Protesters occupying Wheeler Hall.

UC Berkeley police and university officials did a poor job of managing the November 20, 2009 occupation of Wheeler Hall, according to a 128-page report released today by an independent investigative panel.

Even though administrators and police were aware that there would be protests, they did little to prepare, according to the report. There were only five police officers on duty and many key administrators were away or on furlough, leading to a lack of communication that contributed to numerous police-protester clashes.

In addition, the officers on duty did not follow establish procedures and devised an ad hoc response to the protesters. One officer threatened to use pepper spray, which infuriated those inside Wheeler Hall.

“November 20 was a wake-up call,” university spokesman Dan Mogulof said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

A group of about 40 students occupied Wheeler Hall in the early morning hours of November 20, part of a string of campus demonstrations that week to protest the Board of Regents planned 32% fee hike. University police discovered the break-in around 6 am, but it was about 14 hours before police forcibly removed the protesters. The police department had not put more officers on duty because it needed them for other large protests scheduled for later that day. Consequently,  a number of hours passed when there was an insufficient police presence around Wheeler Hall, according to the report.

As the day progressed, more and more people gathered outside Wheeler to offer their support to those inside. After a number of hours, in which it rained heavily, UC police asked for assistance from neighboring towns. Oakland, Berkeley, and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department responded.

The call for mutual assistance proved disastrous, according to the report. The outside police agencies were not sufficiently briefed, and walked into a tense situation wearing riot gear. In addition, there was no way for the officers from other locales to communicate with UC police. In the late afternoon, there were numerous confrontations as police tried to place new barricades down.

Part of the problem was that university police and police from other departments have differing attitudes, UC Berkeley Police Chief Mitch Celaya acknowledged after the press conference. UC police saw the protesters as students and part of the community, while other officers saw them more as lawbreakers.

“The last thing we want to do, quite frankly, is arrest our students,” said Celaya.

The report also criticized the university police for focusing mostly on the protestors inside Wheeler Hall and not the large crowd outside the hall. Police made little attempt to communicate with them, making the outside crowd feel disrespected, according to the report.

The report singled out the bad communication on November 20 as a major reason there were violent confrontations.

The report also blamed the administration for its passivity. The university police had assured campus officials that they had matters under control. Instead of probing to be certain of this assertion, administrators accepted the police’s explanations at face value.

In addition, university officials seemed obsessed that “labor agitators,” i.e. its own unions, were behind the protests instead of recognizing that students were leading the action, said the report. This led the university to be more aggressive in dealing with those occupying Wheeler Hall than they needed to be.

The report calls for university police to undergo regular training to learn to be more polite to protesting students. Chief Celaya rejected that recommendation at the press conference, saying his officers already go through cultural sensitivity training.

“When people are yelling in your face, sometimes it’s hard to smile and say ‘please will you do this,’” said Celaya.

The report also calls for the university to create a better crisis management response team. Mogulof said that is already in place. He cited the peaceful nature of the campus protests in March and the hunger strike in May as evidence that the university is already handling protests better.

Chancellor Robert Birgenau called the report “sobering.”

“This was a difficult day for the entire community and there is no cause for anyone to find reasons for pride or pleasure in this document’s contents and conclusion,” Birgenau said in a prepared statement. “It portrays a situation of some confusion on the part of all parties: protesters, administration, and police and criticizes the administration and the police for not having foreseen and planned better, and for errors of implementation and failures of effective communication.”

The Police Review Board investigating the incident was led by UC Berkeley law professor Wayne Brazil, a former federal judge, Ronald Nelson, the city of Berkeley’s former police chief, and other professors, students, employees and staff.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...