Skip to content

Police Brutality at UC Davis

By Taylor Marvin

I’m sure you’ve all seen what happened at UC Davis:

University of California President Yudof has taken some action: calling the incident “appalling” and meriting a “systemwide response”, Yudof has stated that he intends “to convene all 10 chancellors to engage in a full and unfettered discussion about how to ensure proportional law enforcement response to non-violent protest.” This is a good start. The UC Chancellors are clearly unprepared to safely address student protest, and new system-wide guidelines that govern the appropriate use of force by campus police are desperately needed. But this isn’t enough. Casually pepper spraying protesters that are clearly not threatening the police – they’re sitting on the ground – is not acceptable. At the very best its an absolutely unmerited and disproportionate use of violent force, but there’s more going on here. UC Police Department Lt. John A. Pike is absolutely relaxed as he sprayed the passive students, and it’s clear that his actions aren’t motivated by fear of the angry crowd. Instead, he’s punishing the students for disobedience. This is very, very ugly. From The Atlantic’s James Fallows:

I can’t see any legitimate basis for police action like what is shown here. Watch that first minute and think how we’d react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria. The calm of the officer who walks up and in a leisurely way pepper-sprays unarmed and passive people right in the face? We’d think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population. That’s what I think here.”

Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi has put the UC Davis campus police chief on administrative leave, and has apologized for the incident, emotionally explaining Monday that she feels “horrible for what happened.” Despite this apparent remorse, Katehi is unlikely to resign. This is unacceptable, and is pure cowardice. Luckily, Chancellor Katehi has a public contact form on her website (via Sullivan). My letter:

Chancellor Katehi,

As a University of California student, I am dismayed by the police actions ordered by your administration, and your apparent disregard for the students of UC Davis. Either you are a person of integrity who takes responsibility for your actions and the actions of your subordinates, or you are not. I hope you do the right thing and resign your position.

Your continued presence at UC Davis is an affront to the reputation of the University of California system.

Taylor Marvin
UC San Diego

The UC Davis police department also has posted contact information:

To whom it may concern,

According to California state employee payroll records, Lt. John A. Pike is paid a yearly wage of $110,243.12 in public money to pepper spray peaceful, patently non-aggressive student protestors. I expect better from highly paid professionals. I am dismayed that the UC Davis police department has proven itself ready to maliciously and extra-judicially punish — a valid description of Lt. Pike’s unprovoked actions — the students it professes to serve.

I hope that you will be reconsidering your department’s priorities and policies.

Taylor Marvin
UC San Diego

Send letters to the UCD administration, and to the UC Office of the President. The UC system is state funded and, importantly, is increasingly dependent on student tuition — the public and especially current UC students have a voice. Use it.

But it’s important to remember the bigger picture here. What happened at UC Davis is a symptom, not the disease. The increasing militarization of American police forces is decreasing police effectiveness by isolating police from the civil population they nominally protect. At The Washington Monthly, Peter Moskos explains:

“In the police academy, I was taught to pepper-spray people for non-compliance. Ie: “Put your hands behind your back or I’ll… mace you.” It’s crazy. Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way we were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it.”

This isn’t the attitude on display at UCD. Lt. Pike’s casual demeanor as he inflicts pain on female students half his weight shows a cop with no empathetic connection to the population he serves. Really, “serves” isn’t the right word here: if UC Police Department training and culture created a climate where Lt. Pike judged his behavior acceptable, then the UCPD stopped serving the students of the UC system long ago. Lt. Pike the individual isn’t to blame, but the institution that created him. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal elaborates with characteristic insight:

“While it’s easiest to note the incidents of police violence, the protesters’ cameras also record what’s *not* in the images. Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the “black bloc” of violent anarchists. But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn’t there.

Instead, it’s a dozen scared kids and a police officer named John Pike spraying them in the face from three feet away. And while it’s his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students. I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.

And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”

This is all true. However, it’s important to remember that the actions of Lt. Pike and the UC Davis campus police he represents is a pretty mild example of police brutality. That’s not to say it’s by any means acceptable, but America’s police forces routinely inflict far, far more severe violations of basic human rights. Ta-Nehisi Coates drives the point home:

“Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it’s worth considering what happens in poor  neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I’m not saying that to diminish this video in anyway. But I’d like people to see this a part of a broad systemic attitude we’ve adopted as a country toward law enforcement. There’s a direct line from this officer invoking his privilege to brutalize these students, and an officer invoking his privilege to detain Henry Louis Gates for sassing him.”

What happened at UC Davis is terrifying and shocking, and UC students have a right to be angry at this insult to the integrity of our university. But lets not forget the real costs of American police brutality.

Update: Via Andrew Sullivan, Amazon users have been posting some pretty funny pepper spray reviews.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Chris C. #

    Is the Chancellor herself necessarily responsible for the actions of the UCPD? I can see the argument that everything that goes on at a UC campus should be the responsibility of the chancellor, but realistically that really can’t work. Unless new evidence comes forth that Katehi actually ordered the police to use such harsh tactics, I see this more as a principal-agent issue in which the agent crossed the line. It’s sad that no other UCPD officer dared to stop what was going on, but with a $100k+benefits public position for life on the line it’s not surprising.

    I would suggest instead that the problem is that we have all these UCPDs in the first place. Does UC-Davis need a full dedicated police force? UCSD surely doesn’t. Instead, these institutions continue to look for ways to justify their existence. As an institution, they work to enforce increasingly absurd rules in exceedingly harsh ways while trying to increase their bottom line. No chancellor wants to “decrease public safety,” so of course these departments remain relatively protected through the budget cuts. But if people were serious about finding real savings, these depts. might be good places to find cuts.

    November 23, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: