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2 newspapers sue to get officers' names in UC Davis pepper spraying

The action by the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee demands that the University of California Board of Regents release names redacted from a task force report.

May 24, 2012|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • From left, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi; Linda Bisson, chairwoman of the UC Davis Academic Senate; and retired California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso at a joint legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento.
From left, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi; Linda Bisson, chairwoman… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — The Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee filed suit Wednesday against the University of California Board of Regents, demanding the release of police officers' names removed from a critical report on the controversial pepper spraying of UC Davis students.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, contends that when university officials agreed in a court settlement last month to redact all but two names, they "failed to represent the interests of the press and public," leaving the newspapers with "no choice but to bring this petition to protect the public's right of access to this important information."

The use of pepper spray by UC Davis police against students opposing tuition increases in November triggered international outrage when videos of Lt. John Pike casually dousing seated protesters went viral. The incident also prompted soul-searching by university officials, who convened a task force headed by retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso to analyze the incident.

Wednesday's litigation is the latest tussle over transparency in the matter. Earlier this year, the Federated University Police Officers Assn. sought to block public release of much of the Reynoso report and an accompanying investigation by the Kroll consulting firm, contending that the information was equivalent to protected "personnel" material.

UC officials argued for the full release of the reports.

In the end, an Alameda County Superior Court judge rejected most of the union's legal arguments but agreed that the names of most officers should be redacted. Only the names of Pike and former UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza — whose identities were widely known — were left in the report.

The report concluded that the incident "could and should have been prevented."

UC officials said they acquiesced to the settlement last month to expedite the already delayed report. But reporters for the Sacramento Bee and The Times continued to pursue access to the names under the California Public Records Act.

In denying the newspapers' requests, UC officials said the judge's permanent injunction barred them from revealing the names.

However, the petition filed Wednesday notes that Judge Evelio Grillo made a point of stressing that "the judgment would not affect any obligation of the Regents to provide the redacted information as required by law."

John Bakhit, the lead attorney for the officers' association, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The union had argued strenuously against the release, speculating that officers would be harassed. Pike's declaration stated that he had received hundreds of letters, and more than 10,000 text messages and 17,000 emails, most of them "threatening or derogatory," as well as unsolicited home deliveries.

Attorney Thomas R. Burke, who is representing the newspapers, countered Wednesday that Pike's declaration presented "only speculative concerns about his safety" and "didn't have anything to say about the other officers."

"It's far more important to make sure that people responsible for spraying industrial-grade pepper spray into the eyes of passive students are fully accountable for their involvement," Burke said. In commissioning the Reynoso task force, he added, the Regents "wanted an unvarnished public explanation of what happened and that is a mission that we are trying to fulfill with this litigation."

A UC spokeswoman said officials learned of the litigation Wednesday afternoon and were reviewing it.

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