UCLA creates high-level post to oversee campus safety after security lapses in mob attack

Counter protesters attack a pro-Palestinian encampment set up on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) as clashes erupt, in Los Angeles on May 1, 2024. Clashes broke out on May 1, 2024 around pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the University of California, Los Angeles, as universities around the United States struggle to contain similar protests on dozens of campuses. (Photo by ETIENNE LAURENT / AFP) (Photo by ETIENNE LAURENT/AFP via Getty Images)
UCLA will bring in a new chief safety officer following lapses in the handling of the attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment at the university. (Etienne Laurent / AFP via Getty Images)

UCLA has moved swiftly to create a new chief safety officer position to oversee campus security operations, including the campus Police Department, in the wake of what have been called serious lapses in handling protests that culminated in a mob attack on a pro-Palestinian student encampment last week.

Chancellor Gene Block announced Sunday that Rick Braziel, a former Sacramento police chief who has reviewed law enforcement responses in high-profile cases across the country, will serve as associate vice chancellor of a new Office of Campus Safety. He will oversee the Police Department — including Police Chief John Thomas, who is facing calls to step aside — and the Office of Emergency Management.

Braziel previously was tapped to review police actions in the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting; riots in Ferguson, Mo.; the shootout with police killer Christopher Dorner; and other cases. He will report directly to Block in a unit that will focus solely on campus safety — an arrangement that has proved effective at major universities across the country, the chancellor said. Previously, the campus police chief and the Office of Emergency Management reported to Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck.

Block also announced a new advisory group to partner with Braziel. Members include UC Davis Police Chief Joseph Farrow, the respected chair of the UC Council of Police Chiefs; Vickie Mays, UCLA professor of psychology and health policy and management; and Jody Stiger, UC systemwide director of community safety.

Read more: Pro-Israel counterprotesters attack pro-Palestinian camp at UCLA; violence continues for hours

“Protecting the safety of our community underpins everything we do at UCLA. In the past week, our campus has been shaken by events that have disturbed this sense of safety and strained trust within our community,” Block said in a message to the campus community. “One thing is already clear: to best protect our community moving forward, urgent changes are needed in how we administer safety operations.

"The well-being of our students, faculty and staff is paramount."

The move is intended to immediately address campus security shortfalls that left UCLA students and others involved in the protest encampment to fend for themselves against attackers for three hours before law enforcement moved in to quell the melee.

Read more: UCLA's top cop, accused of security lapse, faces calls to step aside. He defends his actions

Three sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, told The Times that Thomas failed to provide a repeatedly requested written security plan to campus leadership on how he planned to keep the campus safe in various scenarios, including rallies, skirmishes and violence. He failed to secure external law enforcement to assist UCLA police and private security in safeguarding the encampment area before the mob attack, despite authorization to do so with as much overtime payment as needed, the sources said.

Thomas also assured leadership that it would take just “minutes” to mobilize law enforcement to quell violence. It actually took three hours to assemble enough officers before they moved in to intervene.

Thomas, in an interview late Friday night, disputed that account as inaccurate and said he did “everything I could” to safeguard the community in a week of strife that left UCLA reeling.

A large group of counterprotesters, some dressed in black outfits with white masks, stormed the area Tuesday night through Wednesday morning and assaulted campers, tore down barricades, and hurled wood and other objects into the camp and at those inside. Campers, some holding lumber and wearing goggles and helmets, sought to defend themselves with pepper spray and by other means. Several were injured, including four Daily Bruin student journalists.

University of California President Michael V. Drake has initiated an independent review into UCLA’s response, which Block has said he welcomes. The chancellor also has launched an internal review of the campus security processes. A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom has also called for answers to explain “the limited and delayed campus law enforcement response at UCLA.”

Drake hailed the appointment of Braziel, saying he brings "a wealth of experience in community policing, emergency response operations, and institutional reviews."

"I fully support this appointment and believe that it is an important step towards restoring confidence in our public safety systems and procedures," Drake said in a statement Sunday.

The UC external investigation is expected to move quickly and focus more on lessons to be learned rather than individuals to be blamed, a UC source said.

But internal calls for Thomas to step aside are growing, the sources said. And the vice chancellor he reports to — Beck — is also being scrutinized.

Beck has not responded to requests for comment about his actions around the protests and encampment.

One UC source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, described Thomas as a “dedicated public servant” who had properly raised red flags about the encampment from the moment the first tents went up. But his warnings to take the encampment down went unheeded, the source said.

“To point a finger at the police chief is ridiculous,” the source said. “This completely falls in the lap of Michael Beck."

The UC police union issued a statement Saturday reiterating that the external review should focus squarely on the failures of administrators, not law enforcement.

“UC administrators are solely responsible for the University’s response to campus protests, and they own all the fallout from those responses,” said Wade Stern, president of the Federated University Police Officers’ Assn., which represents the 250 officers of the 10 UC police departments. “UC’s written guidelines make clear that UC administrators decide what the response to campus protests will be, who will respond, and the role of campus police is only to implement that response.”

Read more: UCLA struggles to recover after 200 arrested, pro-Palestinian camp torn down

Several top LAPD leaders not authorized to discuss the incident told The Times that Thomas had tarnished the reputation of Los Angeles law enforcement with what they called his lack of planning and poor communication with other agencies. They said they had to scramble for officers and wait until enough could be assembled to safely intervene at about 1:40 a.m.

Critics said his attempts to justify his actions to The Times, while others were focused on addressing the crisis, showed selfishness and had fueled more calls for him to step aside.

Thomas said he was not ready to step aside. He asserted that he had provided daily briefings to campus leadership with the number of resources, the response protocol and assigned roles for those deployed.

He said he was restricted in planning because of a directive from campus leadership not to use police, in keeping with UC community guidelines to first rely on communication with protesters and use law enforcement as a last resort.

When campus leadership directed him to secure outside help and spare no cost for enough officers and private security to safeguard the community, Thomas said he attempted to secure it from the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. But he said he was told by an LAPD lieutenant that problems with the payment system between the city and state prevented completion of the effort before the melee broke out.

Thomas 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 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.

“I did everything I could to increase the police presence that we couldn’t provide because of our small department,” he said.

On the night of the attack, Thomas said he was watching a Dodgers game at home and was alerted to the mob violence by Beck. Thomas said he immediately called the LAPD to ask for deployment to the campus and notified his UCLA watch commander to call for mutual aid from law enforcement with the cities of Beverly Hills, Culver City and Santa Monica, along with sheriff’s deputies.

When he arrived on scene, he said, 19 officers from UCLA, the LAPD and three of the mutual aid agencies had arrived but had not moved in to quell the violence. 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. The next day, UCLA called in police who dismantled the encampment and arrested more than 200 protesters early Thursday morning in clashes that lasted hours.

The campus will resume normal operations Monday. Faculty are being encouraged to resume in-person instruction as soon as possible but may continue remote classes through Friday without departmental authorization. Law enforcement officers are stationed throughout the campus, according to a BruinAlert sent Sunday morning.

But sources said that tension over the protests and the fraught politics have continued to bitterly divide both campus members and the outside community, making it difficult to speak freely. They said they hoped Block’s actions would represent a turning point.

“The chancellor made it clear that Bruin community safety comes first and his swift, decisive actions are really welcomed,” a source said.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.