Interview transcripts shed light on UC Davis pepper-spray incident

Jasna Hodzic/California Aggie/Courtesy
Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray on demonstrators protesting at UC Davis.

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Nearly a year ago, UC Davis attracted international attention when videos portraying campus police officers pepper-spraying a row of seated protesters went viral on the Web. Recently released transcripts of interviews with campus administration, police and witnesses taken after the incident may provide new insight into its circumstances.

The Nov. 18 confrontation, the climax of a series of protests on the UC Davis campus linked to the larger Occupy movement, began as demonstrations against budget cuts and as a reaction to police using batons on protesters at UC Berkeley earlier that month.

A task force headed by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso investigated the events and released a report April 11 of this year condemning the administration and the police department for flaws in the decision-making process and what it characterizes as an unnecessary use of force.

Top campus administrators composing the UC Davis Leadership Team ordered campus police to remove tents set up by protesters partly because they were afraid people not affiliated with the university were infiltrating the movement on campus, the interviews suggest. In her interview, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi expressed concern about safety risks observed in wilder encampments like Occupy Oakland, particularly while the protesters might be violating a policy that prohibited camping on campus.

“If anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome,” Katehi said in her interview.

According to the Reynoso report, the administration was citing California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 100005 — a law that prohibits people not affiliated with the campus from camping on university property — as the legal basis for the police operation. Thus, the legal framework behind the operation depended on the presence of these nonaffiliates, whose number varied by the source estimating them.

Fears of external agents were exacerbated by information provided by UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza to the administration estimating that about 80 percent of the protesters were not students. In contrast, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Griselda Castro told the leadership team that the only nonaffiliates she observed were members of interfaith communities distributing food to protesters.

According to an interview with UCDPD Dispatch Supervisor Leticia Garcia-Hernandez, there were unresolved misunderstandings between Spicuzza and the officers tasked with removing the tents up until the beginning of the operation.

Spicuzza echoed Katehi’s call for nonviolent tactics, and on the evening before the operation, she advised her officers not to use helmets, face shields, nonlethal weapons or other forms of riot gear, according to the interview with Garcia-Hernandez.

However, according to the Reynoso report, a pre-event operations plan stated that “the use of force is highly likely in this type of situation based on past events.” These operational inconsistencies continued into the actual operation, when officers clad in protective gear approached the encampment in tight formation.

For Fatima Sbeih — then a UC Davis undergraduate who linked arms with fellow protesters to keep the police from the encampment — the officers’ presentation radically changed the atmosphere of the confrontation.

“Imagine coming up to a bunch of officers in SWAT riot gear,” Sbeih said. “Instantly, the balance of power is threatening, and you don’t want to interact with them at all.”

In the moments before Lt. John Pike took aim at the seated protesters — a photograph of which made him the symbol of the controversy online — the police officers were more concerned about trying to leave safely than about confronting students, the interviews indicate. After the police had succeeded in removing the tents, protesters and the crowd of onlookers encircled the increasingly defensive police force and their arrestees.

“Well, they’re going to try to hurt us, and then take them, and go from there,” a police officer — referred to as “Officer 02” in the transcript — told interviewers he or she thought while monitoring the arrestees inside the circle. “And there’s so many, and there’s only us here, so I’m going to do the best I can and just stay my ground and wait.”

With evidence from the interviews and video footage, the Reynoso report concluded that the use of pepper spray was not necessary. According to the videos and interviews, an officer referred to as “Officer 14” was able to leave the encirclement twice with arrestees without resistance or the use of force. Even Pike was able to step over the line of seated protesters in order to position himself to use the pepper spray.

In September, the university reached a settlement with 21 UC Davis protesters in which the university agreed to pay $30,000 to each protester and a total of $250,000 to the protesters’ attorneys. Additionally, UC Davis is currently undergoing reforms pursuant to the Reynoso report that audit police operations and revise the relationship between police and the campus community.

Justin Abraham covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected].