Pepper-Spray Cop: The Reports Are In
The University of California, Davis has finally released the long-promised, long-awaited, and long-overdue reports its administration commissioned last November on the now world-famous — or, perhaps more precisely, world-infamous — “pepper-spray cop” incident of Friday, November 18.
I realize that the traditional seasonal overdosage of the turkey derivative L-tryptophan between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day last year may have resulted in many of this blog’s readers drowsing through this fascinating episode in our cultural and political history. In brief, for those of you who missed it, on that sunny afternoon in southern California Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis police force created an international uproar when he used military-grade pepper spray on peacefully seated Occupy protesters on the campus. (If you missed it, here’s a summary from Democracy Now! dated November 21, 2011.)
As I’ve reported in a series of posts, citizen-journalist still photographs and videos of Lt. Pike’s jaunty, portly figure in full riot gear blithely dousing students with this dangerous and pain-inducing substance at point-blank range immediately went viral, with the result that Pike’s image became an overnight internet meme — a phenomenon to which I contributed myself, first with the photocollage at left and with a YouTube video, subsequently commenting on the rapid evolution of the meme in a Vimeo video and a free comic book. (Click here for a downloadable PDF.)
Most of the meme images derive from a photo by Louise Macabitas. She appears to have accepted its dispersal — and the parodic spinoffs from it — with a tacit relinquishing of rights. See Chris O’Brien’s column, “How one student’s pepper spray photo became an Internet meme,” posted at MerCuryNews.com on November 23. “It was so emotional watching that cop pepper spray those students,” he quotes Macabitas as saying. “I couldn’t believe something like that was happening at UC Davis. I just wanted my friends to see what was really going on. I had no idea it would spread across the whole Internet, but I’m glad it has.” Here’s a YouTube video of some of the cream of the meme, set to “Shout!” by Tears for Fears.
Stately, plump Lt. Pike and his immediate superior, UC Davis Chief of Police Annette Spicuzza, immediately clammed up, doubtless on the advice of their attorneys; both faced dismissal and possible civil and criminal charges. Spicuzza’s superior, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi, deeply implicated in this disaster, whirled around in desperate attempts at spin control; and Mark G. Yudof, President of the entire University of California system, set up an assortment of inquiries and meetings intended to gather information about what happened and how this went so wrong, putting as much distance between himself and his underlings as possible.
The two reports solicited by Yudof that have now been made public (as of April 11, 2012) are:
- An investigative report on the pepper-spray incident from the New York-based Kroll Security Group consulting company, now headed by former Los Angeles and New York City Police Chief William Bratton. (Henceforth “The Kroll Report.”)
A review of that report, plus recommendations for university action, from a task force chaired by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, created to address the pepper spraying of the UC Davis students. “Formed by Yudof at [UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.] Katehi’s request,” according to a Nov. 28 press release, “the task force will consist of a cross-section of students, faculty, staff and other UC community members.” (Henceforth “The Reynoso Report.”) Click here for a PDF that contains both.
Ironically, dramatic tuition hikes served as the cause for the Occupy movement actions at UC Davis. The school claims to be strapped for cash as a result of the economy. But that didn’t stop UC Davis President Mark Yudof from spending a pretty penny on spin control. See “UCD Paid $100,000 For Media Consultant After Pepper Spray Incident.”
The good news is that, spin control notwithstanding, the two reports pull no punches. Produced independently of each other, the Reynoso Report and the Kroll Report come to the same conclusions. The Reynoso Task Force puts it bluntly: “Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly. The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.” They go on to say that no one on the UC Davis Police Force was authorized to use MK-9 Pepper Spray or had been trained in its use; that they violated the manufacturer’s instructions by dispensing it at a distance of less than six feet; that its use in this situation was Pike’s initiative, in violation of directives from Spicuzza and Katehi, and also in violation of university policies and procedures.
Meaning that Pike can’t claim that he was either just doing his job or just following orders. So he can put his head between his legs and kiss his ass goodbye — they’re going to sail him off the back porch faster than a dead Easter chick, to quote Thomas Harris in a very different context. Along with Spicuzza, Katehi, and others, he’s already been hit with a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of some of those he sprayed for a “series of constitutional violations against the demonstrators.“ I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the university to pick up his legal tab. (He’s gone into hiding, citing “harassment and threats” that include “hundreds of letters, over 10,000 text messages, and over 17,000 email messages.” See his entirely redacted declaration here.)
But the buck doesn’t stop with Pike. The reports cite gross failures of leadership on the parts of Spicuzza and Katehi, as well as misinformation, disinformation, and outright falsehoods purveyed by both those figures in the aftermath. “There was no way out of that circle,” Spicuzza said. “They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.” In fact, there were 50 unarmed protesters, 35 UC Davis police in full riot gear, and 200 onlookers. “Volatile situation” indeed.
Click here for Brian Nguyen’s Flickr slideshow of his still images, watch the videos, and tell me just how threatened those bulky, armed police men and women could reasonably have felt in that situation. Unwanted, yes. Out of place, definitely. Inappropriately dressed for the occasion, to be sure. But endangered? Both reports state, unequivocally, that “The decision to use pepper spray was not supported by objective evidence.” Even back in December the smart money was on Spicuzza resigning within 30 days of the reports’ release; on April 18, just seven days after the university made them public, she announced that she will step down.
In a settlement reached with the University of California’s police union, the names of the other UC Davis police officers involved in the event have been redacted from the reports, including that of Officer Alexander P. Lee, identified in print via photos and other documents. So the reports specify only Spicuzza and Pike. Meanwhile, 19 students and alumni have filed a suit against the university. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern California and cooperating attorneys.
Like others, I had my doubts about the appointment of the Kroll Security Group to conduct the investigation. My misgivings related to William Bratton, head of Kroll, famous as a hard-nosed law-and-order type. He proved me wrong, I’m pleased to admit. The reports unequivocally blame the university and the campus police, giving the lie to assorted apologias for the behaviors in this situation of Pike, Spicuzza, and UC Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi that emerged in the days following the pepper-spray attack.
One example of these rationales (I’ve cited others in a previous post): Joseph Wambaugh’s lame “thin blue line” op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Joseph Wambaugh solves the great UC Davis pepper-spraying incident,” dated November 27, 2011, in which the self-styled “Grand Master of Police Novels” trots out the hoary 1960s cliché of overburdened hard-working cops vs. pampered rich college kids — conveniently neglecting the fact that Pike (2010 base salary: $116,454) and his “loyal boss” Spicuzza (2010 base salary: $140,000), on a campus where bike theft is the predominant crime, hardly qualify as overworked and underpaid. Worth noting that more than 40% of their 2010 salaries came from fees paid by the very students whose representatives they assaulted, may of them from working-class families, carrying whopping students loans, holding down part-time jobs — and facing an announced 81 percent tuition hike, the immediate cause of the protest.
In short, Wambaugh argues that the students brought Pike’s attack on themselves and only got what they deserved. The Kroll and Reynoso assessments say otherwise, and Wambaugh has maintained a deafening silence since the issuance of those reports. The local district attorney hasn’t bought that line either. All charges filed against the UC Davis students arrested on November 18 were dropped in January by the prosecutors’ office. It remains to be seen whether civil and/or criminal charges will get filed against Pike, Spicuzza, and Katehi specifically.
I’ve tracked this story here at Photocritic International because it’s as vivid and immediate an example of the potency of citizen journalism via the lens media as a commentator on lens culture like myself could want. I’ve said, from the beginning, that without Pike’s bring-it-on turning of this situation into a police-brutality photo op in front of a crowd of amateur paparazzi, heads would not have started to roll at UC Davis and he would not have become an international symbol of uniformed thuggery. Supporting that contention, the onlookers’ digital stills and videos constitute almost all the evidence cited by both reports in contradiction to the self-serving, duplicitous accounts provided by Pike, Spicuzza, and Katehi.
Rapper and performance artist B. Dolan, creator and co-founder of Knowmore.org, agrees. Click here for his December 19, 2011 commentary at The Huffington Post, and to watch his rap video, “Film the Police,” starring Dolan, Toki Wright, Jasiri X, Sage Francis, and Buddy Peace, and featuring images of Pike along with his bullyboy counterparts across the U.S. (If it doesn’t show below, refresh your screen. If it still doesn’t show, you’ll find it here at YouTube.) For a free download of the mp3 version, click here.
For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.