Legislators, university officials and civil rights leaders at a hearing in Sacramento today seemed in agreement that campus police in protest situations needed stricter standards of conduct, and potentially a statewide crowd control policy.
The joint hearing of the State Assembly Higher Education Committee and the State Senate Education Committee was called in response to three conflicts between campus police and protesters in November.
The first occurred Nov. 9, when Occupy Cal protesters at the University of California at Berkeley attempted to establish an encampment on Sproul Plaza. Police used batons to push through lines of protesters who had linked arms surrounding several tents.
The second came during the Nov. 16 California State University Board of Trustees meeting where the board approved a 9 percent tuition hike for the CSU system.
Protesters clashed with police outside of the building; a door to the building was shattered and four were arrested.
The third occurred on Nov. 18 when a group of seated students blocking police from moving were pepper sprayed at an Occupy demonstration at the University of California at Davis. The incident grabbed international headlines when video of the incident posted to YouTube went viral, and resulted in the resignation of the UC Davis police chief.
“Something is wrong when the students and teachers struggling to have their voices heard are answered with the spray of chemical weapons and the sting of batons,” said Senate Education Committee chair Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
“California is in the midst of an economic crisis and our citizenry are understandably frustrated,” Lowenthal said. He said that while the hearing was only intended to address the issue of police oversight, he anticipated that without addressing budget shortfalls students’ frustration would only be exacerbated.
Students invited to speak at the hearing dismissed the idea that the three incidents in November were isolated, and said that the media attention on those incidents has only alerted campus and government officials to problems with police that have gone on for years.
One student even called into question the account of the CSU Board of Trustees meeting related by the head of CSU police Nate Johnson.
Johnson said that the conflicts between police and protesters broke out after outside agitators incited a mob to “take the building” confronting police and trying to storm into the meeting.
He said that police responded with pepper spray after they were pepper sprayed by protesters, and that several officers suffered injuries including one with a laceration to the temple, and another with a laceration on the arm that required stitches.
Johnson said that the agitators were not students but members of other Occupy groups or of another protest group called ReFund California.
Charlie Eaton, financial secretary for the United Auto Workers student workers union, which represents 12,000 teaching assistants, academic readers and tutors said his union is one of the principle members of the ReFund California coalition.
“Dr. Nate Johnson lied in his testimony today about what happened” during the Trustees meeting, Eaton said, and objected to Johnson’s characterization of Refund California as “outside agitators.”
Eaton said that the public comment session of the Trustees meeting was cut short, and police forcibly ejected students from the meeting. He said that in the ensuing confrontation, it was a police baton that broke the door of the building, not protesters.
“We’ve heard diametrically opposed testimony as to what went down,” Lowenthal said, and implored CSU Chancellor Charles Reed to explore in greater detail what happened during the meeting.
Reed was unable to attend today’s hearing, sending CSU Executive Vice Chancellor Ben Quillian in his place. Quillian and Johnson spoke before the student panel, and praised the performance of their officers, who have not seen the same scrutiny that police on UC campuses have after the Davis and Berkeley incidents.
UC President Mark Yudof said that he is waiting for a thorough review of the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident, and will conclude what policy changes need to be made after the review.
“I certainly think that we need more definition for when to use force and when to not use force,” Yudof said, adding that each UC campus may need a police review board.
“I don’t want to micromanage the campuses, but I do think we need to respond to this extraordinary circumstance,” Yudof said.
Yudof said that the results of investigations into the Davis incident will be coming in over the next several months, but for now he intends to clarify the chain of command and have student and administrative observers of police activity during all police actions at protests.
Earlier, independent police auditor Barbara Attard, who has worked in Berkeley, San Jose and San Francisco, said that only UC Berkeley has civilian oversight of its police department and that each campus should have a similar body in place.
She and American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Michael Risher each called for stricter guidelines for use of force during protests, and clarification of the chain of command.
Risher said that there is legal precedent that the use of pepper spray on seated demonstrators is unconstitutional.
“Seated protesters do not pose a risk of health or safety, they haven’t committed a serious crime, and they do not pose a risk of flight, they’re sitting there, that’s the whole problem,” Risher said.
Attard also wondered whether other law enforcement agencies responding to mutual aid requests were properly following procedures outlined by the organization requesting aid, such as Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies at UC Berkeley.
In an ongoing ACLU suit against the City of Oakland over actions the city has taken against Occupy Oakland demonstrations, attorneys for the City of Oakland have argued that mutual aid agencies responding to Oakland’s calls for assistance were not required to follow Oakland’s crowd control policy, accounting for some violations.
In that suit, ACLU attorneys argued that the use of excessive force against non-violent protesters may prompt a chilling effect, keeping protesters away from voicing policy objections through protest. Risher repeated those concerns at today’s hearing.
“Is the tone of other jurisdictions use of force affecting the response of other agencies?” Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, whose district includes UC Berkeley, suggested during opening remarks.
Attard said that mutual aid organizations should be following the requesting agency’s procedures, and said that statewide standards would assist in that effort. “A statewide standard would make a lot of sense, I think,” Attard said.
Risher and Attard each placed an emphasis on the chain of command as well, and said orders and procedures should be very clear, with little individual discretion provided to the officers. They said the final authority should rest with the chancellor of the university.
“Particularly when we’re talking about the First Amendment, discretion is very dangerous because an officer may react to what’s being said rather than potential illegal activity,” Risher said.
But UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, under fire for the pepper spraying of seated protesters on her campus, said she did not order the use of force against protesters nor did she order the use of pepper spray.
Despite that, Katehi said that she is ultimately accountable for the actions of the UC police.
Katehi said that typically at UC Davis, the authority for dealing with the police department was delegated to a vice chancellor, but she said she did not know whether the vice chancellor authorized the use of force against protesters either.
She said that she comes from an engineering and education background, and did not feel comfortable directing police actions, preferring to leave such decisions at the discretion of those with a background in law enforcement.
“At this point I would suggest you are primarily the chancellor,” Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Marty Block, D-San Diego, said. He said that if Katehi did not feel comfortable dealing with law enforcement, she should seek training until she is comfortable.
Katehi said that UC Davis is taking more drastic interim measures than other campuses in dealing with protesters, and that if protesters are non-violent there will be no police presence at demonstrations at all.
Instead, Katehi said she has created a group of counselors who are experts in dealing with students that will mediate between campus administration and protesters until reviews of the recent incident are completed.
“By no means will we bring the police into situations like we had in November,” Katehi said.
Eaton and other students vowed that protests would continue until the “bankers and millionaires” that are represented on the CSU Board of Trustees and the UC Regents “pay their fair share” and the legislature determined how to fund higher education.
Students said they have tried lobbying and have only seen their tuition increase by thousands, and were prepared to take more drastic, though non-violent, measures.
Scott Morris, Bay City News