Who is Responsible for Police Violence at UC Davis?

The Occupy movement at UC Davis was initially about the connections between the privatization of the university and income inequality in society at large. The pepper spraying of students has shifted the discussion to police brutality, the policing of the Occupy movement, and who should take responsibility for the attack. The question that underlies these is: why isn’t the answer simple? Why doesn’t responsibility lie with the administrators who have the authority (and the paychecks) to run the university?

Here at UC Davis, the question of appropriate use of force has been front and center. The discussion of responsibility has focused heavily on police procedures and the legitimacy of arming campus police. Was the response appropriate given the actions of the students?  As my colleague John Hall points out, in a democracy we mete out punishment to people who break the law using judges and juries, not police officers. When police officers do it the rule of law has been abandoned. This does not mean that police should never use violence. It means they should only use it to prevent imminent harm to themselves or others. If someone is accused of breaking the law but is nonetheless civil, the police should be civil in return. If police punish, it is vigilantism and a violation of individual rights.

With this in mind, there are a few potential culprits. First, there are the students; however absurd this might seem in retrospect. Before the numerous video accounts of the event caused widespread outrage, the Chief of Campus Police, Annette Spicuzza, argued on local news that the officers were in danger and had no choice but to respond with force. In her initial letter to the campus community explaining what happened, Chancellor Katehi took a similar view. Students were warned in advance that the encampment “would have to be removed” if they didn’t dismantle it. Because students would not “comply” with campus rules or the warning, the administration had “no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal. We are saddened to report that during this activity, 10 protesters were arrested and pepper spray was used.” For Katehi, the students were responsible due to their failure to comply, the administration had “no choice” and “pepper spray was used” presumably as an unavoidable element of removing encampments. The logic certainly plays. Recalling the shooting spree at Virginia Tech, it is not hard to agree that force should be used when the health and safety of the “entire campus community” is threatened.

The problem is: numerous video accounts make it clear that the students did not present much of a threat to anyone. For the most part they are scared and confused (and at the same time brave and disciplined). Their initial assessment of the situation was clearly wrong and they were caught off-guard. For example, before the cops move in there is a “mic check” in which the students assure themselves that “chemical weapons” will not be used by the police in the face of nonviolence. The students were thinking like John Hall. The use of violence in the face of civil behavior is unlawful punishment. Civil disobedience operates on the assumption that this line exists and will not be crossed, or, if it is, that the actors and institutions responsible will be delegitimized and held accountable.

One question is whether what the police did was a compliance technique or a form of punishment. UCD student David Buscho described the experience to the General Assembly on November 21st: The police “started pulling my friends from the circle and throwing them on the ground, and putting them in handcuffs and dragging them away… At that point there was no more encampment… we were just kids, sitting there in a circle singing.” In videos it is clear what happened next. After an officer unsuccessfully tried to pull one of the students out of the line, Lt. Pike casually stepped over the line of seated and intertwined students and began shooting them in the face with pepper spray. Buscho says, “At that point I entered a world of pain. It felt like hot glass was entering my eyes… I could feel my friends and my girlfriend writhing in pain… I was afraid. I was no longer a protester, I was an object and that’s what the police officer wanted to turn us into.”

As the videos went viral, the vigilantism perspective seemed to take hold within the University administration. Katehi announced that Lieutenant Pike and another officer would be placed on administrative leave. On Sunday, Katehi modified her response further and placed the police chief on leave as well. At the same time, over the weekend Katehi refused to take any personal responsibility for the event and avoided any accountability to students. This tension became clear as Katehi attempted to hold a press conference on Saturday, November 19th. If possible, the events on Saturday were more dramatic than those on Friday.

Students marched on the building where the press conference was to be held and asked to be included in it. They were clearly attempting to hold Katehi publicly accountable for the assault. The administration was willing to talk with the press, and by extension the public, but would not discuss what happened with the “campus community” they frequently invoked. However, with the students surrounding the building the press conference was cancelled. Negotiations ensued over whether Katehi would be given safe passage to leave. Protesters formed lines marking out a path for Katehi to exit. A few hours later, Katehi emerged from the building accompanied by Rev. Kristin Stoneking of the campus Christian Association. Stoneking’s account is one of the more remarkable documents that have emerged out of the events at UC Davis. In a posting on her own blog, Rev. Stoneking says: “What we felt couldn’t be compromised on was the students’ desire to see and be seen by the Chancellor. Any exit without face to face contact was unacceptable. She was willing to do this. We reached agreement that the students would move to one side… and sit down as a show of commitment to nonviolence.” There was a student with Stoneking, a member of the Christian Association, who had been pepper sprayed. The Chancellor was asked to view a video of him being sprayed. “Then, he and I witnessed her witnessing eight minutes of the violence that occurred Friday.”

There is a video of the events that followed, Katehi leaving the building and walking along a long path, defined by seated and silent student protesters, to her car. Stoneking is the person accompanying Katehi in the video. Stoneking says of the event: “What was clear to me was that, once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable.  A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.”

And this has been the crux of the issue. Complex organizations have hierarchies of authority and responsibility. Chancellor Katehi is at the top of that hierarchy on this campus. She is, however distantly, responsible for the actions of her subordinates in campus administration, including police officers. When we argue, as a society, that organizations, like persons, have rights, this assumes a degree of responsibility as well. The organization of responsibility is reflected in the hierarchy of the organization itself. Many students clearly hold Katehi responsible and the sentiment is prominent on signs at Occupy events. Many others share this view. Within hours of the incident on Friday an English Professor, Nathan Brown, had written a letter that held Katehi responsible and demanded her resignation. The Board of the Davis Faculty Association followed suit the next day. On Monday, the faculty of the English Department collectively called for Katehi’s resignation, followed a day later by the Physics Department. Other departments, including my own, would like to see the results of investigations into the event before issuing calls for Katehi’s resignation, but are clearly distressed that peaceful protesters could be attacked by campus police. At a Town Hall organized by the Chancellor’s Office held on Monday night, Katehi was presented with a petition calling for her resignation which was signed by 80,000 people. In a formal request for a vote of “no confidence” by the Davis Division of the University of California’s Academic Senate, Katehi’s failure to take responsibility for giving the order is cited as a reason for the vote, rather than the attack itself.

Katehi’s view is different. This is to be expected. Administration officials have furthered the view that the officers doing the pepper spraying are responsible, while attempting to inoculate themselves from responsibility. Their view of the organization is that it is really a loosely-connected set of distinct offices in a flat organizational structure that has little hierarchical accountability. Beyond this, their view is that the university is a “community” with shared “principles of civility.” Encampments violate these principles according to Katehi’s letter on Friday, November 18th. In response to the skillful probing of an AggieTV interviewer on Sunday, November 20th, Katehi says that calling in the cops to remove the tents was justified because there were “individuals who came from the outside. Elements that have a different agenda.” This raised serious concerns for the safety of the students involved. The shift from Friday’s letter was one from a concern for the “health and safety” of the entire campus community (which was threatened by the protesters) to a concern for the health and safety of the protesters (threatened by outsiders). But Katehi goes on to say that she would have preferred the removal to have happened without the use of pepper spray. The next day at a Town Hall meeting she argued the point more forcefully, claiming she specifically ordered the police to avoid force and arrests (responsibility lies with the officers). At the town hall meeting Monday evening, Katehi was directly challenged regarding her responsibility. Her response was to say that the police force “does not report to me,” and to point out that they report instead to a Vice Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor, in turn, argued that “there is great discretion given to police officers on the scene.” Katehi has apologized and taken responsibility for winning back the trust of the students, but not for the actions of the organization she heads.

In addition to the invocation of campus “community” to deflect criticism and responsibility, the University is attempting to shift accountability from the campus to outsiders. Community it seems, is only good for civility, not accountability. The “principles of community” that ensure inquiry free of discrimination and intimidation on campus are apparently unable to determine responsibility for an attack on students. Scientists and students, trained to be dispassionate in assessing the logic of arguments and evidence, are not up to this task. Who is? In a bizarrely tone-deaf move, Mark Yudof, the President of the University of California, has contracted with William Bratton, the former police chief of New York and Los Angeles who is famous for the “quality of life” policing that helped enable police vigilantism in both cities, to conduct an investigation and determine responsibility.  Happily, there are other investigations pending, undertaken by bodies like the UC Davis Academic Senate, that are presumably less invested in absolving the University administration.

As the discussion of responsibility moves from the outdoors encampments and general assemblies to the more managed, “civil,” and exclusive discussions in administrative offices, it is likely that the question of responsibility will be diluted into questions regarding procedure, who said what to whom, and the appropriate uses of pepper spray. In this context, the maintenance of deliberation outdoors will be essential for holding the University administration accountable, not just for attacks on students, but for nurturing the University in the pursuit of its mission to educate and produce knowledge. A general strike has been called for tomorrow, Monday, November 28th, and there will be teach-ins on the UC Davis campus throughout the week.

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  1. Neil Sagan says:

    This is the best essay I have read on the topic of accountability for pepper-spraying of UCDavis students.

    One of the things that makes it different is the timeline of events and Chancellor Katehi’s statements over the course of time. In politics, these statements are called talking points. Observing how they change, which you’ve illustrated beautifully, is the key to understanding Katehi. Shifts in her rhetoric, pose natural questions that must be answered.

    What I find confusing is Katehi’s fear of students, and her lack of trust in them as if they were the ones who dispensed the OC. We’re told she saw the video. It’s clear UCDavis students are not easily provoked. Perhaps she was traumatized by violence at some point in her life, which would explain her irrational assessment of UCDavis students as a danger to her person. Or perhaps, astonishingly, she’s angling to play the victim.

    UCDavis students appear to be respectful of people, and they in turn expect to be respected. By talking about and displaying a fear of students, Katehi is implicitly demonstrating a lack of respect.

  2. MachoManRandySavage says:

    Thoughtful but heavy on theory and short on practical knowledge of campus law enforcement.

    I am the Director of Campus Safety at a private college in Illinois that is much smaller than any of the UC state schools. I found this incident as well as the incident involving the baton-jabbing to be shocking but not surprising.

    This is not a case of an administrator ordering force being used. Legally she can’t give that order and the police legally cannot follow orders from a civilian regarding how much force they use to remove people for trespassing/loitering/whatever. If they are the police, they are probably used to people telling them how to do their jobs when those people have no authority to do so. So you can’t assign blame for this to the administrator.

    No, this falls squarely on the shoulders of their police department’s management. If there is a conspiracy here it is probably the conspiracy of the macho law enforcement culture which especially affects inexperienced cops, those who are looking for action. These are the guys who keep the black tactical duty gear catalog companies in business, carry multiple backup weapons and spend their entire shifts debating how they would respond to unrealistic and ridiculous use of force scenarios. They tend to be short on common sense but long on ridiculous rationalization. Because actual violent encounters are rarer in this line of work than they would like, they invent them, and start plugging square pegs into round holes. Or maybe they’re just bored.

    Whatever the reason, they’re idiots, but you can’t blame them for being idiots any more than you can legislate common sense. You have to manage them. Their Sergeants and Lieutenants, who should be seasoned and adjusted to the reality that good law enforcement is more about connecting with people and building relationships than getting into fights, should have been on-scene and asserted themselves with their officers and demonstrated compassion with these students.

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