The Pepper-Spraying Cop: A Scandalous Footnote

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The internal affairs process that looked at Lt. John Pike's decision to douse student protesters found he acted reasonably.



In previous items on Lt. John Pike, the UC Davis policeman who pepper-sprayed nonviolent student protesters on a campus quad, I noted that independent investigations found him among those culpable for the videotaped incident, that the UC Davis students he sprayed weren't breaking the law, and that Pike wasn't authorized to carry the pepper-spray dispersal device he employed. Nevertheless, I noted, he remained on paid leave months later, largely due to the broken process used to adjudicate cases of public employee misconduct in California. One problem is its opaqueness. Disciplinary hearings for state police officers are conducted in secret, and at the end of the process institutions like UC Davis don't even reveal what happened. The only official answer they give is whether the officer in question is still employed.

Last week, when news broke that Lt. Pike was no longer employed, I celebrated the fact that he'll no longer have any opportunity to mistreat students, but lamented that what should have been a straightforward termination took 8 months to adjudicate through the process we've set up. By my calculations, Pike received more than $70,000 in salary between the pepper spray incident and the day when he ceased being employed by UC Davis, though he did no work in that time.

Gratified as I was that the adjudication process had apparently reached the right outcome, I nevertheless thought that it took an absurd amount of time, money, and outside pressure to get there.

As it turns out, however, there is a scandalous footnote to this story.

Someone leaked a copy of the internal affairs investigation into Lt. Pike's actions to The Sacramento Bee:

The internal affairs investigation into last November's pepper-spraying controversy at UC Davis concluded that Lt. John Pike acted reasonably, with a subsequent review concluding he should have faced demotion or a suspension at worst, according to documents obtained by The Bee. Despite those recommendations, Pike was fired Tuesday after UC Davis Police Chief Matthew Carmichael rejected the findings and wrote in a letter to Pike that "the needs of the department do not justify your continued employment," according to the documents.

Think about what that means.

Lt. Pike was caught on video pepper-spraying seated, non-violent protesters in the face, using a device he was not authorized to carry and that he held closer to their bodies than is recommended. Those viewing his actions on the Internet regarded them as needless and abusive in sufficient numbers that he became a figure of national attention. Two independent reports commissioned by UC Davis concluded that he had acted unacceptably that day in numerous ways.

But the internal affairs process used to discipline police officers concluded that he acted reasonably. It is only because new Police Chief Matthew Carmichael overruled its findings, possibly opening UC Davis up to a wrongful termination suit, that Lt. Pike was reportedly terminated. So I ask again. Can there be any doubt that this system prioritizes the job security of campus police officers above the safety and well being of students? Yet there is no move among the Democrats who run the California legislature to reform this state of affairs, because they are allied with the state's public employee unions, who understandably prefer the status quo.

I have e-mailed and called Sam Stanton, the Sacramento Bee reporter responsible for this great scoop, to request that he post the whole 76 page internal affairs document online, but haven't heard back. It would certainly be in the public interest to see a more detailed account of its reasoning.

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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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