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UCLA police chief accused of security lapse before mob attack. He rejects claim

UCLA police chief accused of security lapse before mob attack. He rejects claim
UCLA police chief accused of security lapse before mob attack. He rejects claim

The UCLA police chief is facing growing scrutiny for what three sources told The Times was a string of serious security lapses before a mob attacked a pro-Palestinian student encampment this week.

But the chief, John Thomas, late Friday rejected those allegations and said he did “everything I could” to provide security and keep students safe during a week of strife that left UCLA reeling.

On the morning before Tuesday night’s attack on the encampment, Thomas assured university leadership that he could mobilize law enforcement “in minutes,” acccording to the sources. It took three hours to actually bring in enough officers to quell the violence.

Days earlier, campus leadership had directed Thomas to create a safety plan that would protect the UCLA community after the encampment was put up last week and began drawing agitators, the sources said. The chief was told to spare no expense to bring in other UC police officers, offer overtime and hire as many private security officers needed to keep the peace.

But Thomas did not provide a plan to senior UCLA leadership — even after he was again asked to provide one after skirmishes broke out between Israel supporters and pro-Palestinian advocates at dueling rallies Sunday.

The account of Thomas’ actions leading up to the attack was provided by three sources who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Internal calls are growing for the police chief to step aside as University of California President Michael V. Drake initiates an independent review of UCLA’s response, the sources said.

Thomas, in an interview with The Times late Friday night, disputed the account as “just not true.”

He said he advised leadership from the beginning not to allow an encampment, since it violated campus rules against overnight camping and he feared it could lead to problems as he assessed other protests sweeping the country.

But university leadership, he said, decided to allow the tents “as an expression of students’ 1st Amendment rights” and directed that police not be included in any security plan. Under UC’s systemwide community safety plan, police are deployed as a last resort — guidance developed after UC Davis police pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters in 2011, setting off a firestorm of controversy and an internal review that changed campus practices.

As a result, Thomas said he developed a plan that relied on private security and made sure to alert the Los Angeles Police Department of the need to respond immediately should problems arise. The private security guards, who were not authorized to make arrests, were instructed to contact UCLA police if needed.

Thomas said he provided daily briefings to campus leadership on the latest situation, the number of resources, the response protocol and assigned roles for those deployed. However, sources said he was directed to provide a written safety strategy outlining the response and preparation for various scenarios, such as a rally, skirmishes or violence — with the direction to do what was needed to keep the community safe — and he failed to deliver.

He acknowledged that he did tell leadership that it would take just minutes to deploy police forces, but he was referring to a general response — not a force large enough to handle the size of the crowds that clashed that night. But three sources confirmed he was directly asked how long it would take for outside law enforcement to quell any violence.

The campus police chief reports to Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck, who oversees the UCLA Police Department, the Office of Emergency Management and other campus operations.

Beck did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As altercations at the encampment began to increase, Thomas acknowledged that campus leadership changed direction and authorized him to supplement UCLA police and private security with increased external law enforcement, saying overtime would be paid. He could not recall exactly when that occurred, but he said he immediately contacted the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to secure their assistance.

But he said the LAPD told him there was a problem with the payment system between the city and state, so the arrangements “couldn’t be done by the time of the attack.”

On the Tuesday night of the attack, Thomas said he was home watching the Dodgers game when he was alerted to the problems by Beck. He said he immediately called the LAPD’s West L.A. station and asked the watch commander to deploy resources. Then he called UCLA’s watch commander and instructed him to call in mutual aid assistance from law enforcement with the cities of Beverly Hills, Culver City and Santa Monica and sheriff’s deputies.

Thomas said he arrived on campus shortly before midnight and found that 19 officers from UCLA, the LAPD and three of the mutual aid agencies had arrived but had not moved in to quell the violence. When he asked why, he said an LAPD lieutenant told him the force was too small. Thomas said he asked why they couldn’t go in with the forces they had, and the lieutenant told him he was directed to wait.

It took more than 90 minutes for sufficient forces to arrive and intervene. Thomas said it usually takes an hour or even two to amass “mobile field forces” large enough — 50 officers or more from all over the city — to handle situations like the melee at UCLA.

“I did everything I could to increase the police presence that we couldn’t provide because of our small department,” he said, adding that he was not ready to step aside or resign.

UCLA declined to comment about Thomas’ account.

The police chief’s remarks offered the first responses to key questions, including when officials decided to bring in help from other agencies and whether help could have arrived sooner. Outside police forces generally do not enter the campus without the university’s approval, since it functions as an independent municipal entity although it is on state land.

Chancellor Gene Block has described the attack in a statement as “a dark chapter in our campus’s history” and said the university was “carefully examining our own security processes in light of recent events.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom has also called for answers to explain “the limited and delayed campus law enforcement response at UCLA.”

The Times reported Thursday that the UCLA Police Department had asked other campuses for additional police officers five days before the attack. The reporting was based on documents the paper reviewed and information from the head of the UC police officers union. Only a few on-duty UCLA police officers were on hand to protect the encampment Tuesday night. Questions are being raised as to why he did not increase the number of UC police that night after being directed to use whatever resources were needed to keep the community safe.

The mutual aid requests made Thursday and Friday, April 25-26 — which would have provided UCLA with more officers as they dealt with the camp and a dueling area erected by pro-Israel activists — were both canceled. Thomas said he made the requests because the university was tentatively planning to take down the encampment then, but he canceled them when that plan was delayed.

The responsibility to call for mutual aid through the UC Systemwide Response Team — a group of about 80 officers across the 10 campuses — has to be made by the host university’s chief of police, according to the UC police procedures manual.

He said he did not make any additional request after that because there was no specific reason for it at the time, but he directed his watch commander to do so immediately after learning about the attack, which he said was a “spontaneous” event. Critics are asking why he did not make another request sooner than that, after specific instances of physical altercations on Sunday and Monday.

The union issued a statement this week placing the responsibility for the UC police response in the hands of “campus leadership,” saying the strategic direction was controlled by administrators. The three sources said, however, that such direction to prepare a plan, with enough officers to ensure safety, was given to Thomas multiple times.

The attack began Tuesday about 10:30 p.m., when a large group of agitators — some wearing black outfits and white masks — arrived on campus and assaulted campers, ripped down barricades, hurled objects at the encampment and those inside and threw firecrackers into the area.

Campers, some holding lumber and wearing goggles and helmets, rallied to defend the site’s perimeter. Some used pepper spray to defend themselves. Several were injured, including four Daily Bruin student journalists.

Thomas told the Daily Bruin his officers came under attack while helping an injured woman and had to leave.

Law enforcement sources said it took time for the LAPD, California Highway Patrol and other agencies to mobilize the large number of officers needed. A larger force began moving into the area after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and fully contained the situation after 3 a.m.

UCLA declared the encampment unlawful Tuesday and asked participants to leave or face possible discipline. The next day, the campus called in police, who dismantled tents and arrested more than 200 protesters in clashes early Thursday that lasted for hours. Several protesters were injured.

The UC Board of Regents held a closed-door meeting Friday to discuss the campus protests.

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