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Apologies for UC Davis pepper-spray incident come with a warning

University of California administrators are contrite in a meeting with state legislators. But they and students say more protests are inevitable if cuts to higher education continue.

December 15, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, left, tries to avoid UC Davis student Jerika Heinze, right, who wanted to question Katehi about last month's pepper-spraying incident as Katehi left a legislative hearing in Sacramento. Heinze said she was one of the students who was pepper sprayed by campus police.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, left, tries to avoid UC Davis student… (Rich Pedroncell / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — State lawmakers grilled University of California officials Wednesday over the controversial pepper-spraying of student protesters at UC Davis, only to be warned by those administrators — however conciliatory — that more protests are inevitable if the Legislature keeps cutting funds for higher education.

The university administrators gave a legislative committee the same combination of apology and defense they have offered since the incident sparked nationwide outrage last month and became a rallying point for the Occupy movement.

UC President Mark G. Yudof said the university had launched an independent investigation of the Davis incident and formed a task force to review its use-of-force and demonstration policies at all 10 campuses.

"I think free speech is in the DNA of the university," he said. "I don't want this to happen anywhere else."

While apologizing for the pepper-spraying, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said she expected student demonstrations to escalate in response to continued budget cuts. The hearing came a day after Gov. Jerry Brown announced $100 million in reductions for each of the two university systems — on top of the $650 million hit they both took in the current budget.

"We will not do justice to our university, my campus and to our state if we allow the events of November 18 to mask the reasons our students have been protesting in the first place," she told lawmakers. "While the images of pepper-spraying spark justifiable outrage … we all need to work together to make higher education more affordable and more accessible to our students or there will be continued frustration."

Even student leaders, who condemned university personnel for the pepper-spraying and other police responses to recent protests, pointed fingers at the Legislature.

"It's plain and simple why this is happening," said Sean Richards, who attends Sonoma State and is vice president of the California State Student Assn., citing budget cuts and rising tuition. "We've tried lobbying for the last 10 years.... This is just the beginning of things to come if things in the Legislature don't change."

Lawmakers acknowledged that their fiscal slashing in the past five years — a period in which tuition at the university systems nearly doubled — was driving the demonstrations. But, as Assemblyman Marty Block (D-San Diego) put it, "we are dealing with the resources the taxpayers of California give us."

With the potential for more campus unrest, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said it is critical that the state's public universities change their police policies "so the shocking images we have seen within the last month do not reoccur."

Lawmakers said they were disturbed by other recent responses to protests, including a demonstration at UC Berkeley last month, during which police wielded batons against protesters, and one outside a California State University trustees meeting in Long Beach. There, baton-wielding police used pepper spray, a glass door was shattered, and four students were arrested.

"Something is wrong with a system where our children and students, struggling peacefully to have their voices heard, are answered by the spray of chemical weapons and the sting of a baton," Lowenthal said.

Yudof said his preliminary review has shown that UC campuses employ differing use-of-force policies and need clearer chains of command. He also said he wants administrative observers at future protests.

Still, he urged patience as the university awaits the results of internal investigations, including a probe by former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton of the UC Davis pepper-spray incident.

"We have to take the time to do it right," Yudof said. "We can't say: guilty, guilty, guilty."

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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