

AP Photo/The Enterprise, Wayne Tilcock

In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, 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 Friday in Davis, Calif. Two University of California, Davis police officers involved in pepper spraying seated protesters were placed on administrative leave Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011, as the chancellor of the school accelerates the investigation into the incident.

California lawmakers will hold a hearing to look into the use of excessive force by University of California police officers against peaceful demonstrators at UC Berkeley and UC Davis over the past weeks, officials announced today.

After visiting with UC Davis students Monday night, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez approved a request by Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Marty Block (D-San Diego) to convene the hearings, officials said today. The one-day hearing will be held jointly with the Senate Education Committee on Dec. 14.

Though the agenda is still being set, lawmakers will be asking for an update on the UC systemwide review of its use-of-force policy on campuses and will be looking at whether the legislature needs to also take steps to address the incidents, said John Vigna, a spokesman for the Speaker's office.

"At this point the effort is focused on getting answers, because certainly there are a lot of troubling questions that have come up in this," Vigna said. "And it's not just affecting this, every Californian has a stake in the UC, CSU and community college system."

Early Friday afternoon Chancellor Linda Katehi ordered the removal of 25 tents on UC Davis because of concerns about student safety and health and because university policy prohibits overnight camping, she wrote in a letter to the UC Davis community Saturday.

Officers were caught on tape spraying peacefully seated protesters — in some cases using pepper spray directly in their faces. The videos of the incident went viral online.

In response, the university issued multiple statements and placed three police officers on administrative leave pending a review of Friday’s events. Katehi has assembled a task force that will be charged with producing a report on the incident within 30 days.

Another incident at UC Berkeley resulted in people at an Occupy gathering being beaten by police wielding batons, including English professor professor Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. That incident is also under review.

UC President Mark Yudof said the recent events “cry out for a system-wide response” and spoke with all 10 UC campus chancellors by phone this afternoon and told them staff will be examining recent use of force on campuses, police protocol and training, and overall policy on peaceful protests, according to a release from his office.

Yolo County District Attorney will be working with the county's Sheriff's Department to review the conduct of all those involved in the Friday pepper spraying incident on UC Davis campus, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven in an email response.

"At the conclusion of this inquiry, the District Attorney may pursue criminal charges or issue a statement of findings and conclusions," Raven said. "We do not have a timetable but, of course, this is a priority."

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has watched the video of police pepper spraying protesters at UC Davis and was "deeply disturbed" by it, said Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the state's Attorney General. Though people have called for the state Attorney General to investigate the incident, there is no such investigation at this time, Gledhill said.

"We understand that Yolo County District Attorney and Yolo County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and the Attorney General is confident they will conduct a quick and thorough investigation," Gledhill said.

Tami Abdollah can be reached at tabdollah@kpcc.org and http://www.twitter.com/LATams.

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