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Campus Police Review Board issues report on Nov. 20 demonstrations

UC Berkeley's civilian Police Review Board has issued its report on the Nov. 20, 2009, demonstration on campus that resulted in the occupation of Wheeler Hall and the arrest of nearly 50 demonstrators.

The University of California, Berkeley’s civilian Police Review Board today issued its report on the Nov. 20, 2009, demonstration on campus that resulted in the occupation of Wheeler Hall and the arrest of 46 demonstrators.

The demonstration by students, staff, faculty and members of the general public who were protesting cuts to the University of California’s budget and its response to those cuts, including raising student fees, escalated throughout the day and resulted in a number of violent confrontations between protesters and police. The Wheeler Hall occupation ended peacefully at around 8 p.m. as the occupiers were cited, escorted from the building and released.

“We believe that the report’s finding should be sobering for us all,” wrote UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, in a response to the report issued today. “This was a difficult day for the entire community and there is no cause for anyone to find reasons for pride or pleasure in this document’s contents and conclusion.”

Birgeneau and UC Berkeley Associate Vice Chancellor Ron Coley, who oversees the campus police department, asked the independent Police Review Board to investigate the events of Nov. 20 immediately after the protests. The board, which has been in existence for 20 years and is one of only a few on college campuses in the United States and the only one in the UC system, included UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff, as well as a resident of the city of Berkeley.

The report paints a picture of administrators and UC Berkeley Police Department commanders who were not fully prepared to deal with a building occupation and a large crowd of demonstrators. In addition, the report faults the administration and police department for lapses in communication before and during the demonstration. It also finds evidence of shortcomings in how the UCPD initiated and managed mutual aid support from the Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

The report also suggests that the demonstrators were, for the most part, civil and essentially leaderless, making it difficult for the administration and police to communicate with participants and respond to their demands. In addition, the report states, a “smaller, more calculating (but perhaps no less sincere) group set out to instigate confrontations with the police – to engineer challenges to their authority and to erect obstacles to their plans in order to provoke them into high-visibility over-reactions that could be used to inflame the crowd and escalate its aggressiveness.”

The resulting confrontation resulted in “miscalculations, missteps, and inaction” by police and the administration, but an experience from which the whole campus can learn, the report emphasizes.

“After studying the roles of the demonstrators, the police, and the Administration, we realized that, on November 20th, all three shared one significant and dysfunctional characteristic. In ways we detail in our narrative, each of these groups was ‘center-less’ for much of the day,” according to the report.

The review board, which was chaired by Wayne Brazil, a professor in practice at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a former magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, noted that “we have striven not to be definitive about all the details, but to identify the events, developments, and decisions that seem to have affected most the way the story unfolded – and in which we see the most promising opportunities for learning.”

Brazil praised Birgeneau and the police department for initiating a Police Review Board investigation, noting that “the chancellor decided, ‘We’re going to investigate ourselves, and we’re going to review the police department’s conduct.’ … And then they appointed someone they didn’t know at all, myself… Then they influenced me not one iota nor anyone else on the police review board. … And then, when I delivered my report, they decided to publish it. I think that needs to be appreciated as part of the context here.”

“I accept full responsibility for those shortcomings and the steps we must now take to improve our approach to managing large scale events of the type that evolved on November 20th,” wrote UC Berkeley Police Chief Mitch Celaya in a separate response to the report. “At the same time, we cannot, as a community, disregard the report’s findings regarding the role the protesters played in many of the day’s unfortunate incidents. It is my firm belief that they, too, must accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions.”

When asked by a reporter whether UCPD used excessive force, Brazil said that the facts were insufficient to conclude one way or the other.

“I think it’s important to say, after completing this, … that there would have been no violence if the students had obeyed the law,” he said. “I was asked recently, could the violence have been avoided? And the answer’s very clear. Yes. All the protestors had to do was obey the law.”

Birgeneau reaffirmed his support of Celaya and the police department, and said that he is considering providing more resources and training for officers. In addition, he said that he has put in place a “more robust crisis management structure” and has stepped up communication with the campus community. This has already paid off, he said, citing as evidence generally peaceful protests during the spring 2010 semester that ended May 14.

“(W)e have a special obligation to uphold this university’s long and honored tradition of supporting free speech and peaceful protest. We also have an equally important obligation to ensure and protect the rights and interests of all members of our community,” he wrote.

Celaya wrote that, while not agreeing with every opinion in the report, “I take to heart the board’s desire that we utilize the narrative of the day’s events as a source of learning and let the past inform all we must do in the future.”

He said that the UCPD has already implemented important changes to better respond to future protests. These include organizational changes to improve police management and control during demonstrations and increased contact with campus groups to facilitate communication during crisis events. The UCPD will also invest in new public address systems to communicate with crowds, and work with local police agencies to enhance radio interoperability.

“As we study the recommendations of the report, we will continue to engage with the campus community, and particularly our students, to ensure that we continue to learn from its observations,” Birgeneau concluded.