UC Davis chancellor apologizes for pepper-spray incident

As outrage mounted over police use of pepper spray on nonviolent student demonstrators at UC Davis, the campus' embattled chancellor apologized for the incident and placed the university's police chief on administrative leave.

During a tense speech Monday before more than 1,000 students and faculty members on the normally quiet Central Valley campus' main quad, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi tried to quell criticism over the incident, as well as how university officials handled the aftermath.

"I am here to apologize," an emotional Katehi said after struggling through the crowd to a small stage where some of the students who'd been pepper-sprayed had just described their ordeal. "I feel horrible for what happened."

The chancellor's appearance drew dueling boos and cries of "Let her speak!"

The Friday incident, captured in videos that quickly went viral on the Internet, has triggered nationwide controversy about the forceful response by university police to student protesters. The Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks has spilled onto college campuses, combining with student anger over rising tuition and cuts to higher education to produce protests and sit-ins.

Katehi announced Monday that she had put campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative leave, an effort to restore peace to the 32,000-student public university. Two officers involved in the spraying, in which students were hit in the face as they sat quietly with arms linked, were put on paid leave over the weekend.

Katehi has said that she ordered protesters' tents removed but had not authorized police to use the chemical spray in the manner shown on the videos. Campus spokesman Andy Fell on Monday declined to comment on who gave that order, saying it would be looked at by investigators.

As she spoke Monday, Katehi, a Greek-born electrical engineer who became chancellor at UC Davis in August 2009, ignored calls from the crowd for her resignation. But her actions and those of the police are sure to be scrutinized in the weeks ahead; UC leaders, state politicians, the American Civil Liberties Union and national education organizations have decried the incident.

"Our university has to be better than it is, and it needs all of the community to come together to do that. We need to work together," Katehi said.

Assistant English professor Nathan Brown, who launched an online petition drive to unseat Katehi, had spotted her in the crowd as he addressed the protesters. Speaking directly to the chancellor, he called her response to Friday's police actions "transparent" efforts to evade criticism.

"There's no place on our campus for administrators who order the use of force against peaceful protesters," Brown said.

But not everyone was calling for Katehi's ouster, and the anger on campus was mixed with sadness Monday. It was an unusual moment in the spotlight for UC Davis, which has been shedding its caricature as an "aggie" school and touting its well-regarded programs in medicine, law, literature, engineering and the environment as well as agriculture and veterinary medicine.  

Julie Sze, associate professor of American Studies, brought her sign-waving 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to Monday's protest. Sze said people on campus were horrified by the police action but that there was no consensus on whether Katehi should resign.

"People feel like she has to show us something," Sze said. "I don't know if there's anything she can say to address the level of concern and high drama."

The UC Davis Academic Senate, the powerful faculty organization that governs many issues, will be conduct its own investigation into the pepper-spray incident, according to its chairwoman, Linda Bisson, a professor of viticulture and oenology.

A faculty investigation is needed, in addition to one being conducted by UC Davis administrators, because "there is a strong feeling that there would be a lack of credibility regardless of what the chancellor's report said — and because of her role in the events," Bisson said.

The faculty leader contended that Katehi was too slow to get accurate information about the incident and then to take disciplinary action against the police. A minority of UC Davis faculty may want the chancellor to resign, Bisson said, but most want her to stay in her post but be held accountable in some way.

The Yolo County district attorney's and sheriff's offices also have said they will review the police response.

Among the most dramatic moments of Monday's rally came as students who had been arrested or sprayed described their pain and fear. They blamed police for the violent turn in what they said began as a peaceful show of support for the Occupy movement, with 25 tents and a cooking area. Police initially said they had acted only after a crowd of protesters had encircled the officers.

David Buscho, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student, said he and other protesters were just "sitting down in a circle singing." Then he heard someone yell "pepper spray!" He kissed his girlfriend and closed his eyes.

"At that point, I entered a world of pain," Buscho said. "I wanted to breathe, but I couldn't. My face was covered with pepper spray.... My hands were covered with pepper spray. I was afraid. I was paralyzed with fear, and that's the truth. "

"Not a single student was violent — ever," he said. Police arrested 10 protesters at the campus Friday, and 11 were treated for the pepper spray, including two who were taken to a hospital and then released.

Later Monday, protesters had again erected more than two dozen tents on the campus quad, and authorities seemed uncertain how to react. Fell said he did not know what would happen to the latest encampment.

Katehi's appearance came as scrutiny of her leadership increased, as well as of the police response to protests elsewhere in the UC system and across the country. The university, especially its Berkeley campus, was central to the student protest movement of the 1960s, and rallies addressing rising tuition have occurred frequently in recent years.

UC President Mark G. Yudof, who said over the weekend that he was appalled by the police actions, convened a telephone conference of all 10 UC chancellors Monday, urging them to review police tactics and ensure students' freedom of expression. "We cannot let this happen again," Yudof said of the Davis incident, according to a statement.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said his organization also will seek public records in what might be a precursor to a lawsuit. Risher said previous court decisions have held that the use of pepper spray against seated, nonviolent demonstrators violates constitutional rights.

Daniel Hurley, an official at the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities, said Monday that many schools nationwide see the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis as a "terrible overreaction on the part of campus police."

Public colleges "have a remarkably proud tradition in this country of being venues of free speech and peaceful demonstrations," Hurley said.

The controversy came just weeks after Katehi garnered positive publicity by announcing a long-term plan to add 5,000 students, including many from out of state, to the campus, which is physically the largest in the UC system. That idea ran counter to the widespread pessimism at other UC campuses about cuts in state funding.

Katehi earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at UCLA. She became UC Davis' chancellor after serving as provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The UC Davis campus does not have a history of disruptive protests. "We have a reputation of very peaceful and very thoughtful student activists," Bisson said. "Not a mob mentality at all."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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