By Terrence Chea
SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California has agreed to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by demonstrators who were pepper-sprayed during an Occupy protest at UC Davis last fall, according to a preliminary settlement filed Wednesday.
The Nov. 18, 2011, incident prompted national outrage, angry campus protests and calls for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi after online videos shot by witnesses went viral.
Images of a police officer casually spraying orange pepper-spray in the faces of nonviolent protesters became a rallying symbol for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The demonstrators had been protesting steep tuition hikes and police brutality.
Under the proposed settlement, UC would pay $30,000 to each of 21 plaintiffs named in the complaint and an additional $250,000 for their attorneys to split.
Katehi, who has publicly apologized for the incident, would be required to issue a formal written apology to each of the plaintiffs, who are current students or recent alumni.
If the $1 million settlement is approved, total costs associated with the incident could exceed $2 million, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper. Those expenses come as UC faces the prospect of deep budget cuts if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative fails in November.
UC and plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed the preliminary settlement in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. The agreement, which was approved by the UC Board of Regents in mid-September, is subject to the approval of a federal judge, and parties have the right to appeal.
The settlement also calls for UC to set aside $100,000 to pay other individuals who can prove they were arrested or pepper-sprayed. The university would give the ACLU up to $20,000 for its work reviewing free speech and protest policies at UC Davis.
“It was felt that the proposed settlement was in the best interest of the university,” said UC spokesman Steve Montiel.
UC officials believe the cost of going to trial would be more expensive than the cost of settling the lawsuit, Montiel said.
Plaintiff Fatima Sbeih, who recently graduated with an international studies degree, said she suffered panic attacks and nightmares after she was pepper-sprayed on the UC Davis Quad.
“I want to make sure that nothing like this happens again,” Sbeih said in a statement. “The university still needs to work to rebuild students’ trust and this settlement is a step in the right direction.”
A task force report released in April blamed the incident on poor communication and planning throughout the campus chain of command, from the chancellor to the pepper-spraying officers, and concluded the situation could have been prevented.
“The settlement should be a wake-up call for other universities and police departments,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that you should be able to demonstrate without being afraid of police violence.”
Last week, Yolo County prosecutors said the UC Davis officers who fired the pepper-spray won’t face criminal charges because there is not enough evidence to prove the use of force was illegal.
John Pike, the campus police lieutenant shown in the notorious videos, was fired in July. Annette Spicuzza, who oversaw the campus police department during the pepper-spray incident, resigned in April.
Documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request indicate UC has already spent more than $1 million on expenses associated with the incident, including: $320,000 for a law firm for work on a UC review of how campuses should respond to protests, $88,686 for salaries and other fees to UC Berkeley officials who worked on that review, $119,714 for a firm to provide “real time crisis management support for UC Davis,” $445,879 for a consulting firm that investigated the incident for an independent task force and $230,256 for an internal affairs investigation into the actions of one of the pepper-spraying officers.