Lessons from the Reynoso report

I spent some time this weekend reading the Reynoso Task Force Report [pdf], the findings from a group of UC Davis professors, students and administrators, which assigns responsibility for the November 18 pepper spraying incident and delivers recommendations to the administration.

I highly recommend reading the report. It is extremely readable and direct, and provides unusually straightforward insights about leadership failures and dysfunctions. The task force report is about 30 pages, and additionally incorporates by reference the 150-odd-page Kroll report, which provides much more detail about facts, the timeline of events, and best practices in policing.

The Task Force, which was led by former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso, pulls no punches. “The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.” Reading the report, I felt that the failings that led to the pepper spraying fall into three categories. These problems are common, and while the results are rarely as disastrous as the casually-pepper-spraying cop, they are worth identifying and addressing before the situation goes off the rails.

First, the entire situation escalated because of poor risk assessment, driven by a disconnect between perceived risk and actual risk. In particular, campus administrators were exaggerating the risks that appear in the media: in this case, the crime and sanitation issues associated with Occupy protests in nearby Berkeley and Oakland.

UC Davis protest after the pepper spraying, taken from a helium balloon / Photo from Public Laboratory / CC BY-SA 3.0

Leading up to the police raid, administrators behaved as if they were certain that the Davis protest was filled with “non-affiliates” (protestors who weren’t students) — even though they hadn’t received any data to suggest so. The report’s Introduction even refers to a New York Times article about health and safety issues at Occupy protests on college campuses that administrators e-mailed to Police Chief Anette Spicuzza.

But their colleague Assistant Vice Chancellor Griselda Castro had actually been to the protest, and had reported that there were few if any participants that weren’t students. Section III-C describes Castro “detailing her conversations with protestors, counseling caution on the part of the Leadership Team, and advocating against the removal of the tents…. AVC Castro’s statement was met with silence.”

The risk of sensational crime against students from participating non-affiliates was then at least unknown and likely very small. When the risk is exaggerated, though, it seemed preferable to take extreme actions rather than the “almost self-evident” solutions proposed in the report’s Section I-B — solutions like posting police to provide security and monitoring to the encampment over night. Such measures would’ve given the administration an opportunity to do a real evaluation of the risks.

Second, the police actions were magnified by the background of police militarization across the country and in the UC system in particular. The past decade has seen a shift to the Miami model for police departments, even where that sort of approach is completely inappropriate. Section I-C reports that Chief Spicuzza “attempted, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her officers from using batons and pepper spray or to prevent them from wearing ‘riot gear’ during the operation.”

Why would the the UC Davis Police Department wear riot gear to enforce a camping ordinance? Why does the UCDPD even have riot gear? It can be traced right back to rampant militarization of police departments against all common sense. The report rightly recommends (in Section IV-B) that the UCDPD should review the ratio of “sworn officers (authorized to carry weapons) to other personnel.”

That aggressive arming of the police force is just compounded by the department’s incompetence. Not only is there a serious discipline problem — Section II-B is simply titled “There is a Breakdown of Leadership in the UCDPD”, for example — but the pepper spraying operation was carried out with major tactical blunders. The Kroll report explains: “The actual crowd control formations used by the UC Davis Police did not comport to contemporary policing practices,” including the use of the inverse wedge as a skirmish line. Other major components of the November 18 raid were similarly bungled, like the fact that the police made no plans for transporting prisoners.

Most troubling are the areas in which the police have actively departed from the law. Section I-E notes that there was confusion as to the legal basis for the raid in the first place, and points out that without clear knowledge of the relevant policies or laws among the administrators and police, there could be no understanding among the protesters:

Protesters have a right to be told what laws they are alleged to be breaking. When there is ambiguity as to whether or not the police action is lawful or not [sic], it is foreseeable that there will be an increased likelihood that protestors will resist police demands.

Section II-D explains that the pepper spray used by Lt. John Pike (the MK-9) was not an authorized weapon for the department, and the “the investigation found no evidence that any UCDPD officer had been trained in the use of” it.

Four years before the pepper spraying, Lt. Pike had subdued a deranged patient threatening his colleagues, opting against the use of a weapon in the close quarters of a hospital room. His quote at the time was: “You’ve got all these tools on your belt, but sometimes they’re not the best tools.” He was right then, but in fact, sometimes it’s best not to even have those tools on the belt.

In the days after the pepper spraying, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote a very interesting piece about how Pike simply represented a growing problem with police departments in America, which is also a very interesting read.

Finally, nearly every communication point was plagued with uncertainty about who had authority to issue orders and which conversations were to be interpreted as “commands” vs. “suggestions”. The most marked example of this dynamic was the selection of 3pm on a Friday as the correct time for a raid. Chief Spicuzza had concerns about the Leadership Team’s suggestion for a daytime raid, but didn’t voice them because she thought she was receiving orders. Section I-D:

The above example is illuminating in that it showcases a process where a major incident objective was determined in an ad hoc setting and where the principal decision maker, Chancellor Katehi, did not realize her statement was both viewed as an “executive order” and a “tactical decision.”

These sorts of communication breakdowns are excruciating to read about, especially given the systems that are in place to bypass them. The lesson from this point is plain: communication issues only get solved with more communication.

The Reynoso Report provides a rare candid evaluation of these points of systemic breakdown, and gives smart suggestions on how to address them in the future. I hope the UC Davis administration is willing to hear it.

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