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Editorial

Spotlight on UC Davis

Today's university police staffs need to be taught what the appropriate response is to students' peaceful protests.

November 22, 2011
  • Video footage shows officers dousing seated protesters with pepper spray.
Video footage shows officers dousing seated protesters with pepper spray. (Thomas K. Fowler / Associated…)

Watching UC Davis campus police pepper-spraying a line of seated student protesters, the immediate and valid reaction is: What part of nonviolent do these officers not understand? Even if the last major waves of campus protests were a couple of decades ago, quelling student demonstrations without harm and with a minimum of residual outrage should be at the top of university training programs for police staff.

VIDEO: UC Davis campus police pepper-sprays a line of seated student protesters

A widely viewed video shows one officer walking along the line of students at an Occupy Davis encampment Friday, spraying them at close range as they bend their heads but otherwise remain still. Statements afterward by the police chief, who was placed on leave Monday, and Chancellor Linda Katehi only fueled the anger by appearing to defend the two officers known to have been involved and who previously were placed on leave.

While deploring the incident and vowing to investigate thoroughly, Katehi reportedly said the police officers were technically following protocol, though some situations call for not following protocol. She would have been better off sticking with just the first part of her statement. If the police were indeed following protocol, there might be a serious problem with the protocol itself.

In fact, according to Katehi, the police had not been asked to move the students, just the tents and other encampment equipment. The seated students were blocking the officers' access to the tents but using no threatening words or gestures, according to multiple witnesses.

Generally, police agencies use pepper spray to subdue violent suspects or break up aggressive crowds, not to gain compliance from peaceful, non-threatening people. There isn't a hard-and-fast line on its use, nor should there be. Police need some leeway in their choice of nonlethal tactics. But pepper spray is a form of police force; it should be used with restraint, especially against those who pose no threat to officers or others.

Calls for Katehi's resignation, however, are at minimum premature, and widespread Internet sharing of the phone number of one of the officers — so that people can harass him — is unconscionable. Though Katehi's original response failed to inspire confidence, she quickly corrected course and is assembling a diverse task force for a 30-day investigation. UC President Mark G. Yudof has ordered an obviously needed review of all university police training. Both resulting reports must set down clear policies for the treatment of nonviolent protesters and stern discipline for those who violate the policy.

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