How and Why a Campus Cop at UC Davis Viciously Pepper-Sprayed a Group of Passive College Kids


On November 18, 2011, a campus police officer at the University of California Davis walked up to a group of students protesting peacefully at a sit-in and doused their faces with pepper spray.

The picture of UC Davis Police Department Lt. John Pike strolling down the line of cowering students, casually spraying them as he walked, quickly went viral. Shortly thereafter, UC Davis promised to investigate the incident and release its findings. That report came out this week. It reveals a blatant disregard for student safety, the use of unapproved tactics and weapons by the UC Davis Police Department, and zero accountability before, during, and after the UC Davis police attempted to evict the student protesters who were camped out on the college lawn.

The decision to disperse the students, who assembled to protest tuition increases, was made based on claims from UCDPD Chief Annette Spicuzza that "80% of the protesters participating in the encampment on the Quad were not students," but members of Occupy Oakland.  

After hearing this claim, the university's "Leadership Team," which was headed by Chancellor Linda B. Katehi, grew concerned about Occupiers hurting students. Katehi told investigators that she didn't want to invite "the use of drugs and sex and other things" happening at Occupy Oakland, and that the Leadership Team was "worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside." Another member of the LT said he feared "reporting to a parent that a nonaffiliate has done this unthinkable act with your daughter."

Students, faculty, staff, and even a vice chancellor on the Leadership Team challenged the UCDPD's claim, but visions of Occupiers raping students inspired Katehi to order the camp's closure. (The report says that the UCDPD's claims still have not been substantiated, and that "the status of the protesters arrested on Nov. 18 does not support the contention that many non-affiliates were involved in these events.")

After the decision was made to break down the camp, Police Chief Spicuzza allegedly "argued to her officers that the police operation was to be limited in various respects," the report says. "She attempted, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her officers from using batons and pepper spray or to prevent them from wearing 'riot gear' during the operation."

According to the report, Spicuzza had no control over her officers. "Lieutenants refused to follow directives of the Chief," the report says. "This breakdown is illustrated by the heated exchanges between the Chief and her Lieutenants as to the scope and conduct of the operation and the Chief's apparent concession that her officers will do things their own way and there is nothing she can do about it."

After losing the argument over tactics with her officers, Spicuzza essentially relinquished any command of the Nov. 18 raid. One officer even testified to investigators that "during the most turbulent minutes of this operation, he observed the chief standing opposite him in the crowd filming the police actions with her cell phone."

Once police actions commenced, the report says "No one in a command position was in the Department Operations Center, which impaired coordination and communication." And because Spicuzza could not control her officers, she could not stop Lt. Pike from using an unapproved canister of MK 9 pepper spray, which UCDPD officers not only had no training with, but were not even authorized to use. Pike "appears to have made the command decision to use pepper spray."

And why, exactly, did Pike feel the need to pepper spray sitting students? According to UCDPD testimony, "the crowd was hostile, [the officers were surrounded, and they were at risk of losing their prisoners."

But the report begs to differ: "On balance, there is little factual basis supporting Lt. Pike's belief that he was trapped by the protesters or that his officers were prevented from leaving the Quad. Further, there is little evidence that any protesters attempted to use violence against the police." 

The report holds the Leadership Team responsible for the decision to break down the camp, UCDPD leadership responsible for mismanaging police operations, and Lt. Pike responsible for his overreaction to the crowd, as well as "for the specific pepper spray weapon he used, the MK-9, and the manner in which he used it."