UC Davis police used excessive force, unauthorized weapon in pepper-spray incident, says report

Monday, April 16, 2012

DAVIS, Calif.—A task force at the University of California Davis has faulted school administrators and police brass for the handling of the now-infamous pepper-spray incident involving Occupy movement protesters, including botched police operations planning, a "very dysfunctional" command structure at the campus police department, and unreasonable use of force.

The task force, led by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, concluded in its report that the incident “should and could have been prevented.” The task force utilized a previously unavailable report by Kroll, a risk consulting business whose chairman is former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, completed on behalf of the university and released in late February. The Kroll report still retains this note on its cover page: "Confidential—Do Not Distribute."

The incident that propelled this police operation into national headlines was the use of pepper spray by Lt. John Pike against seated protesters on Nov. 18 as police cleared an encampment from the college quad. Videos and photos of Pike spraying the protesters went viral on the Internet and created a flurry of protests.

Regarding the spraying incident itself, police officers have argued that during the operation they "were surrounded by a hostile mob and that the use of pepper spray was necessary to create a path for officers and arrestees to leave the quad," according to the report. However, the report notes a number of facts that undermine this argument, including that officers were able to walk arrestees through the crowd for transport without escalation and an officer was able to step over protesters to meet with the officers from the Davis Police Department when they arrived. The task force agreed with the Kroll report, which concluded that "the deployment of pepper spray does not appear to have been an objectively reasonable use of force."

Furthermore, the Kroll report discovered that the large pepper-spray canister, the MK-9, that Pike used to spray protesters "was not an authorized weapon under UCDPD guidelines and that UCDPD officers were not trained in its use." The MK-9 is larger than the MK-4, which officers normally wear on their utility belts, and has a recommended minimum distance of application of 6 feet. As the video evidence supports, Pike "appeared to be spraying protesters at a much closer distance than 6 feet," the task force concluded. Pike declined to be interviewed by Kroll investigators.

School administrators were faulted as well for the lack of investigation that preceded the decision to send in the police officers. In interviews with Kroll investigators, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said administrators were worried about non-students joining the encampment and the security risk that posed to students. “We were worried at the time about [non-students] 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 the outside without any knowledge of their record," Katehi said. "If anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.”

However, the claim that the encampment was populated by a large number of outsiders, though supported by reports from UC Davis police officers, was never confirmed and, in fact, directly contradicted claims from student affairs staff and volunteers that the encampment consisted of students, the report states. The task force concluded: "The failure to conduct any additional investigation into the presence of non-affiliates in the encampment was a significant error in the leadership team's decision-making process."

Regarding the conduct of officers the resulting police operation, the task force found that "there were many breaches of protocol and procedures and a considerable lack of leadership." For example, according to the report, the UC Davis police force did not follow national or state rules regarding incident and event planning, its operations plan did not clearly define the roles of police supervisors in the field, it failed to plan for prisoner transport, and it failed to pre-brief the Davis Police Department, which the report notes was "the closest quick-reaction force in the event of a problem."

UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza came under particular scrutiny. The report found that she did not have proper control of her officers and that the command structure of the police department was "very dysfunctional." According to the report, Spicuzza tried, at least initially, "to dissuade her officers from using batons and pepper spray or to prevent them from wearing 'riot gear' during the operation. There is also evidence that she wanted her officers to withdraw if they encountered resistance." However, her orders were apparently disregarded. "The breakdown [in command structure] is illustrated by the heated exchanges between the chief and her lieutenants as to the scope and conduct of the operation and the chief's apparent concession that her officers will do things their own way and there is nothing she can do about it," the report concluded.

Because of the lack of a proper operations plan and lack in clarity as to supervisory roles, Spicuzza's presence in the field was also "problematic and added to the confusion already present in the operation," the report said. One officer said in an interview that during the most turbulent minutes of the operation, he observed the chief in the crowd filming the police actions with her cellphone. However, since Spicuzza declined to be interviewed by Kroll investigators, her side of the story is not available.

The task force recommended a number of changes, including the need for clearer rules and policies concerning the regulation of campus protests and civil disobedience, the need for administrators to be trained in California Standardized Emergency Management procedures, and for the police to be better trained in contemporary crowd control, alternative force applications and emergency and incident command procedures.