Panel faults officer, protesters in pepper spraying incident at SMC
By Gary Walker
Nine months after an infamous incident that received national news coverage when Santa Monica College students were pepper sprayed before a contentious board of trustees meeting, an independent review panel has released its findings.
Dozens of students came to the April 3 board meeting to protest a proposal by college administrators to impose a two-tiered course system where students taking core classes such as English, mathematics and science would be charged as much as $180 per course in the summer and winter sessions.
A confrontation between demonstrators and SMC police occurred and the officers pepper sprayed the crowd of protestors, who were trying to enter the board room.
Approximately 30 people sought decontamination from the effects of the pepper spray.
Following the incident, college administrators called for an independent review of the clash between campus police and students.
The review panel’s report found that one officer engaged in an inappropriate use of force and called the conduct of several of the student demonstrators “unacceptable.” It cleared a number of veteran campus police officers but suggested that “additional training and protocols” were needed for the campus force.
“The report provides a series of findings and conclusions regarding pre-planning, crowd control, communications, sufficiency of personnel, behavior of protesters, the needs of the campus community to be educated on protest rights and responsibilities, and the priority use of student discipline processes to address violation of campus protest rule,” the panel wrote.
While the review indicated many members of the campus police largely acted in a professional manner at the April 3 incident, one officer did not. “The report concludes that some force threatened or used by one individual officer was inappropriate,” the panel wrote.
In addition, there are 13 recommendations for a variety of areas and college departments that are within the official documents.
SMC President Chui L. Tsang accepted the results of the investigation.
“Santa Monica College is an outstanding learning institution, open, diverse, and supportive of the free exchange of ideas,” he said. “I am heartened by the thorough examination and detailed recommendations provided by the review panel regarding the April 3, 2012, protest events. I thank them for their work and guidance.
“I have accepted all facts, findings, and conclusions in the review panel report.”
The president said the findings would become a part of the college’s guidelines in the near future.
“In response, I am directing the affected departments to implement all recommendations as provided for in the report, by means of study, planning, and action, and to report their progress to me in 60 days,” he said.
Shortly after the incident, Tsang depicted the protesters as the aggressors.
“When some of these demonstrators used force to enter the board room proper, and had overrun the door and the personnel stationed at the door, there was one discharge of pepper spray used by an SMC police officer to preserve public and personal safety,” Tsang said after the pepper-spraying episode. “Unfortunately, a number of bystanders, including college staff, students and other police personnel were affected.
“Although a number of participants at the meeting engaged in unlawful conduct, Santa Monica College police personnel exercised restraint and made no arrests. Unlawful conduct included setting off fire alarms and attempting to disrupt the board of trustees meeting.”
SMC was thrust onto the national stage last year when, in an effort to confront the statewide budget cuts to education over the last several years, the SMC Board of Trustees considered creating a series of self-funded courses during the summer and winter sessions, which student groups denounced as a ploy to create a system of contract education.
“It’s a dangerous slippery slope, and as a precautionary, principled person, and as someone who is concerned with equity in our society, we don’t go down that road,” SMC Associated Students President Harrison Wills told The Argonaut. “We fund our schools, and this is the wrong solution.
“It’s a reactionary solution and a short-term one and it doesn’t look at long-term solutions.”
The trustees voted unanimously April 6 not to proceed with the two-tier system.
Wills questioned the location of the meeting, citing its limited seating capacity, but the review panel found that it was not a factor in the student-campus police confrontation. They also said while the college encourages free speech, board meetings “are not political rallies or sporting events where loud, boisterous expression of opinion is expected, inevitable and actively invited.”
The panel cited board policy 1570, which they say makes it clear that participants at trustee meetings are required to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.
Dr. Nancy Greenstein, a member of the panel and the chair of the SMC District Board of Trustees, said one of the goals of the review was to separate what was done properly during the incident as well as what exacerbated the confrontation.
“What we tried to do was acknowledge the good and what was problematic,” she explained.
Paul Wertheimer, who owns Wertheimer & Associates, a Los Angeles-based international crowd safety consulting service, noticed one thing that was missing from the panel’s investigation.
“There was no mention of the administration’s role in this, and they had a role in it,” asserted Wertheimer, a qualified crowd expert in the United States and England.
The investigation also faults the SMC Student Affairs Division for not assisting in the students’ decision to demonstrate at the board meeting and the campus police for its operations plan, which the panel members called “inadequate.”
The crowd control procedures employed by the campus police can use some updating, and that is what the review sought to point out, said Greenstein.
“These are skills that can always be refreshed,” she said. “We’re reminding (the campus police) that their training has to be updated.”
The panel relied on extensive video, interviews, as well as surveys and published reports to conduct its probe.
Wertheimer, who studied the panel’s findings, called the review “a good overall report” and agreed that the SMC police planning could likely use updating. But he was distressed by what he thinks is a lack of accountability by the school’s administration.
“They could have helped to deescalate the situation with the students by having someone speak to them before this happened,” he reiterated.
The Santa Monica Police Department recently assigned a sergeant to attend all Associated Student meetings.
The pepper spraying controversy at the college came six months after students at the University of California-Davis were also the victims of the non-lethal but painful gas during a peaceful protest. On Nov. 11, 2011, university police sprayed a group of peaceful student demonstrators, many of whom were part of the Occupy movement. The demonstration was specifically organized to protest the escalating tuition fees at the UC system throughout the state.
The campus police pepper sprayed students directly in the face. A subsequent investigation cited the UC-Davis officers with using excessive force on the protestors.
Tsang said he feels the panel’s observations will ultimately improve relations between all members of the Santa Monica College family.
“I concur with the review panel’s observation that this incident is incompatible with our shared value,” he said. “By adopting these recommendations, Santa Monica College will strengthen its commitment to values of mutual respect and collegial communication.”
Calls to the Associated Students were not returned at press time.
The report can be found at