Pepper-Spraying Cop John Pike Is Still Employed at UC Davis

Why is Lt. John Pike still on paid administrative leave eight months later? Excessive job protections negotiated by a public-employees union.
 

How many days does it take to fire a misbehaving campus police officer who needlessly endangered the safety of students by accosting them with a pepper-spray device that he wasn't even authorized to carry? It's been eight months since Lt. John Pike's behavior was captured on video. In its aftermath, university administrators commissioned two independent investigations.

In April, five months after the incident, I wrote about their findings, which were devastating to Lt. Pike:
Along with excoriating UC Davis' leadership and its campus police chief, the Reynoso and Kroll reports conclude that Lt. Pike, whose actions caused the whole controversy to go viral, acted indefensibly. There's his most egregious act, captured in this straightforward assessment: "Lt. Pike Bears Primary Responsibility for the Objectively Unreasonable Decision to Use Pepper Spray on the Students Sitting in a Line and for the Manner in Which the Pepper Spray Was Used." That is, however, just one aspect of his culpability. Lt. Pike reportedly disobeyed a direct order to deploy that day without riot gear. He carried with him a pepper spray disbursement mechanism bigger and more powerful than what UC Davis police are authorized to carry and use.
Apparently untrained in using that disbursement device, he shot pepper spray at a distance far closer than is recommended in its instructions for safe use. While claiming that he was afraid for his safety due to being encircled by students, Lt. Pike failed to perceive the openings in the circle confirmed by video evidence, and apparently did not know that one of his fellow officers was traversing the circle, prisoners in tow, without a problem. In planning and executing the raid, Lt. Pike made other errors that investigators judged partly responsible for the needless escalation. And one graduate student present that day insists Lt. Pike said that no one would be pepper sprayed by police unless they turned violent, information passed to the whole group via the human mic system. Finally, Lt. Pike reportedly failed to follow standard debriefing protocol.
As I went on to write at the time, police officers in California cannot be fired based merely on clear video evidence of wrongdoing or being found culpable by a months long independent investigation. In fact, the folks with the authority to fire are not even allowed to factor in the independent report. Lt. Pike's fate will instead be determined by an internal affairs investigation. Its methods and findings are confidential -- the public never gets to comment on or even read them.

The only thing we're permitted to know is if Lt. Pike is still employed by the UC system.

Late Monday, I called UC Davis to follow up on the case. To my chagrin, though not to my surprise, Lt. Pike remains on paid leave. The internal affairs process is "a lot more inexorable than anyone realized at the time," a university spokesman told me. "I don't know when that's going to get resolved."

Think about that for a minute. This incident happened eight months ago! In five months' time, two independent bodies managed to complete an exhaustive investigation into every aspect of the incident. Yet even after an additional three months, the internal affairs process -- the investigation, the hearings, and perhaps the appeals -- is still not completed for one single individual, whose actions are on videotape.

Nor is there any word about when they'll be complete.

As I wrote back in April, can there be any doubt that this system prioritizes the job security of campus police officers above the safety and well being of students, or the need to hold abusive officers accountable? Lt. Pike is still collecting a paycheck after committing the most public of indefensible acts. Imagine the effect of these same job protections on officers whose misdeeds are not captured on videotape or subject to ongoing interest from the press and a once outraged public.

Unfortunately, the chances of Democratic policymakers in California reducing the job protections of public employees are slim to none. Any cop thinking about whether to pepper spray college students in the future can safely conclude that, at worst, they'll be put on paid leave for many months on end. It remains to be seen whether Pike's little vacation ends in termination or reinstatement. And that's in the most well-documented, high-profile case imaginable.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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