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Pepper Spray Cop's Settlement Sets Dangerous Precedent


When a man shoots a police officer, he's automatically labeled a cop killer, and reports describe it as a man murdering another man in uniform. But when cops shoot and kill innocent, unarmed black teens, like they've done in multiple cases over the years, it's always described as an "officer-involved shooting." The cop goes on paid leave until the outrage blows over, and is given a comfy desk job to keep him away from harm. If a man walked up to a group of college students and attacked them with chemical weapons without provocation, he would rightly be arrested and jailed for aggravated assault. But when a man with a badge and uniform does it, he gets a year's salary from the state for free.

Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis police pepper-sprayed a group of sitting protesters in 2011. Amidst an autumn of federally-coordinated, violent police suppression of the Occupy movement, the incident in Davis was clearly one of the most heinous cases. A group of students had linked arms, sat down, and refused to move when the police came to evict their encampment. Lt. John Pike then casually exhibited a red can of military-grade pepper spray, nonchalantly strolled past the protesters, and doused them in orange gas, which led to the hospitalization several of the students. International outrage ensued. "Pepper Spraying Cop" became a widely-shared meme, and Pike was originally put on paid leave and eventually fired. The students sued, and a $1 million settlement was split between all 21 of them. Pike was just awarded $38,058 in disability payments, after claiming he suffered "emotional and psychological damage" from his attack on UC Davis students.

This is the most egregious and ballsy defrauding of the state in years. If Pike had wanted to avoid suffering emotional and psychological damage, all he had to do was let protesters protest, instead of attacking them without provocation with chemical weapons licensed for military use. Instead, he claimed he was "damaged" from being loathed by the entire world, and the state gave him what amounts to an average annual salary for a professional-level job. Disability is money that's normally reserved for veterans who come home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, factory workers who breathe in noxious fumes, or construction workers who throw their back out while on the job. Disability money should definitely not go to rent-a-cops who commit violent acts against peaceful protesters. Especially when that cop's overzealous act was proven to have been preventable by a task force who examined the incident.

Pike's settlement is dangerous, specifically because it sets a precedent allowing police to act egregiously, knowing they won't be held accountable and can be entitled to a hefty settlement after the fact. If Lt. Pike can get a sizable disability settlement, why can't other cops, like the ones who shot Kimani Gray, an unarmed black teenager in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, just for how he looked? After riots broke out in Flatbush and the NYPD put the neighborhood under martial law, what's to stop Gray's shooters from pleading to the state of New York for the "emotional and psychological" damages stemming from their actions?

Part of the law enforcement oath taken by police everywhere is, "I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions." Not only did Pike fail to hold himself accountable, but UC Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza betrayed her oath when she defended Pike's actions in the media in the face of widespread international outrage, alleging that the students' act of sitting and linking arms justified using violent force. Spicuzza was finally placed on administrative leave when the outrage reached its peak. This isn't just a problem with one cop, but an entire police force. And the UC Davis Police's refusal to hold themselves accountable is a problem seen in almost every major city's police department. All the investigations of police brutality are handled internally, with police investigators from that same police department absolving all officers of guilt.

A civilian review board of police actions must go hand in hand with every municipal and university police force. This will ensure that if something like Lt. Pike's unprovoked attack on students happens again, there are a group of citizens with no ties to the police who will hold these cops accountable. Pike's settlement must not become a license for all crooked, violent, mentally-unstable cops to freely persecute citizens.

This piece was originally published by Reader Supported News.

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