Panel: UC Berkeley responded badly to November protest

BERKELEY — UC Berkeley police and administrators bungled their response to a November protest that ended in dozens of arrests and police beatings, an investigative panel has concluded.

In a 128-page report released publicly today, the university’s Police Review Board criticized leaders at UC Berkeley — birthplace of the Free Speech Movement — for being unprepared for civil disobedience. The lack of preparation gave the impression administrators did not care about students’ concerns on Nov. 20, which “fanned flames of anger” among protesters, the panel wrote.

The board also found that budget cuts had thinned the UC Police Department to the point where officers had little leadership as they first responded to the students’ daylong occupation of Wheeler Hall early that morning. The first officer to respond made the “unwise” decision to threaten to use pepper spray on the protesters, the panel said.

About 40 people had taken over the classroom building to protest tuition increases and budget cuts, while scores more gathered outside Wheeler. At least three people were arrested at the scene, and others were later charged with trespassing.

Officers clad in riot gear, called in hours later from Oakland and other agencies, marched into the fray after a limited briefing and little discussion about alternative approaches, the board concluded. The strategy inflamed tensions in the crowd outside Wheeler Hall, panelists said, leading to violent confrontations.

Only five UC officers were on duty the morning of the protest, the report noted, despite the department’s advance knowledge that an “escalation” was scheduled for that day. And the department had made no arrangements to bring in off-duty officers if needed, panelists discovered.

The board was led by UC Berkeley law professor Wayne Brazil, a former federal judge, and also included other professors, students, employees and Ronald Nelson, the city of Berkeley’s former police chief.

The report is “sobering,” Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Associate Vice Chancellor Ron Coley said in a written statement. “There is no cause for anyone to find reasons for pride or pleasure in this document’s contents and conclusion.”

Administrators noted, however, that the report did not assign blame to students, employees, professors and others who participated in the Nov. 20 protest. Birgeneau and Coley urged those participants to reflect on their own actions as well.

In a separate statement, UC police Chief Mitch Celaya took responsibility for his department’s mistakes during the protest, but defended his officers’ integrity.

“The fact that we, at times, fall short is most accurately ascribed to human error, not evil intent,” he wrote.

Several UC Berkeley leaders, including Birgeneau and Celaya, are scheduled to speak to reporters this afternoon.

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