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Santa Monica college melee could have been prevented, report says

A melee outside a Santa Monica Community College Board of Trustees meeting last April that resulted in protesters being hit with pepper spray could have been prevented if college administrators had provided additional police resources and moved the gathering to a larger meeting hall, according to an internal police report obtained by The Times.

The 60-page review is based on interviews and video examined by campus police Sgt. Jere Romano, who was not involved in the incident.

As many as 100 protesters had gathered for the April 3 meeting on campus, angry over a proposed two-tiered fee plan in which high-demand courses would cost more. When dozens of people tried to force their way into the meeting room, a campus police sergeant deployed several quick bursts of pepper spray.

At least two people were taken to the hospital, and 30 others were treated by the Santa Monica Fire Department.

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The report’s findings have been handed over to a panel of Santa Monica College administrators preparing their own report examining policies in relation to the incident.

Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang had no immediate comment on the college’s police report, according to spokesman Bruce Smith.

But sources familiar with the administrative investigation, who asked not to be named because a final report had not been released, said they were disappointed by the police review, describing it as incomplete and self-serving.

“Ultimately, the confrontation would never have occurred if the Police Department’s earlier request for a larger venue through proper channels, in March 2012, had not been denied,” the report concludes.

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The Student Organizing Committee was also cited, with the report recommending that the college Police Department “take a firmer approach in dealing with the SOC and other groups in the future that are desirous of organizing large gatherings.”

Thursday evening, several dozen students gathered in front of the school theater to protest a new budget that would cut the college’s winter session. Between chants of “No cuts, no fees — education should be free!” students took turns speaking out against austerity measures.

At 7 p.m. students funneled into the Board of Trustees meeting, which was moved to the larger venue to accommodate the crowd. Former Associated Students President Harrison Wills was among the attendees.

Wills, 27, was identified in the report as one leader of the group that flooded the April 3 meeting. Wills had not seen the 60-page document, but he said he was concerned about the way student actions at the meeting had been characterized.

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“These are students that believe in scholarship and believe in democracy,” he said. “Should we be vilifying students who are struggling economically and wish to afford an education?”

Also on site Thursday was Robert Myers, campus legal counsel and chairman of the committee charged with reviewing the incident. He said the panel is “looking at a variety of materials” including the report and will release its own report “when our deliberations have concluded.”

The April 3 incident came to a head shortly before 7 p.m. during the meeting’s public comment period. The report describes protesters chanting and yelling outside the board room.

At one point, after being exhorted by one of the student protesters, several dozen protesters tried to push past two campus police sergeants manning the door.

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One of the sergeants, identified in the report as J.B. Williams, was hit on the arm and unable to close the door as the crowd surged.

“Protesters hammered at his arm to prevent him from grabbing ahold of the inner door handle and pulling the door closed,” the report states. “Sergeant Williams’ cellular telephone was taken from his uniform and all of the officers were tugged and pulled at during the course of this incident.”

According to the report, “Sergeant Williams implored the crowd repeatedly to cooperate.”

Moments later, Williams, “fearing for his personal safety and the safety of his fellow officers, who continued to be assaulted by the crowd,” deployed three short bursts of pepper spray directed at those around the door.

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The report also says that before the April 3 meeting, college Police Chief Albert Vasquez had initially received assurances that “the escalation of tensions had potentially been diffused,” suggesting that the presence of the Santa Monica Police Department and the UCLA Police Department “might not be necessary for the meeting.”

As it turned out, half a dozen officers, in addition to Vasquez, were on the scene. The report says all but one sustained minor injuries, including Vasquez, who was cut on the hand.

However, the report states, “failure to disperse would have allowed Mutual Aid to be summoned from SMPD and UCLA PD, thereby providing sufficient units to make arrests if necessary.”

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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matt.stevens@latimes.com


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