UCLA police chief reassigned after security failures over pro-Palestinian protests

LOS ANGELES, CA MAY 6, 2024 - UC Police stand outside Dodd Hall as more protests emerged at UCLA on Monday, May 6, 2024, with police arresting multiple people who gathered in a campus parking garage. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
UC police stand outside Dodd Hall as more protests emerged at UCLA this month. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
5:06 p.m. May 22, 2024: An earlier version of this article said Thomas previously served in the Washington, D.C., Police Department. He served as the deputy chief of police and emergency management at the University of the District of Columbia.

UCLA Police Chief John Thomas has been removed from his post and reassigned, officials said, weeks after he faced sharp criticism for security failures that led to violence at a pro-Palestinian encampment.

Rick Braziel, associate vice chancellor who heads the newly created Office of Campus Safety, informed Thomas this week that he would be reassigned while internal and external investigations examine 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.

UCLA Police Captain Gawin Gibson was named interim police chief as of Tuesday, according to Mary Osako, vice chancellor for strategic communications.

She added that UCLA's Office of Campus Safety "is leading a thorough examination of our security processes aimed at enhancing the well-being and safety of our community.”

Thomas did not return texts and calls for comment.

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

"Given Chief Thomas' mishandling of keeping our community safe and ear-splitting calls for him to step aside, this had to happen," said one source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Thomas had lost confidence within UCLA and among some outside law enforcement officials, who have criticized what they said was the police chief's lack of proper planning, coordination and communication in creating a campus safety plan and securing enough officers to carry it out should violence occur at the encampment. Both the police chief and Michael Beck, the administrative vice chancellor who oversaw the police department and Office of Emergency Management at the time, have faced calls for their resignation. Braziel has taken over both of those units as chief safety officer.

After pro-Palestinian supporters put up an encampment in a grassy quad at UCLA, campus leadership asked Thomas to create a written, detailed safety plan laying out actions for various scenarios — from rallies to skirmishes to full-blown violence — but he failed to provide one, three sources told The Times. The police chief was told to use whatever overtime pay was needed to secure help from external law enforcement. But Thomas said a paperwork logjam between the city and state prevented him from completing any contracts before the encampment was attacked on the night of April 30.

Thomas, in an earlier interview with The Times, defended his actions and said he did the best he could.

Read more: UCLA Academic Senate rejects censure and 'no confidence' vote on Chancellor Gene Block

The police chief said he was at home watching a Dodgers game when Beck called him with the news that counterprotesters were attacking the encampment. Thomas told The Times 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. By that time, most of the counterprotesters had fled — no arrests have yet been made — and several students and other encampment participants had been injured, including student reporters with the campus Daily Bruin.

Several top LAPD leaders 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.

But one UC source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Thomas and other officers should have moved in to stop the violence with the forces they had. In the case of active shooter situations, the source said, police used to wait for a larger force with sharpshooting expertise to assemble, but now move in more quickly to save those in danger. A similar protocol should have been used to quell the mob attack.

"Whoever gets there first has to go in," the UC source said. "If you're waiting while people are getting hit in the head, there is something wrong with the system. This was not a simple protest. It was a riot."

The reassignment of Thomas, the UC source said, should pave the way for UCLA to bring in a top-notch leader to get the campus safety and security house in order as it prepares to help host the 2028 Summer Olympics, which will bring athletes from all over the world to eat, sleep and train at the Westwood campus.

"If you can't handle one protest, how are you going to handle the world's largest sporting event?" the source said.

A police union representing officers at UC campuses said Wednesday that the blame for breakdown in police response at UCLA rested on university leadership, not Thomas.

"The UCLA administration owns the failure of any protest response, and the public should reject their attempts to shift blame to law enforcement," said Wade Stern, president of the Federated University Peace Officers Assn., in a statement.

The association represents more than 250 officers across the UC system but it does not represent Thomas because he was in a managerial position.

"What unfolded at UCLA calls into question whether UCLA complied with the guidelines to have in place senior administrators trained in crowd control response, with written plans for response that were the product of scenario training and consultation with its police department and outside law enforcement agencies," said Stern, who is also an officer at UC Riverside. "The response to protests appears ad hoc and devoid of the structured planning mandated by the UC system."

The shake-up at the UCLA police department comes after more than three tense weeks on campus since the violent mob attack.

On the evening of April 30, a crowd of agitators — some clad in black or in white masks — arrived on campus to assault members of the encampment by ripping down barricades, hurling objects at the camp and throwing fireworks into the area. Encampment members, who held lumber and wore goggles, tried to hold up the camp's perimeter, and some used pepper spray to defend themselves.

University of California President Michael V. Drake has launched an external investigation into the security response, which UCLA Chancellor Gene Block says he welcomes as he initiates his own review. A spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom has also asked for answers on the "limited and delayed campus law enforcement response at UCLA."

Block has called the attack “a dark chapter in our campus’s history.” The violence and controversy at the end of Block's 17 years leading UCLA — he previously said he'd leave his post July 31 to return to research — has also brought challenges to his leadership. The UCLA Academic Senate, made up of faculty representatives, voted last week to reject a measure of "no confidence" in Block. A vote on "no confidence" was split and did not pass because it did not obtain a simple majority.

The decision on police leadership took place before Block is scheduled to testify in Washington, D.C. at a House education committee hearing on antisemitism alongside the presidents of Rutgers and Northwestern universities. The committee is expected to aggressively grill Block about the April 30 violence at the UCLA encampment and accusations of antisemitism during pro-Palestinian protests.

Earlier congressional hearings have involved the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University.

Thomas was appointed police chief in January and had served as interim chief since 2022. He came to UCLA from USC in 2022 as interim chief. At USC, he had been the Department of Public Safety executive and chief since 2013. He worked as an assistant chief and police captain at USC after arriving on campus in 2009 from the LAPD, where he was a lieutenant. He also previously worked as the deputy chief of police and emergency management at the University of the District of Columbia.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.