The problem of the UC police

Pub date November 29, 2011

EDITORIAL Twenty years from now, when people look back on the Occupy movement, one of the indelible images will be the video of the University of California police officer casually dousing a group of peaceful, seated students in Davis with pepper spray. It’s a video that’s been seen millions of times around the world. It reflects a serious problem not just with one officer but with the way officials at all levels have responded to the protests — and with the way institutional police forces operate in this state.

In the video, a group of students involved in the OccupyUC movement are seated on the ground with arms linked. Lt. John Pike walks up and down the row, indiscriminately shooting the orange spray — which causes severe pain and breathing problems — over the students, who make no move to resist. It’s horrifying and stunning, the sort of thing that you wouldn’t believe unless you saw it yourself.

The Davis chancellor, Linda Katehi, has been reeling from the incident and is facing calls for her resignation. Pike and the chief of the U.C. Davis police have been put on administrative leave pending an investigation.

But now Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco wants to go a step further — he wants to hold hearings in Sacramento not just on this incident but on how police agencies across the state have dealt with mostly nonviolent protesters. He’s absolutely right — and his hearings should also raise a critical question: Why does the University of California need its own armed police force?

The problems with the police at Davis mirror problems with the behavior of the UC Berkeley police — which mirror problems with the BART police. And all of them stem from a central problem: These little police fiefdoms have poor supervision, poor training and limited civilian oversight.

The chancellor of UC Davis doesn’t know anything about running a police department; she’s an electrical engineer and an academic. If she resigns, she’ll be replaced by another academician who knows nothing about law enforcement. And if the UC police misbehave, where do people go to complain? There’s no independent auditor, no office of citizen complaints.

If the Oakland police ran rampant — and they have been known to do exactly that — at least the elected mayor can be held accountable. Same for any city that has a municipal force. But when campus and transit security operations turn into armed paramilitary agencies, it’s a recipe for trouble.

At the very least, the UC police — like the BART police — need an independent oversight agency to handle complaints. But it might be time to discuss whether campuses can best be protected with unarmed security guards supported by local municipal police. The University of California will never take that step on its own, so the state Legislature needs to evaluate whether lawmakers should force the issue.