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Law enforcement leadership structure at UCLA faces scrutiny in wake of encampment

Police officers near Janss Steps on May 2 are pictured. Municipal leaders, policing experts and documents acquired by the Daily Bruin outlined and discussed the law enforcement leadership structure on campus. (Joseph Crosby/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Sharla Steinman

May 30, 2024 8:49 p.m.

This post was updated June 2 at 9:27 p.m.

For the Daily Bruin’s full coverage on the UC Divest Coalition and Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA encampment, see here.

Municipal leaders, policing experts and documents acquired by the Daily Bruin outlined and discussed the law enforcement leadership structure on campus.

On the night of April 30, aggressors attacked the Palestine solidarity encampment with fireworks and tear gas, with no arrests being made that evening. On May 2, over 200 individuals were then arrested during a police sweep of the encampment.

During the counter-protester attacks on the Palestine solidarity encampment at UCLA, police didn’t respond to violence for hours. Activity began around 10 p.m., and Vice Chancellor of Strategic Communications Mary Osako said the University called law enforcement for immediate support in an emailed statement sent May 1 at 12:40 a.m. to the Daily Bruin.

Former UCPD Chief John Thomas told the Daily Bruin that UCPD only had five or six officers on duty April 30 and May 1 and that the department called several different agencies for assistance. However, documents acquired by the Daily Bruin outlined that agencies were not required to respond to requests for assistance, only having to do so if they had sufficient spare resources.

According to emails between UC police departments obtained by the Daily Bruin, UCLA requested additional aid from the police departments of various UC campuses, but UCPD Lieutenant Issac Koh then canceled the request at 11:25 a.m. April 26.

“We are CANCELING our SRT call out /MUTUAL AID at this time. The campus is not ready to move to a police operation as of yet, and we don’t foresee any action happening that will require us at least this coming weekend,” Koh said in the email. “We may be talking to you in the coming weeks regarding mutual aid if our campus administration moves to clearing this out.”

The ranking officer of UCPD, the requesting agency – Thomas throughout the first encampment – had control and responsibility of CHP officers, according to the documents. However, traffic control and Special Response Team services performed by CHP remain responsible to CHP, according to the agreement.

On May 21, Thomas was “temporarily reassigned,” and UCLA named Gawin Gibson – who has worked in UCPD for over 28 years – as acting chief of the department. Vincent Doehr, a media liaison for Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, said he believes Thomas’ reassignment is insufficient in creating accountability for the university’s policing response.

“We don’t think that his reassignment or even removal from office is enough to meet our demands,” he said. “It’s clear to us already that the university doesn’t care about student safety, regardless of who’s in charge of UCPD.”

Jeff Wenninger, a retired LAPD lieutenant, said he was intrigued by how long the police took to respond to the attack on the encampment, especially after seeing security incidents occur at other universities across the country.

Wenninger also said under his policing experience, the department should have been able to quickly mobilize a force of 60 officers once it was requested, adding that tactical alert protocols from the department should prepare it to address incidents.

“It doesn’t matter what day of the year it is,” he said. “If you request a mobile field force with the LAPD, within 45 minutes they will be able to comprise a mobile field force and have it at your staging area.”

At 3 a.m. May 1, hours after the attacks had started, the Daily Bruin witnessed around 70 police officers on scene.

[Related: How law enforcement mishandled encampment sweep at UCLA, according to experts]

Wenninger, who served on a critical management team to oversee demonstration policing across the city, said that crowd policing typically involves consideration of protecting First Amendment rights while taking into account action for potentially criminal situations.

“He (Thomas) really short stroked and didn’t have a strong understanding of what potentially could occur and what resources it would require to appropriately mitigate the issues that may come up,” Wenninger said. “Law enforcement isn’t about responding when it goes sideways. You need them there on the front end.”

District 5 Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky presented a motion to the Los Angeles City Council that asks for LAPD to provide an After Action Report on how decisions were made in regard to the size, timing and methodology of LAPD’s deployment at campus protests at the University of Southern California and UCLA between April 24 and May 6.

“At UCLA, a campus that is under the state’s jurisdiction, a group of counter-protestors attacked the protest encampment, leading to several hours of violence during which law enforcement did not intervene and which resulted in no arrests,” the May 7 motion stated.

The motion has yet to be discussed by the LA City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Yaroslavsky denied requests for comment.

Thomas did not respond to requests for comment on the extent of his fault amid community backlash to the law enforcement response April 30 and May 1. UCLA Media Relations also did not respond to requests for interviews with university administrators about the handling of the encampment.

Wenninger also said he did not believe Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck should have been responsible for the policing response to the protest.

On May 5, Chancellor Gene Block announced a new Office of Campus Safety – spearheaded by inaugural Associate Vice Chancellor Rick Braziel – which manages UCPD and the Office of Emergency Management. The change moved oversight of UCPD away from Beck, who had previously overseen Pasadena’s police department during high-profile police shootings.

Protesters have also recently focused their demands on policing on campus.

One of the five demands set by SJP at UCLA is to “End the targeted repression and policing of pro-Palestinian advocacy on campus, and sever all ties with the LAPD.”

Lilah, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace – a member organization of the UC Divest Coalition at UCLA – who did not give their last name, said they believe police forces suppressed pro-Palestine advocacy on campus.

United Auto Workers Local 4811 – a union representing academic students, employees, graduate students, and academic and postdoctoral researchers – began a strike on campus Tuesday in reaction to the treatment of their members by police at the alleged direction of the University, according to a May 15 press release.

According to a memorandum of understanding between UCPD and LAPD, the agreement that encampment participants want to see dissolved can be terminated by either party through written notice to the respective party’s chief of police.

UCPD holds the sole responsibility for the investigation of crimes that occur on university property and crimes within one mile of campus where the victim is affiliated with UCLA. On May 23, UCPD made its first arrest in relation to the attacks on April 30, which resulted in Edan On’s felony assault with a deadly weapon charge.

Wenninger said he believed that the encampment sweep was handled well in terms of policing organization, adding that he believed CHP successfully controlled crowds. However, he said he did not believe the university did enough to prepare for the protests.

“The planning – to me, when I looked at it – it didn’t exist,” Wenninger said.

Contributing reports from Shaanth Kodialam and Dylan Winward, Daily Bruin staff.

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Sharla Steinman | City and Crime Editor
Steinman is the 2023-2024 city and crime editor. She was previously a city and crime contributor. She is also a fourth-year political science student.
Steinman is the 2023-2024 city and crime editor. She was previously a city and crime contributor. She is also a fourth-year political science student.
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