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Davis, California

Sunday, September 19, 2021

$1 million pepper spray settlement calls for collaborative university reform

Students, alumni and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys gathered on the UC Davis Quad Sept. 26 to discuss a recent settlement between the University and the plaintiffs of last November’s pepper spray incident.

The settlement, approved by the UC Board of Regents in a mid-September meeting, would distribute $1 million: $630,000 to the 21 plaintiffs, $250,000 to be split between their attorneys, $100,000 to be put aside for individuals who were pepper sprayed but have yet to come forward and $20,000 to the ACLU in exchange for collaborative work on university reform.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi will also issue personal apologies to each person who was pepper sprayed.

At the conference, plaintiffs gathered to share their experiences from last November.

“Nightmares, waking up screaming, anxiety [and] panic attacks all came, and it just wasn’t with me,” said UC Davis alumna Fatima Sbeih, who was a student last November.

In addition, the settlement will bring collaboration between UC Davis and the ACLU on a series of reforms.

“I know the $1 million figure got a lot of attention, but we think it’s important that the community see that our reforms and policies will have the benefit of a very respected organization, the ACLU,” said Barry Shiller, executive director of strategic communications at UC Davis.

The first reform is a complete internal reorganization of the police department, a process which began with Police Chief Annette Spicuzza’s resignation on April 18 and her replacement by Matthew Carmichael. The university’s aims are to make the police, specifically bicycle police, appear more approachable and part of the community, while also improving training that teaches how to handle student protest.

The second is a clarification and adjustment of the roles of students, faculty and staff in managing incidents on campus and moving the three groups to the fore while minimizing the role of police for nonvolatile incidents.

The third in the series of reforms is a complete reexamination of the UC Davis guidelines for freedom of expression, a process led by the Academic Senate. This step is ongoing, and there has been much talk of the final outcome of the discussion.

Finally, the University plans to address aftereffects from the pepper spray incident, making efforts to keep the community involved in police policy. This process has just begun and will move forward more quickly starting in October, according to Shiller.

“We’re not just doing this alone,” Shiller said. “In addition to what we’re doing, there is a UC system-wide review of campus police guidelines and practices.”

The University Office of the President  (UCOP) will coordinate and run the reform recommendations for all 10 UC police departments.

The ACLU, contacted by individuals who were pepper sprayed, now plans to work closely with UC Davis officials to ensure that the events of last November do not happen again.

“This happened because Davis simply did not have the types of policies to ensure that when there are demonstrations, the administration and police act in a certain way,” said Michael Risher, an ACLU staff attorney who attended the Sept. 26 press conference. “We want to make sure free speech is not just tolerated, but encouraged.”

The importance of the reforms is not lost on some of the plaintiffs, such as Ian Lee, a second-year environmental policy analysis and planning major, who was pepper sprayed and in attendance at the press conference.

“I think the settlement is a step in the right direction, but we need to do more,” he said. “If campus police are to exist, they must be accountable to the students.”

The settlement is still awaiting court approval.

ROHIT RAVIKUMAR can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am perplexed by this settlement. Doesn’t this $1 million dollars defeat the entire purpose of protesting the tuition increase? Why are we passing on this cost to the tax payer? At the very least, the $1 million should have been distributed to ALL students and alumni that attended school that year. What about the people who actually were studying during the protests and were disturbed by the noise not to mention the health hazard in the quad – they didn’t ask for that, and they deserve some sort of settlement as well.

    Yes, something had to be done about the tuition increases. But, this is not justice – this is a payoff and a slap in the face for reform.

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