Protest, police, and pepper spray at UC-Davis

Most students, including even protesters, don’t encounter pepper spray during their studies at the University of California.

Last November, however, a campus police officer sprayed students protesting tuition hikes at the UC-Davis campus.  It’s worth looking at.

And it’s worth investigating.

Four months after the spraying, the committee appointed to investigate has published its report.

Chaired by Cruz Reynoso, who had served on California’s Supreme Court, the task force was charged with investigating the incident, evaluating the appropriateness of the police response, and assessing responsibility.

On matters of fact, the Reynoso report relies heavily on the investigation by Kroll Investigations, often contracted to consult with the University on security issues.

On matters of judgment, the Reynoso committee is clear: the use of pepper spray was not authorized or justified; campus administrators and police overreacted to the student demonstrators, assuming–without evidence–the presence of outside agitators.

On matters of responsibility, the Reynoso committee is generous in allocating blame.  From the officer who held the spray can on up to Chancellor Linda Katehi, who didn’t authorize pepper spray but was eager to clear out “Occupy” tents, everyone responsible for security on campus made bad misjudgments and mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the report is its first recommendation (p. 29–of 180):

The Task Force recommends the campus develop a broadly accepted agreement on rules and policies that regulate campus protests and instances of civil disobedience. This broadly accepted agreement should be grounded in our campus culture and regularly communicated to students. These rules and policies should be subject to regular review.

Campus rules should:
 Be consistent with free speech doctrine;
 Recognize the unique circumstances of a university community and the importance of open and vigorous debate to our institutional function and identity;
 Respect the rights and interests of non-protesting students, faculty and staff;
 Respect the legitimate needs of the University to fulfill its educational function and operate its programs without undue interference;
 Recognize that the legitimate purpose of protest in a campus setting is to inform and persuade, not to coerce;
 Determine and define “non-violent” versus “active resistance” and “violent” protests and clarify the use of force and the force continuum as recommended by Kroll;
 Accurately identify and clearly describe and communicate the legal basis for the University’s response to any protest or instance of civil disobedience;
 Identify the consequences for breaches of the rules and policies.

The Reynoso committee is clearly committed to safety and order on campuses, but the strongest message from the report is that the University of California has to recognize that protest, sometimes dramatic and disruptive protest, is part of the fabric of campus life, and indeed, contemporary politics in America.  When police overreact, in addition to proximate harm (pepper spraying students!), they undermine the mission of the university.

For the better part of fifty years, American police have moved–with frequent stutters and backsteps–toward a policing strategy that accommodates and contains protest.  Paradoxically, this makes protest less disruptive–and maybe less effective.

The strong reaction against the events at UC-Davis–and at the sporadic overreactions to Occupy protests (see Oakland!) underscores just how substantial this shift has been.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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1 Response to Protest, police, and pepper spray at UC-Davis

  1. Pingback: Policing police at Davis | Politics Outdoors

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