UC Berkeley Press Release
An open letter from UC Berkeley’s police chief
Seeing the forest for the trees
BERKELEY – During our recent efforts to end the occupation of a tree outside Wheeler Hall, I was surprised and deeply moved by the number of students who went out of their way to express support for the university and its police force. Later that day I received an email from an undergraduate urging me to give you, Berkeley's students, a better sense of the principles behind our approach to the tree-sitters on campus and in the oak grove next to Memorial Stadium. It was a suggestion that made a lot of sense.
UCPD Chief Victoria Harrison
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First, a confession: I have been the chief of the campus police force for more than 18 years, but in all that time my officers and I have never confronted an ongoing challenge quite like this one. I thought I had seen it all; I was wrong. Yet, even though the situation is unique, the values guiding our response are firmly rooted in the longstanding traditions of our university.
The very existence of an independent university police force is predicated on the fact that this campus, our home, is a unique environment. Ensuring the safety and security of the campus community is our mission, but everyone who wears the UCPD uniform understands that policing here requires understanding, sensitivity and tolerance if this campus is to remain a hospitable host for the free exchange of ideas and opinions.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the guidelines that govern the "where," "when" and "how" of on-campus protest are there to make sure everyone's rights are protected, everywhere, all the time. They help guarantee we can accommodate interest groups regardless of their cause or the size of their support. The fact is that, over the years, thousands of organizations and individuals have found these rules of the road compatible with the desire to have their voices heard.
Unfortunately, we are now contending with a few non-students who have placed themselves above the law; people who seem to find our relatively permissive environment and traditions too restrictive. While as a police force we are neutral when it comes to causes espoused by campus protesters, we cannot condone tactics that infringe on the rights of others while seeking to change policy through a kind of extortion.
I ask you to imagine a different, but parallel scenario: a group opposed to our study and teaching of evolutionary biology occupies a laboratory and refuses to leave until we agree to their demands. Would you suggest that we change our curriculum? Would you support closing the lab? Would you want to reward the tactics?
From my perspective it's pretty clear: the tree-sitters have willfully chosen illegal occupation of university property — which is not public property — over the sort of permissible and potentially persuasive engagement that goes on every single day out on Sproul Plaza.
While there should be consequences for these actions, our response needs to be commensurate with the crime and consistent with our values. I understand that many of you are frustrated by an approach that seems overly tolerant, while others believe we should just let it all be. However, I am convinced there is a middle ground where we can and will maintain that delicate balance between tolerance and law enforcement. We do believe that some of the sitters want confrontation, but we are doing our best not to give them what they want. We also know how difficult it is to safely remove people from perches that are as much as six stories above the ground. One slip, one misstep and we run the risk of causing serious injury to an officer or a protestor.
So far, UCPD has managed to contain and, to a certain extent, cordon off the affected trees so that the protestors pose little immediate danger to members of the campus community. That, in turn, is allowing us to make life in the trees more difficult and less comfortable while minimizing the chances anyone will be hurt. Already the number of people in the stadium oak grove has dwindled to a hard-core few. They may continue to complain about conditions, but the fact remains that they are free to come down any time they want.
There have also been complaints that we are trampling on their right to free speech. Last October the campus went before an impartial judge and asked for a temporary restraining order against the tree-sitters. We wanted to be certain the protest was not, in some way, "protected speech." The protestors were represented by their own legal counsel and had ample opportunity to make their case. The results were clear; the court ruled that the tree-sitters are engaged in an illegal occupation well beyond the scope of constitutional protection. If the ruling had not gone our way we would have no choice but to abide by the judge's decision. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other side.
I also know there are concerns about the cost of our operations, and the extent to which our officers have been pulled away from other duties. First, you should know that additional expenses generated by the protest are financed from a contingency fund that supports police response to unexpected events. In other words, funds for policing the grove are not being redirected from teaching, research or student services. At the same time, I cannot pretend that managing this situation is not impacting other enforcement and safety operations. We have tried to minimize costs by utilizing an outside security firm and, whenever possible, redeploying our staff. There's no doubt that there are other law enforcement strategies that might be quicker and less expensive but, again, our response must be consistent with the principles that guide this university's police force.
At this point we are all waiting for the court's ruling on the lawsuits filed against the plans to build a new Student-Athlete High Performance Center, a decision that is now expected no later than June. Until then the trees, by court order, cannot be touched. It's also worth mentioning that if, at the end of the legal process, we are not cleared to begin construction, the university will have to live with the final ruling. Meanwhile, the tree-sitters vow to abide by only those court decisions they agree with.
When that ruling comes, everyone will have had their day in court, and it will be time to end the occupation of trees. While we still hope for a voluntary climb-down, we are not naïve and planning continues for a peaceful but certain conclusion to this protest.
While some of you may not agree with parts of our mission or some of our methods, I hope that after reading this letter you can, at the very least, appreciate the complexity of the situation. I also hope that you can appreciate the extent to which our UCPD officers have done an unbelievable job in their professional, tolerant, and sensitive response to a really challenging situation. We take seriously our sworn duty to uphold the law in a manner consistent with our culture and consistent with our primary concern for the safety of every member of our community.
Chief, UC Police Department
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