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UC report urges measured response to protests

Study of pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis and brutality complaints at UC Berkeley suggests mediation rather than confrontation and says campus police should not be mobilized at peaceful demonstrations.

May 05, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray against demonstrators last November. High-ranking administrators who led the study said that UC should not ban pepper spray because more national research is needed to compare its health and injury risks to those of batons and Tasers.
UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray against demonstrators last… (Wayne Tilcock/Associated…)

University of California police and administrators should use mediation instead of confrontation when dealing with most student protests, but pepper spray might remain a necessary tool of last resort, according to a UC draft report on campus civil disobedience.

The new study, released Friday, urged that campus police be trained to defuse potentially volatile situations and that UC officials not even mobilize police at peaceful demonstrations. In the rare instances when force is required, the report recommended the campus police try "hands-on pain compliance" such as arm twisting or pressure points "before pepper spray or batons whenever feasible."

However, the high-ranking administrators who led the study said that UC should not ban pepper spray because more national research is needed to compare its health and injury risks to those of batons and Tasers. "Without information on comparative safety, we think it would be imprudent for us to offer any conclusive recommendations on whether UC police officers should continue to carry pepper spray," according to the study, which was written by UC Berkeley law school Dean Christopher Edley Jr. and the UC system's vice president and general counsel, Charles Robinson.

The 158-page report, "Response to Protests on UC Campuses," was commissioned as one of several UC investigations into controversial incidents in November: the use of pepper spray by campus police on student protesters at UC Davis and complaints that UC Berkeley demonstrators were roughed up with batons by campus police. UC President Mark G. Yudof asked for recommendations on how to improve handling of protests, balancing free speech rights with the need for safety and order.

The study cost about $300,000 in fees to legal firms that researched policies, conducted interviews with experts and compiled data, officials said.

A separate study on the UC Davis pepper-spraying, released last month, sharply criticized the police actions and administrators' decisions in handling protests. In its wake, the campus police chief resigned.

Patrick Manh Le, a UC Irvine senior who is the undergraduate chair for the statewide UC Student Assn., said Friday's report was a good "first step," particularly in its recommendations about better communications with protesters. But he said he wished it had moved to ban pepper spray and examined the causes of the recent uptick in student demonstrations, fueled by steep rises in tuition. "The issue is really that UC leadership has failed to listen to students" about higher tuition and reduced services, he said.

Many of the 50 recommendations in Friday's report seek to avoid conflict by keeping communications open with activists, minimizing police presence at peaceful rallies and ensuring that campus administrators have the final say on use of force. Among other things, it suggests that outside police be brought to campuses only in extreme situations, that campuses develop guidelines for the use of weapons, that rallies be videotaped and that some protesters who break rules be disciplined under UC conduct codes rather than face criminal arrest.

"I'm totally confident that if our recommendations had been in place, the mistakes that were made in November wouldn't have been made," Edley said at a press conference.

Robinson urged that student demonstrators act responsibly, not damaging property or blocking other students' rights to attend class. "They should conduct themselves in a way that does not jeopardize the safety of others in the community," Robinson said. "While we respect civil disobedience as a tactic in bringing attention to and perhaps resolving certain objectives, they should realize that their actions do have an impact on the rest of the community and may result in a consequence."

After a three-week public comment period, a final report is expected to go to Yudof, faculty leaders and the UC regents for review. Yudof can order policy changes without a formal regents' vote.

Edley and Robinson disagreed on how to handle the noisy sit-ins that have disrupted recent UC Board of Regents meetings. Robinson said he would first try to persuade demonstrators to leave but that "some level of force, I hope the lowest level necessary" might be used. Edley said he thought the regents should move to another meeting room unless there was property damage or a threat to safety.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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