Pepper spray task force calls for systemwide rules for UC police

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On Nov. 18, UC Davis police officers in riot gear issued an order to Occupy protestors to dismantle their encampment on the campus’ main quad. The protesters refused, some shouting “Hold your ground!”

University Police Lt. John Pike told the crowd to disperse. Instead, the students knelt down and linked their arms. That’s when Pike took out a orange canister and pepper sprayed the faces of students. When home videos of the incident hit the Internet — what had been a noisy protest was transformed into image-stinging, PR nightmare for UC Davis administrators.

A task force that investigated the incident says campus police weren’t authorized to use that pepper spray on campus, nor had they been trained on how to use it, but they used it anyway. They also ignored their chief’s order not to wear riot gear, not to carry batons or pepper spray and not to use force. Retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso led the investigation.

“The practice is to have a plan — which makes a lot of sense,” Reynoso said when they released the report last week. “And in fact they did have a plan. Unfortunately, the plan was inadequate. But even that inadequate plan was not followed.”

The task force mainly faulted UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi. She told investigators she’d wanted only a “limited operation” against the protestors without any use of force. But the task force found she failed to get that message across to campus police.

Reynoso says Katehi’s administrators hadn’t thought through how to respond to civil disobedience on campus, and they should have, long before it occurred.

“They have to take into account the rights of student to free speech.” Reynoso concluded. “They have to define what is 'violence' what is not. They have to define what the consequences will be of violating those rules. That is, a lot of thinking has to be done ahead of time.”

The task force looked specifically at the pepper spray incident at UC Davis, but it’s also recommended that the UC develop policies on police oversight and conduct for all its campuses.

A University of California campus is a lot like a small city. Thousands of people — and not just students — live and work there. There are shops and roads and a police department. The chancellor or the campus president is, more or less, the mayor.

UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein says the practice has been to give chancellors and their administrators a lot of autonomy on how best to run the campus police. That includes letting them decide whether to let officers use pepper spray.

“Different campuses have different policies about in different situations what would be the appropriate response,” Klein explains. “Having said that, there are general guidelines. Obviously, you want to use the least amount of resistance initially — and this is part of police training.”

But after the pepper spray incident at UC Davis Klein says the UC president decided to take a closer look.

“We looked outward from that and we said, ‘Could it happen elsewhere? Let’s make sure that we have policies and procedures in effect uniformly throughout our system.’

UC President Mark Yudof has set up a task force to come up with those policies and procedures. UC Berkeley’s law school dean and the UC general counsel are expected to issue a report within a few weeks.

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