Protests After the Pepper Spray
Students and administrators refer to it now as Nov. 18. The pepper spray incident that irrevocably changed the University of California at Davis 20 months ago is so infamous, such a part of the campus consciousness, that that’s all the description it needs.
But when they do refer to it, it is for the most part without the same anger, disgust and shame that permeated the dialogue in the days, months and even year following the incident. To claim that everything’s back to normal would be naïve – and inaccurate. But Davis has progressed toward something of a new normal, say the people who are working to make sure nothing like the crisis that drew international criticism ever happens again.
And at the crux of it all is a novel concept of student involvement.
“I’ve definitely seen our administration turn around. I think they know that they have to have the student input, they have to have students on their side if they want to succeed,” said Carly Sandstrom, president of Davis’ student government association. “There’s more of a student-centric approach occurring than what used to happen.”
It might be working. The dismantling of a recent student occupation in the campus financial services building – the same one students occupied after Nov. 18 – was more compromise than administrative decree. When students rejected a request to let a student affairs official sit in on the occupation, administrators let it go. Students agreed to a 24-hour occupation timetable and kept to it – and nobody got arrested when some signs that were supposed to be taken down were left up.
And during a recent UC System Board of Regents meeting, the new police chief, Matthew Carmichael, texted back and forth with a student. A protest was under way, the student said, but things were going fine; Carmichael told them to stay safe and that he was on hand if they needed him. (Other events have been more tense, as detailed below.)
Hindsight is 20/20
The sort of communication and flexibility that allowed those encounters to end peacefully was nowhere to be found Nov. 18.
That day, Chancellor Linda Katehi acknowledges, she gave police the go-ahead to break up a peaceful demonstration on the campus quad, despite nobody having a clear idea of how things would proceed. When Katehi told police that she didn’t want a situation “like Berkeley” – where just days before, police broke up a similar Occupy-style protest by beating students with batons and pulling them by the hair – the message clearly didn’t get across.
Instead, surrounded by screaming students, officers pepper-sprayed a group of protesters sitting across a sidewalk just inches away and then dragged their limp bodies to police cars, sparking nationwide outrage and a lawsuit against Katehi and campus police that ended in a $1 million settlement for the plaintiffs.
An independent investigative panel’s report determined five months later (after several delays) that Katehi and other administrators failed to properly evaluate the protest situation or plan for its dispersal, and that police did not follow protocol and were “objectively unreasonable” in their use of the pepper spray.
“The crisis we went through after November 2011 showed us a lot of weaknesses that we had in the system, and one of those was the fact that we had really a big gap between the police and the students,” Katehi said. “There was very little understanding on both sides about the other side. The police had very little opportunities to interact with students, and because of that, the way they were dealing with students when they were responding to an incident was not really productive in terms of getting the students to feel more safe or getting the police to be more effective.”
In retrospect, the communication breakdown makes this video of students lining the sidewalk in silence as Katehi walks from her office the night following the confrontation all the more chilling. (Students were more vocal a couple of days later, when they responded to her apology with calls for her resignation.)
It became obvious, Katehi said, that she needed to bring in a new police chief whose first priority would be bridging that gap.
A New Approach
So she did. Students call him Matt.
“We have to reconnect with our community – that was our number one focus. And not just reconnect, actually connect better than we were before,” Carmichael said.
The department now hosts a citizens’ academy that awards students credit for a nine-week course immersing them into law enforcement, what it does and how, and more specifically, college policing. Carmichael holds “office hours” at a local café where students can come talk about whatever. Officers have switched out cars for bikes, making them more approachable.
But the change with perhaps the most potential to institutionalize a culture shift is a new cadet academy designed to help diversify the department, gain student trust and better represent the people those officers are sworn to protect.
Through the program, students complete a three-month “pre-police academy” designed to give them a leg up before they head to an actual police academy (after graduation, if they decide to do so). Davis pays for the top three students to attend any academy in California, after which the department pledges to hire one of the three each year.
This inaugural year, when the cadet academy filled to capacity with 21 students, Carmichael veered from the original plan – he hired three students instead of one.
“I think I could retire after the cadet program,” Carmichael said. “I can’t see doing anything better than that.”
Manushi Weerasinghe, who has been hired and will join the department in January, was on the quad Nov. 18. Then a participant in Davis’ less-formal Aggie Hosts program, through which students work events as part of a “secondary security service,” Weerasinghe decided in that moment that she wanted to keep working with campus police. She knew if she left, the void between students and police would just get bigger, she said.
“I want to be able to communicate with the students who don’t feel like they can relate to some of the officers here because everybody looks the same, everybody gives out the same kind of energy,” she said. “People are so busy with their day-to-day lives that they forget that this is a campus, and this is a student-oriented place. I think that needs to be in the forefront of every department on campus – it should be student-focused, because that’s what it is, it’s a university campus. If you’re an officer and you don’t want to deal with students, then you shouldn’t be on this campus.”
Students are already moving on from the pepper spray incident, Weerasinghe said, largely because of Carmichael’s work. (The chief also brought in members of student government to join the search committee that hires new officers. And he put a new person in charge of the department’s new-officer mentorship program; the previous leader had, unbelievably, never interacted with students, despite that program’s huge role in shaping officers’ skills and expectations. Most new hires at campus departments are either young and inexperienced or old and nearing the end of their careers, Carmichael said.)
Students have also been involved in other projects, including numerous committees working to develop and carry out recommendations stemming from the independent report. (Those included developing and disseminating protest regulations, recognizing the role of open debate in Davis’ identity, improving police training, and other numerous broad suggestions.)
Questions About Authority
Having officers who understand the campus culture might be an improvement, but working more with students won't solve everything, said Fatima Sbeih, one of the students who was pepper sprayed and sued the university. Sbeih doesn't want any police at all on campus -- and estimates that about half of students feel the same way. But she also questions the ability of all students working with police and administrators to remain independent and level with their peers.
Sbeih, who is now in Oakland but still visits Davis regularly, pointed to a spring protest she witnessed that did not go so well. Some students, upset with the tactics that others had discussed using to disrupt an "Islamists Rising" event hosted by the Ayn Rand Society, notified administrators that a protest was being planned.
"The place was crawling with police," Sbeih said of the event, even though students are well aware of the consequences of disruption, thanks to well-advertised policies. "This is people in their own community who went back on them.... I was shocked that this would have even happened."
But administrators say the students' work on the committees has led to, among other things, some of the changes in police procedures, as well as a more thoughtful and deliberate process when responding to protests. Whereas the police chief used to be the immediate call, Carmichael said, a student affairs official might now try talking to students first. The chief reports to the provost now and meets weekly with Katehi and other top-level administrators as a member of the chancellor’s cabinet.
“The students were the first ones to start talking about the future,” Katehi said. “It took a lot longer for the rest of the community to make the transition from looking at the past to start looking at the future and what are we going to do better.”
However, some still see room for improvement. A remaining point of contention between students and administrators is how much say the former should have on the panel that makes the final call on how to respond to protests. Currently, to the consternation of students, they are not represented on that committee.
“I think that’s a huge concern,” Sandstrom said. “It’s definitely necessary, because if it’s not institutionalized, when we get a new administration and they forget all about the pepper spray incident, who knows where the administration goes from there?”
Of course, administrators are wary of the liability of having a student accountable for decisions that could lead to lawsuits. But Katehi said it would be “unfair” to pit students against one another.
“In those few cases where we do have students involved in a crisis…. a decision to intervene needs to be made,” Katehi said. “It’s easy for that to create a rift among the students, and then create an environment where one group is going to blame another student group for a decision that may not be popular among them.”
Sbeih agreed that giving select students power over others -- on this committee, others, or in the police department -- is problematic.
"We're still the students there -- how do we know that what we say will or will not be used against us?" she said, adding that when she was a student and the Aggie Hosts were patrolling events, "It was making a lot of people uncomfortable -- like, you're putting our peers there, so are we going to really truly be equal then, if you're giving them authority?"
Instead, Katehi has proposed having a student sit on that committee’s advisory group, which includes representatives from different university divisions (student affairs, legal counsel, health, etc.).
That issue remains to be resolved, and while students still have some concerns about ensuring things don’t revert back to the way they were after all the students and administrators who were there Nov. 18 are gone, those who’ve been involved with the changes are optimistic.
“I don’t think anybody in the academy would stand for that,” Carmichael said. “At the end of the day it’s never about one person, so if we have good policy in place, it’s a good program.”