DAVIS, California (Reuters) - University of California officials and campus police showed poor judgment and used excessive force in the pepper-spraying of peacefully protesting students allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall, an investigative panel found on Wednesday.
A scathing, 190-page report on the UC Davis confrontation, which was captured on video and widely replayed on television and the Internet, was the work of a task force headed by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.
“Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly,” wrote Reynoso and his co-authors. “The pepper-spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.”
The report, delayed for weeks by a lawsuit from the university police union, criticized officers for using pepper spray to break up a peaceful demonstration and accused school administrators of bungling decisions at nearly every point leading up to the incident.
The clash led to suspensions of the campus police chief and two officers, and thrust the normally quiet, mostly apolitical UC Davis campus, near the state capital of Sacramento, to the forefront of anti-Wall Street “Occupy” protests nationwide.
In the immediate aftermath of the confrontation, many faculty and students called for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who was blamed for mishandling events.
She publicly apologized to a crowd of jeering students three days later, and University President Mark Yudof warned the heads of all 10 UC campuses, “We cannot let this happen again.” Police had been seen jabbing students with night sticks during a previous Occupy protest at UC Berkeley.
Yudof called the UC Davis report “a significant step” in addressing the incident and indicated Katehi’s job was safe.
“I look forward to working with Chancellor Katehi to repair the damage caused by the incident and to move this great campus forward,” he said in a statement.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing several students suing the university for alleged civil rights violations, said the report failed to examine Yudof’s role in protecting free speech throughout the UC system.
“When the cost of speech is a shot of blinding, burning pepper spray in the face, speech is not free,” said ACLU attorney Michael Risher.
The report faulted Katehi and other administrators for setting the stage for a clash by ordering police to remove tents that protesters had set up on campus in an imitation of Occupy protests around the country.
Katehi and her advisers failed to explore alternatives, the report said, suggesting that the university could have allowed the tents to stay while using police to enforce the health and safety regulations they cited as concerns.
Moreover, the report found Katehi’s instructions to police were vague, particularly in failing to adequately convey her demands that the tents were to be removed through non-violent means. Decision-making by campus administrators overall was too loose and informal, it concluded.
The panel also questioned the legal basis for police to forcefully remove the tents and said the eviction was especially dubious given that it was done in the afternoon while police cited a ban on overnight campsites.
The panel also singled out police department commanders, including Lieutenant John Pike, who was seen in video footage dousing a cluster of protesters at close range as he walked back and forth in front of them. The report said the pepper spray Pike used was in a larger can with a more forceful nozzle than the variety officially approved for the police department.
The panel specifically disputed the contention of some officers that pepper-spraying was necessary to break through a barrier of students to reach individuals they had arrested. Officers seem to have had freedom of movement, the report said.
John Bakhit, a lawyer for Pike and other officers disagreed.
“Under the circumstances, his actions were reasonable,” Bakhit told Reuters. “He could not get the officer and their prisoners out safely without a larger opening.”
Pike and other officers now under investigation by the police department’s internal affairs division and local prosecutors declined to be interviewed for the Reynoso report.
Without their testimony, the panel should not have passed judgment on them, Bakhit said. “They didn’t have all the facts.”
The panel concluded its work weeks ago, but attorneys for the university police sued to block it on grounds that it would violate the confidentiality of officers’ personnel records.
Pike received thousands of threatening emails and phone calls after he was identified as one of the officers wielding a spray bottle, his lawyers said.
Under a settlement between UC and the union, the task force issued the report with names of several officers redacted. But Pike and UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza were named because they already had been publicly identified.
Reporting by Laird Harrison; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson