Is UC Davis's Pepper Spray Investigation Truly Independent?

By hiring a private company with a host of conflicting interests, the university is creating a major PR gaffe -- at best


In light of the recent ignominious episodes at University of California campuses--chiefly the pepper spray incident at UC Davis--President Mark G. Yudof is ordering an independent investigation of police protocol.

The idea, as spelled out in an announcement on Yudof's Facebook page, is "to provide [Chancellor Katehi] and the entire University of California community with an independent, unvarnished report about what happened at Davis" that can help develop guidelines for dealing with future non-violent protests.

We've all seen the infamous 8-minute YouTube video of Lt. Pike blithely pepper-spraying benign, if uncooperative, student protesters. That video leaves little doubt that the use of pepper spray was unnecessary. But it doesn't provide answers to other critical questions. What were Lt. Pike's orders from his superiors? What words did he exchange with the protesters? Does he have any justification for using pepper spray? An independent investigation to answer those questions, among others, makes sense.

But will the investigation be independent? Yudof has picked the Kroll Security Group, and its chairman Bill Bratton, for the job. Bratton has been praised for his stewardship of the New York Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department. But Kroll comes with a whole host of potential conflicts of interest, and students and faculty are already balking at the choice.

Many of those conflicts are enumerated in a recent letter to Yudof from the Council of UC Faculty Associations. The firm has already done work for the university, including contracts at UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego. The fact that Kroll already benefits from the UC's business isn't mentioned in Yudof's Facebook note (and the University of California doesn't show up on Kroll's list of academic clients either).

And then there are various patrimonial conflicts of interest from Kroll's corporate parentage. Kroll is a subsidiary of Altegrity, Inc., a large risk consulting and security conglomerate. According to the Council of UC Faculty Associations letter, Altegrity helps "financial institutions and governments seeking to head off and defeat both private sabotage and public protest." I couldn't find any direct mention of Altegrity's work on public protests, but it's safe to assume that many of the firm's corporate clients are not enthusiastic supporters of the Occupy movement.

And, in the way of things, Altegrity has a corporate owner, Providence Equity Partners, which has investments in the Education Management Corporation, the second largest for-profit college company in the United States after the University of Phoenix. Any love for affordable, high-quality public education that exists at Providence Equity Partners would certainly run counter to the firm's financial interests.

Do these associations guarantee that Kroll will produce a biased report? No. But it's not an unreasonable concern. Savvy managers are sensitive to the interests of their superiors. And even if there is only a perception of bias, well, why not play it safe, especially under the current PR circumstances, and opt for another company? Or follow the Council of UC Faculty Associations' suggestion and appoint a team of students, faculty, staff, and civil liberties groups to conduct the investigation.

After all, those students who were pepper sprayed in the face were protesting, in large part, the encroaching privatization of the university. Picking a company with Kroll's corporate entanglements to conduct the investigation is incredibly tactless at best.