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UC Berkeley Investigating Police Tactics

Students claim officers used excessive force at Occupy Cal protest

As the University of California, Berkeley prepared for another Occupy Cal protest on Tuesday, the school's chancellor on Monday ordered two separate investigations into tactics used by university police during a demonstration last week.

Also on Monday, the U.C. Board of Regents cancelled its meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco, citing the threat of "significant vandalism and violence" by "rogue elements" during Occupy Cal demonstrations planned for those meetings, according to a statement from Regent Chairwoman Sherry Lansing. The last time the regents postponed a meeting was in spring 2009 owing to concerns about swine flu.

The cancellations and the investigations reflect the challenges facing the university as it tries to deal with the Occupy movement, which was not a strong presence on the Berkeley campus until last Wednesday, when more than a thousand students protested against tuition hikes and cuts in higher education. Prior to the protest, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau warned demonstrators that police would remove any tents they tried to set up and would view their attempts to link arms as "not nonviolent." A day after the demonstration, university police faced allegations of brutality, after videos surfaced showing officers dragging and hitting protesters with batons.

As reported by The Bay Citizen on Friday, one video shows university police dragging two protesters, including a university professor, by their hair and thrusting them to the ground. Other videos show university police jabbing and thrashing protesters with batons.

Birgeneau said it was not until Sunday, when he returned from a weeklong university-related trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai, that he was able to view the videos. On Monday, he ordered the investigations into police tactics.

“These videos are very disturbing,” Birgeneau wrote in a letter to faculty and students posted on Berkeley’s website Monday afternoon. “The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community. Sadly, they point to the dilemma that we face in trying to prevent encampments and thereby mitigate long-term risks to the health and safety of our entire community. Most certainly, we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community.”

Birgeneau also pledged not to discipline students who were arrested during last Wednesday's protest. On Monday afternoon, a coalition of civil rights groups known as BAMN, By Any Means Necessary, announced it was filing a lawsuit against the university on behalf of some demonstrators who say they were beaten by police.

Birgeneau’s letter comes as the faculty calls for the administration to be held accountable for officers’ tactics. As of 3 p.m. on Monday, more than 1,700 faculty and students had signed a petition calling for an independent investigation into police practices and expressing “no confidence” in the leadership of Birgeneau and the regents.

The petition, posted Friday afternoon on ipetition.com, was authored by three faculty members who are upset about the tactics U.C. police used last Wednesday.

“We have lost confidence in the willingness of the chancellor’s office to respond to understandably complex protests with means other than police force,” said Gregory Levine, an associate professor of Japanese art at Berkeley.

Levine said the petition would be presented to the chancellor and regents by the end of the week. At its next meeting on Nov. 28, Berkeley’s Academic Senate will likely vote on a no-confidence measure against the chancellor and other administrators who oversee the UC Police Department.

Levine said a review of police tactics are imperative in light of an investigation last year that criticized university officials for their handling of a protest in 2009 in which some 40 students barricaded themselves in Wheeler Hall to protest tuition increases. The report by Berkeley’s Police Review Board called for better training for university police and enhancements to the university’s crisis management response team. The report also noted that key administrators were away during the 2009 demonstrations.

Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for Berkeley, said it is unclear to what extent police followed last year’s recommendations last week. This question will be examined as part of the separate investigations into last week’s protests, one led by a Jesse Choper, chair of Berkeley’s Police Review Board and former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, the other by a law enforcement administrator at another UC campus at the behest of Mitch Celaya, U.C. Berkeley’s police chief. It is not clear when the reviews will be completed.

“It would be inaccurate to say that not a single recommendation was followed,” Mogulof said of last year’s Police Review Board. “We need to know what happened, why it happened and what we need to do to prevent a reoccurrence.”

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