UC Davis police forcibly detain African American alumnus for using 24-hour study room

JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE
JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE

Alum files complaint against police for excessive use of force

On Aug. 26 at 1:30 a.m., UC Davis police officers forcibly detained African American UC Davis alum Fayia Sellu from the 24-hour study room on the basis that he is no longer a student and was disturbing the peace, according to the penal code violation that Sellu was issued. Officers Guerrero and Sheffield approached Sellu based on a phone call reporting suspicion.

According to the police report for the detention, Guerrero reported to the incident “on a reported suspicious (redacted) who had entered without use of a card key.” In regards to who called the police to report the suspicion and the reason behind the redaction, UC Davis Police Chief Matthew Carmichael declined to comment because the incident is still undergoing investigation.

Sellu said that the officers approached him asking for identification. Afterwards, Sellu said he asked the officers to go outside to sort out the issue, believing that there was a mistake. Sellu, who was studying at the time the officers entered the library, said that he did not notice the officers at first because he was so absorbed in his reading. Sellu did not provide comment in regards to if he knew that he could not use the 24-hour reading room.

“I was approached by both officers in the 24-hour reading section of the Shields Library and asked for identification,” Sellu said in a statement. “I was asked to work outside and sort out my identification and I complied. On approach of the lobby, Officer Sheffield dashed for my right arm and twisted it in a motion as to get me faced down. Two other officers, waiting in the wings of the lobby, joined in and handcuffed me with no apparent tussle. I was definitely not fighting back. I was told among other things that my student ID had expired, hence terminating my access to the study lounge. I accepted that.”

Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission Chair Sean Guerra sees this incident as reflective of the numerous occurrences involving police brutality that have been gaining national media attention.

“The fact that Mr. Sellu stated he was glad he did not act in a way that escalated the situation is evidence in itself that in these situations the police entities are the actual perpetrators of violence and that the burden to not get violated, beaten or even killed is placed on the afflicted,” Guerra said via email.

Police released Sellu after issuing him a violation of California Penal Code 626.6, which states that “if a person who is not a student, officer or employee of a college or university […] is committing any act likely to interfere with the peaceful conduct of the activities of the campus or facility, or has entered the campus or facility for the purpose of committing any such act, the chief administrative officer or his or her designee may direct the person to leave the campus or facility. If that person fails to do so […] he or she is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

The issue of the penal code raises multiple questions in regards to Sellu’s situation. Sellu is a McNair scholar, a selective two-year program by UC Davis to encourage the pursuit of doctoral degrees for underrepresented minorities. As a current Ph.D candidate at UC Berkeley, Sellu falls under the definition of “student” provided in the 626 Penal Code, since he is a student of the University of California.

According to California Penal Code 626, “‘university’ means the University of California, and includes any affiliated institution thereof and any campus or facility owned, operated or controlled by the regents of the University of California.”

While the police had grounds to escort Sellu out of the 24-hour reading room since he was not a registered UC Davis student, as per Shields Library rules, they may not have had grounds to issue Sellu a 626 Penal Code violation, since Sellu is still a UC student.

A redacted police report of the incident released in the Davis Vanguard newspaper does not contain any reference to actions by Sellu that would violate the penal code, which furthers the ambiguity of the case. The police report also excludes the officers’ alleged use of excessive force. The report, which was issued on Sept. 26, was redacted after Sellu spoke out on his experience in an article in the Davis Vanguard.

For Black Student Union Vice President Eyonna Woghiren, such events touch on issues of being an African American student and feeling safe on campus.

“It’s so sad that he was just trying to study, and it’s like, you can’t even study anymore,” Woghiren said. “So where do you feel safe? He was in the library.”

Sellu’s complaint is currently under investigation by the Office of Compliance (OOC). The findings will then be referred to the Police Accountability Board (PAB), who will make a recommendation on a course of action to Carmichael, who has a choice to approve or issue his own findings, or resubmit the complaint to the OOC and the police accountability board for further review. The process, unique to UC Davis, of allowing multiple departments independent to the police department to complete the investigation reduces bias and holds the police department accountable.

“The fact that it is under investigation does not lend me the opportunity to answer specific questions because I’m not investigating it,” Carmichael said. “While I can’t speak to the events of the library, I can tell you we work diligently to serve every member of this community.”

The PAB consists of members of the academic senate, the academic federation, the health system, staff assembly, graduate students, undergraduate students and student life, in addition to seven alternates on the board.

“As the police chief, I’m waiting for the facts from the investigation […] It is my job to wait for all the facts to come in. I get presented not only with the investigation, I also get presented with a recommendation by the [PAB],” Carmichael said. “Once I have all the facts I will then make a decision […] For me to make assumptions at this time would be inappropriate, not only for members of this department but for this community.”

The PAB issues an annual report at the end of the year, which will detail complaints against the police as well as their resolution and Carmichael’s decisions. The review of police complaints takes an average of six weeks to issue.

“Our police officers embrace this program,” Carmichael said. “And thinking about safety and security on campus, there is nothing more important than keeping good relations with everyone in this community; That is a priority for me. This police department has to be seen as a resource; you have to feel safe and comfortable to come to this police for help.”

In spite of the pending outcome of the complaint review, the incident itself still signals the presence of subtle racial issues on the campus that haven’t been gaining as much media attention, according to Woghiren.

“This isn’t the first issue […] There’s so many incidents on campus that people overlook,” Woghiren said. “There are a lot of issues of race on campus that are hidden […] and a lot of people turn a blind eye to it. […] Bringing visibility to the issues is a very big thing.”

Woghiren questions why Sellu was singled out in the first place.

“Even if the police are punished for using the amount of force they decided to use, what about the suspicious call?” Woghiren said. “That is still an issue. [The caller] see[s] this male studying […] minding his own business. What incited you to call the police?”

Although Woghiren sees an improvement in the treatment of minorities at UC Davis, she believes that this incident is indicative that the university and society have a long way to go until all communities feel accepted.

“Davis is supposed to be committed to diversity and greatness as a community for everyone,” Woghiren said. “A lot of that has been in the works and we’ve been working towards it, but I definitely still think we have a long way to go before we can truly say that we’re committed to everyone’s success.”