Santa Monica Lookout
Officer, Protesters Behaved Inappropriately in Santa Monica College Pepper Spray Incident, Panel Says
By Jason Islas
January 22, 2013 -- Both Santa Monica College police officers and students share the blame for a pepper-spraying incident that made national headlines last year, according to a report released by college officials Friday.
The report found that when an officer sprayed a crowd of students outside a SMC Board of Trustees meeting April 3, some students were engaged in "unacceptable behavior," while at least one police officer was using "inappropriate" force.
The protest took place outside a board meeting to discuss a controversial “two-tier” tuition plan which would offer some high-demand classes during winter and summer sessions at a higher cost.
Due to State budget cuts, College officials said that if classes were offered at the usual subsidized rate, they would have to be canceled.
The independent panel, headed by former City Attorney Robert Meyers, calls for the campus community to be better educated on “protest rights and responsibilities.”
The report also found that the Santa Monica College Police Department (SMCPD) did not adequately prepare for the crowd and did not take enough measures to prevent confrontation.
The confrontation began after officers told students that there wouldn't be enough space in the boardroom for everyone gathered outside and that an overflow room had been set up where they could watch the meeting live on television.
According to the report, some students gathered outside the boardroom began to trying force themselves past the officers.
“Pushing and grabbing the persons of police is illegal,” the report said. “Using force to gain entry to a public meeting is illegal.
“Protesters were also guilty of several other minor violations, such as the use of amplified sound in public building and blocking passageways,” according to the report.
When officers opened the door to the board room to allow students who had requested to speak into the room, the crowd surged forward.
“All four Officers were in direct physical contact with students,” the report said. “Some students appeared intent on forcing their way past Officers; others were being pushed into the Officers from behind by the crowd.
“Several officers had objects ripped off of their duty belts or removed from their person during this scuffle, and all but one sustained minor injuries,” the report said.
Still, the report says that the officers could have done more to control the crowd before it entered the Business building -- where the boardroom is located -- and that more police officers should have been assigned to help with the crowd.
The report also says that Sergeant Joel Williams, the officer who used the pepper spray, did not give adequate warning to the crowd nor did he consult the other officers before he used his pepper spray.
The panel also found that the pepper spray used by Williams was his own and not issued by the SMCPD.
“Sergeant Williams was the wrong person to make this decision. He was not the Incident Commander. His decision was not communicated to other personnel in the vicinity,” the report said.
The report also cites several other examples of Williams using “inappropriate force.” Williams resigned his position with SMCPD in October last year.
The panel also concluded that the incident shows that the campus community needs to be made aware of the limits of free-speech rights.
“Students were either unaware of the limits of their rights or intentionally committing violations of state law and campus policies,” the report said. “If one credits their apparently genuine expressions of shock and indignation that the police responded to their actions with force, it appears that the former is the case.”
The report is about “what's best for the college going forward,” said Don Girard, SMC's senior director of Institutional Communications.
The College was also able to offer winter sessions this year without going forward with the controversial “two-tier” system due to a favorable election outcome and positive economic forecast for the State, Girard said.
In November, California voters approved Proposition 30, a tax initiative that is anticipated to raise between $7 and $9 billion to prevent budget cuts to schools across the state.
Proposition 30 would give the State's cash-strapped Community College system some breathing room, Girard said
SMC's Associated Students donated $200,000 toward the approximately $1.5 million required to keep SMC's winter session going.
For a complete copy of the report, visit http://www2.smc.edu/review_panel_report/
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