Leadership & Governance

Scathing Report on UC-Davis Pepper-Spray Incident Faults Chancellor and Police

Wayne Tilcock, The Enterprise, AP Images

Lt. John Pike, the officer most closely linked to the pepper-spray incident, had no clearly defined role in the operations plan, the report found, yet he was responsible for the key decision about the weapon used. The report also criticizes the campus police chief as a force of confusion or out of the loop.
April 11, 2012

The pepper spraying of student protesters at the University of California at Davis in November, an incident that provoked international outrage, constituted an unjustifiable use of force in an operation that was bungled by failures of leadership and communication at nearly every level, an investigative report issued on Wednesday asserts.

The damning report, which was commissioned by the university system's president at the request of the campus's chancellor, highlights a series of missteps that culminated in what it calls a "critically flawed" and unauthorized police action.

The seemingly cavalier pepper spraying of about 20 Davis students, who appeared to be sitting passively with arms linked just before the incident, became a viral video phenomenon and a rallying point for the "Occupy" movement that spread from Wall Street to college campuses in the fall of 2011.

"The overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly," the report says. "The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011, should and could have been prevented."

The 13-member task force that prepared the report was chaired by a retired state Supreme Court justice, Cruz Reynoso, who is a former professor and chair of the Davis law school. The group included faculty, alumni, administrators, and students. They were assisted in their research by Kroll Inc., a risk-management firm whose assessment constitutes the bulk of the 190-page document.

The report's major findings include:

  • The use of pepper spray "does not appear to have been an objectively reasonable use of force."
  • Davis campus police officers used a type of pepper-spray weapon they were not authorized to use, were not trained to use, and did not correctly use.
  • Davis's chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, failed to communicate that police officers should avoid using physical force.
  • The command and leadership of the Davis police force is "very dysfunctional."
  • There is little evidence that protesters attempted violence against the police and weak factual basis to support the officers' contention that they felt trapped by a "hostile mob."
  • Davis should develop accepted rules for regulating campus protests and commission an outside review of police protocols.

Fears Informed Response

The task force traces the response of the Davis police and administrators back to 2009, when the campus formed a "Leadership Team" to prepare for student protests against tuition increases. The 11-person team included Ms. Katehi and Annette M. Spicuzza, the campus police chief, as well as representatives from student affairs and media relations.

Last fall, as the Occupy movement took hold in New York and spread across college campuses, members of the Leadership Team braced for the possibility that Davis would be confronted with a daunting encampment protest strategy that would attract demonstrators with no affiliation to the university. Administrators said they feared a scenario where "non-affiliates" would mix with students and bring with them a wicked brew of sex, drugs, and violence.

"My fear is a long-term occupation, with a number of tents, where we have an undergraduate student and a non-affiliate, and there's an incident," John Meyer, vice chancellor for administrative and resource management, said in an interview with staff from Kroll, the risk-management company. "And then I'm reporting to a parent that a non-affiliate has done this unthinkable act with your daughter, and how could we let that happen?"

With such concerns in mind, the Davis administration moved to stop an encampment before it could start, the report finds. In so doing, they failed to consider alternatives, including the idea of providing security for the protesters, at least in the short term.

The lone advocate for delaying a police action, the report states, was Griselda Castro, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. Her suggestions were "met with silence."

According to the report, evidence indicates that it was Ms. Katehi who made the decision that officers should remove the protesters' tents at 3 p.m. that day. A tactical decision of that sort should have been left to law enforcement, it says.

At the same time, the report faults the Davis police for failing to strenuously object to that decision. Dispersing the encampment during the daytime, rather than overnight, "increased the likelihood of a confrontation" and undermined the legal authority to enforce prohibitions against overnight camping, it says.

Ms. Katehi, whom many students and others called on to resign after the incident, told newspapers she had specifically ordered the campus police to peacefully dismantle the encampment. The chancellor said she had seen video of police officers jabbing student protesters with batons on the Berkeley campus, and was "very specific that it has to be peaceful and not like Berkeley," she told the Davis Enterprise, a local newspaper.

The report found that Davis administrators did tell the police that the response to the protests should not be "like Berkeley," but that they conveyed nothing specific about what that vague directive might actually mean. Moreover, Ms. Katehi's vision of a peaceful removal of tents was inconsistent with what the police predicted they would encounter. Indeed, the police department's operations plan, which was outlined three days before the incident, definitively stated that "the use of force is highly likely in this type of situation based on past events."

The potential use of pepper spray was specifically mentioned in the operations plan.

"We have no indication that members of the leadership team other than the police chief were aware of or reviewed the campus police department's operations plan," the report states.

Police Chief and Officer Faulted

The miscommunications that preceded the operation continued when police officers arrived at the site of the encampment to break down tents, the report states. The task force is particularly critical of Chief Spicuzza, who is described at times as either a force of confusion or simply out of the loop.

As evidence of its finding that leadership of the Davis police force is dysfunctional, the report cites an apparent concession from Chief Spicuzza that "officers will do things their own way and there is nothing she can do about it."

"At least one officer stated in his interview that during the most turbulent minutes of this operation, he observed the chief standing opposite him in the crowd filming the police actions with her cellphone," the report states.

Lt. John Pike, who became the face of the incident when video of him casually dousing students with pepper spray went viral, had no clearly defined role in the operations plan, the report states. Yet he was responsible for a key decision, the task force said. Lieutenant Pike decided to use MK-9, a high-pressure pepper-spray weapon that Davis police are not authorized to use, the report states. The recommended distance for deploying the spray is six feet, but the officer appeared "much closer" than that when he sprayed a group of students.

The highly anticipated release of the report on Wednesday followed several weeks of delay. The campus police officers' union had sued to prevent its release, arguing that the report contained confidential personnel records. As published, the report names Lieutenant Pike and Chief Spicuzza, whose names have appeared in media reports, but redacts the names of other officers.

Investigators from Kroll interviewed 14 of the 21 Davis police officers identified as relevant to the investigation, but Lieutenant Pike and Chief Spicuzza declined to talk with the firm.

Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, released a statement Wednesday acknowledging the report's troubling findings.

"Even a cursory reading of the report confirms what we have known from the start: Friday, Nov. 18, was a bad day for the UC-Davis community and for the entire UC system. We can and must do better. I look forward to working with Chancellor Katehi to repair the damage caused by this incident and to move this great campus forward."

"Free speech, including nonviolent protest, is part of the DNA of this university, and it must be protected with vigilance," he added. "I implore students who wish to demonstrate to do so in a peaceful fashion, and I expect campus authorities to honor that right."