Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Seriously Questioning Authority

I have not had time to write in this space in quite a while. I do not have time now. But I am compelled by the recent police action on the campus of University of California, Davis. I, like a great many others, was appalled at the egregious violence perpetrated upon the peacefully protesting students last Friday afternoon. Many have come to the defense of the university police department saying that the students were breaking the law and failed to obey police orders. That is true, they knowingly did both. They likely expected to be arrested and might even have foreseen the use of OC spray (euphemistically referred to as “pepper-spray") against them. The numerous YouTube videos tell a very compelling story, but as many have pointed out, the videos do not tell the whole story. The question is, do they tell enough?

Without completely rehashing the institutional “he-said/she-said,” it is important to at least set the stage. Students at UCD were protesting – it doesn’t even matter what they were protesting. People protest about all sorts of things all the time, college students do it almost as a right of passage. Part of the protest was an “encampment,” a form of protest that seems to be all the rage these days. UCD policy prohibits “camping” on campus and in the interest of student safety and with a blind adherence to policy, Chancellor Linda Katehi ordered the tents, not the protestors, removed. According to her statements today, she was adamant that the police do nothing else, that a confrontation like the one that occurred at University of California, Berkeley days earlier was not to occur.

Apparently, the UCD Police Department (not to be confused with the City of Davis PD – an important distinction that will come up again shortly) did not understand this directive. Now, what we do not know is whether Katehi is telling the truth, - if that was indeed her directive. At the moment it looks as though she is sincere, but time will tell. Regardless, the video(s) show the UCDPD came to the scene in full riot gear, each carrying multiple “zip-tie” handcuffs and a full “non-lethal” arsenal including “pepper-spray” paint-ball guns, OC spray in fire extinguisher-size canisters and batons, at the ready. After dismantling the tents and arresting the protestors occupying them, supporters sat in a circle around the encampment, arms interlocked in absolutely non-confrontational, non-violent solidarity with the cuffed campers.

But they were blocking the pathway through the quad between the officers and their vehicles. There were numerous officers both inside and outside the circle. Nonchalantly, one officer, later identified as UCDPD Lt. John Pike, casually stepped over the seated protestors and proudly displayed a can of OC spray to the bystanders, the officers outside the ring and the protestors before spraying the seated, peaceful, non-violent protestors, emptying the can at point blank range in a sweeping motion like he was applying Miracle Grow to his garden. When he ran out, he motioned for another officer to bring his canister and continue the dousing. All actions are in apparent violation of the UC’s own policies. In the words of Katehi, it was “chilling” and the president of the entire University of California system called it “appalling.” It was all that and more.

Of course the story has garnered worldwide attention. Of course. How could it not? UCDPD Chief Annette Spicuzza defended her officers stating that they were “surrounded” and just needed to exit, insisting the officers were in danger. She continued to defend them until she was silenced by a “paid administrative leave” (joining Pike and the other officer). As mentioned earlier, the video tells us much, and part of that “much” is that Spicuzza’s justification is patently false. Remember that warning not to confuse the UCDPD with the city police? That’s because the city police were there due to a call for mutual aid. One DPD officer, later identified as Captain Darren Pytel, is easy to spot. He only appears for a few seconds, but he has no riot gear. His hands are empty, open and gesturing for calm. And he looks bewildered. It does not look as though he has the same “respect” for the “volatility” of the situation that the UCDPD expected.

It was a volatility that never manifested despite the UCDPD’s best efforts. Now I don’t know what their mindset was, but when the police go into a situation that heavily armed with riot gear and weaponry, they are expecting a confrontation. Perhaps they were disappointed that the students did not read the script. The students acted in a way far more mature than many give them credit for. The UCDPD underestimated their “adversary” and came completely ill prepared for passivity. They went in with an agenda that they would be facing students completely uncharacteristic of the students on a campus that they police all day every day. It is their only jurisdiction. They should have known better, even if no directive was ever sent down not to “create another Berkley.”

The question left is the time honored who-knew-what-when? Whose decision was this and whose head should roll? To her credit, Katehi is not sweeping this under the rug. She and UC President Mark Yudof are appropriately appalled and have publicly expressed as much, probably against the advice of their lawyers. If what Katehi said is true, Spicuzza is history and Pike should be, too. Even if Pike was “just following orders,” an officer of his rank and experience should have made a better assessment in the deployment of force. His salary is $110,000 (of your money) per year. For that much money he should be expected to think.

These are not “rank and file” officers. They are administrators, executives, they are paid to correctly asses situations, follow directives and ensure that those they are hired to protect are not harmed in the process of “protecting” them. On the quad of UC Davis, Friday afternoon, 18 November 2011, no one was served or protected and someone needs to answer for it. At last count, no less than four independent investigations are in process. What is on the video is obvious and the overwhelming public outrage is telling, but there are many questions that need to be answered. The ultimate questions are: Who is responsible and who will answer with his or her job? Because this is a job-costing mistake.