SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Campus police should not have pepper-sprayed student demonstrators at the University of California, Davis, in an incident that generated national outrage when video was posted online, investigators said Wednesday in a report that assigned blame to all levels of the school administration.
The decision by officers to douse a line of seated Occupy protesters with the eye-stinging chemical was "objectively unreasonable" and not authorized by campus policy, according to the report by a UC Davis task force created to investigate the incident.
"The pepper-spraying incident that took place on Nov. 18, 2011, should and could have been prevented," the task force concluded in the long-awaited report.
The chemical crackdown prompted campus protests and calls for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi after videos shot by witnesses went viral. Images of an officer casually spraying orange pepper-spray in the faces of nonviolent protesters became a rallying point for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In a statement Wednesday, Katehi said school administrators would study the report's recommendations and develop a detailed response and action plan "that will ensure that students' safety and free speech rights are paramount."
Campus police Lt. John Pike and other officers involved in the operation have said they needed to use pepper-spray to break through a hostile crowd. But the investigation determined police were able to step over the seated protesters and walk through a throng of onlookers.
"There was really no reason, we conclude, to have used the pepper spray," Cruz Reynoso, a retired California Supreme Court justice who chaired the task force, said at a campus forum where the panel presented its findings and recommendations.
The report also said Pike used a pepper-spray canister that was larger than the one campus police officers are authorized and trained to use.
John Bakhit, an attorney for the campus police officers union, said the pepper-spraying was justified after protesters disobeyed orders to disperse and said they wouldn't allow the officers to leave until several detained demonstrators were released.
"I believe all the officers exercised quite a bit of restraint under the circumstances where you're surrounded by a crowd chanting vulgarities and told, 'We're not going to let you go unless you let go of the prisoners,'" Bakhit said.
All the officers involved are under orders not to discuss the incident because an internal department investigation is ongoing, Bhakit said.
The attorney said the task force was wrong to conclude that Pike's use of pepper-spray was unreasonable because investigators were not able to interview him.
The task force also blamed the incident on poor communication and planning throughout the campus chain of command, from Katehi to Police Chief Annette Spicuzza to Pike, the main officer shown in the video.
The task force blamed the chancellor for not clearly communicating to her subordinates that police should avoid physical force on the protesters. It also said she was responsible for the decision to deploy police on a Friday afternoon, rather than wait until early morning as Spicuzza recommended.
The report chided the police chief for failing to challenge the timing of the operation and not providing clear instructions to the responding officers.
In its recommendations, the task force called on UC Davis to develop a school policy detailing how administrators and campus police should respond to student protests and civil disobedience. The panel did not recommend disciplinary actions for specific university employees.
Mark Yudof, who heads the 10-campus system, said he planned to meet with Katehi to discuss implementation of the recommendations. A separate university task force is working on a report on how school officials should respond to student protests at all 10 UC campuses, he said.
"Free speech, including nonviolent protest, is part of the DNA of this university, and it must be protected with vigilance," Yudof said in a statement.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, who sits on the UC Board of Regents, said UC Davis officials "must be held accountable in addressing the very troubling revelations that this report has brought to light."
Fatima Sbeih, one of the pepper-sprayed students who is suing the administrators and alleging police brutality, said she was pleased by the report's thoroughness and detail.
"The university was acting on assumption and fear rather than following policy and procedure," Sbeih said. "Students do have a right to protest, and the university needs to respect that."
UC Davis published the task force findings and recommendations online a day after a judge approved their release without the names of most officers involved in the clash.
The report was originally set for release March 6, but the union sued to keep the document under wraps. It claimed the report contained confidential personnel records that should not be publicly released under state law.