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Pepper spray, a year later: reforms, lingering suspicion

In a chilling image that went viral on the Internet, UC Davis police Lt. John Pike pepper-sprays about a dozen protesters seated last Nov. 18 on the campus Quad. In the year since the notorious confrontation, countless hours and millions of dollars have been spent on investigations, recommendations and a proposed settlement with the protesters. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

By
From page A1 | November 18, 2012 |

It took about 30 seconds for two UC Davis police officers to douse with bright orange pepper spray about a dozen student protesters sitting on a sidewalk.

Filmed one year ago today on the Quad, videos of those 30 seconds were viewed more than 3.2 million times on YouTube and shown on news broadcasts around the world.

Photographs froze those 30 seconds in newspapers and magazines. The image became fodder for an Internet meme with unusual staying power, and it gave the Occupy movement something approaching an iconic image.

Long gone now are the satellite news trucks.

Hundreds of pages of reports have been compiled, assigning responsibility to the administration and police alike.

Linda Katehi (see accompanying story) remains the university’s chancellor, having weathered controversial confidence votes in her favor — and an Academic Senate executive committee’s even more controversial vote of censure.

Katehi and the department’s new chief, Matt Carmichael, are upbeat about reforms taking place on campus (see box, Page A5).

Faculty and student leaders — and even the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the protesters — say they’re optimistic, too, if cautiously so.

Campus activists, meanwhile, shake their heads at an administration they believe hasn’t changed, only grown more sophisticated at silencing dissent.

————

Reforms planned or under way seek to increase communication among students, administrators, faculty and staff that could avert a confrontation, improve communication between decision-makers and police, and provide better oversight of the department.

Katehi said Friday that if a similar protest was to be held now, “we will show a lot of patience and flexibility” in handling the situation.

“I have a really good feeling that we have a much broader understanding of how to make our campus more safe, what the needs of the students are, what their sensitivities are, what their freedoms are and to respect those,” she added.

Carmichael said the department already has proved it can handle crowd control situations or protests without incident.

Three days after the pepper-spraying, thousands of people gathered peacefully on the Quad. A few days after that, a satellite University of California Board of Regents meeting saw vocal protests, but no confrontations. Smaller protests, like one last week by union members at the UCD Medical Center, come and go.

“The police aren’t the first call,” Carmichael said. “Right now, there’s a process in place in place with the chancellor and the provost, students and academics. It’s a partnership where there’s very well-defined communication, very well-defined decision-making and, at the end of the day, it’s about patience and working together. I mean, c’mon, these are UC Davis students and UC Davis community members.

“If we’re ever to the point where it’s a police response, we’re going to ask whether we’ve looked at all our alternatives. The life-threatening stuff, easy-peasy — we know our response. The lawful assembly which all of us are entitled to, no response. It’s where we get into the middle of that, with a law violation that’s not life-threatening, that’s not destructive to property, what you might call ‘civil disobedience,’ what’s the response? Well, the response is a smart response.”

Carmichael, a former lieutenant who wasn’t on the Quad on Nov. 18, said he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to remake the department in ways unique to the campus.

The theme: community.

Faculty and students now take part in police hiring decisions. New officers are now being introduced to people on campus who tell their stories, rather than being driven past buildings and told what’s inside. And the community has provided input of department policies, which are being rewritten.

“People are going to provide input on a policy that I may or may not change — but at least we worked on it together,” he said.

Carmichael said he felt confident that campus leaders, who have since undergone emergency management and police oversight training, are better-prepared than they were last Nov. 18 — and that they will listen to any dissenting voices.

Consultant Barbara Attard, who has more than 25 years of police oversight experience, including as San Jose’s police auditor and with Berkeley’s oversight board, is putting together recommendations for oversight on the UCD campus that the chief said he believes will be fair and independent.

“We’re definitely on the right path,” Carmichael said.

————

Faculty are watching progress closely, said mathematics professor Bruno Nachtergaele, chairman of the Davis Division of the Academic Senate. A special faculty committee is also taking a scholarly look at freedom of expression on campus.

Nachtergaele characterized the outlook of the majority of faculty members as “so far, so good,” and noted “meaningful reforms” now in place in the administrative leadership, like the creation and training of an event and crisis management team on which he now sits.

“I don’t see any areas where progress is lacking, but many of the reforms have not been field-tested, so to speak,” Nachtergaele said.

In a statement, the executive council of the Graduate Student Association applauded “several improvements in regards to protecting free speech, administration planning and approach to protest and general policing on the campus.”

In particular, they noted the increased role of the Academic Senate and Student Affairs in decision-making, as well as Carmichael’s efforts to bridge the gap between police and students.

“However, the GSA is concerned that, after a year and despite specific recommendations from the GSA, Academic Senate, Kroll report and Reynoso Committee, few new concrete policies have been announced and formally implemented,” the statement read.

Michael Risher, the ACLU of Northern California staff attorney who represented protesters in their lawsuit against the campus, has accepted a seat on Katehi’s planned reform oversight task force. He said it appears that the administration is taking constructive steps forward.

“We don’t want to rush it, because (the policies) need to be good, but we need to have policies about what is allowed, about protections for free speech on campus beyond the First Amendment, and policies on the police response to those,” he said. “We don’t have enough specifics to say that what (campus leaders are) doing is what they need to be doing, but it looks like they’re moving in that direction.

“It’s certainly a positive piece of this picture that as far as we know, there haven’t been major problems on campus since we got involved.”

————

Student activists said they felt that university leaders haven’t changed, only changed tactics — using Student Judicial Affairs and the courts to rid the campus of those who oppose them.

They point to the so-called “Banker’s Dozen”: 11 students and one professor charged with misdemeanors for their daily blockade of the now-closed U.S. Bank branch inside the Memorial Union as proof.

Rather than being marched off in cuffs, the protesters received letters from the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, ordering them to appear in court. Their trial date is still pending.

“Maybe one thing that the university learned is that direct police action oftentimes has bad consequences,” said Ian Lee, a sophomore who was among those pepper-sprayed last year.

“Now whenever we talk about protest or civil disobedience, we always have to take into consideration that the university will try to get us into prison. I think there’s been a definite chilling in regards to protests.”

Senior Natalia Kresich accused Katehi and her administration of using “covert tactics while employing healing rhetoric.” Attempts to increase student participation look to her like “trying to most efficiently get students to police other students.”

Lee said some of the recommended reforms put more power in the hands of administrators whom students don’t trust and add layers of redundant committees.

“No amount of reforms can make any difference when, again, they are the problem,” he said.

————

A year after Nov. 18, the two officers who for 30 seconds used those red cans of pepper spray are no longer on the payroll.

Their boss, the police chief, resigned while under investigation.

UCD and the University of California combined have paid out more than $1 million in consulting fees. They have agreed to pay another $1 million in a tentative settlement with 21 protesters arrested or pepper-sprayed.

Those costs don’t include the legal fees or staff time or money now being spent to shape up the Police Department or train administrators.

Nor do they include the cost in reputation to a university making a name for itself around the world, until Nov. 18, 2011, for all the right reasons.

If protests at last week’s regents meeting, by students upset, in part, that Prop. 30’s passage won’t be bringing down tuition rates, are any indication, UCD’s new policies may be stress-tested sooner rather than later.

“As long as there are fee increases, as long as there is privatization, there will be student resistance,” Kresich said.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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