'Pepper spray' cop gets bigger payout than sprayed students. Wrong message?

John Pike, a former campus police officer at UC Davis, won $38,000 in workers' comp stemming from a 2011 Occupy protest in which he infamously used pepper spray on peaceful students. Where's the justice in that, some are asking. 

Wayne Tilcock/The Enterprise/AP
University of California, Davis, Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school's quad in Davis, Calif., Nov. 18, 2011.

Former University of California police officer John Pike, who in 2011 infamously pepper-sprayed a group of prone, arm-locked Occupy protesters at the system’s campus in Davis, will receive thousands of dollars more in compensation than his victims did.

Mr. Pike has been awarded $38,000 in workers' compensation for “moderate” psychiatric distress caused by outrage against his pepper-spray action. The award is raising questions about labor laws: whether in general they are too accommodating of ill-behaved employees, and whether in this specific case they have been used to support a police officer’s predisposition to harm peaceful people.

A video of the 2011 protest at UC Davis, which went viral online and became an iconic moment in Occupy lore, caught Pike walking calmly and bureaucratically down a line of sitting protesters, spraying them in the face to get them to move. Still frames from the video were photoshopped onto famous paintings, mocking both Pike and the university. Pike was eventually fired after eight months of paid administrative leave.

An investigatory panel led by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso found fault with police and university administrators for their handling of the protest. The panel determined that Pike did not need to use pepper spray and that he stood too close to protesters to use it safely.

Pike used the spray while he and other campus police officers tried to remove students protesting as part of the nationwide Occupy movement that captured plazas and public attention in 2011 and early 2012.

Pepper spray causes severe but temporary discomfort, inflaming the eyes and throat of those who are exposed to it. It is used as a self-defense tool, and also by police to immobilize suspects.

Pike claimed in July that he deserved workers' compensation stemming from mental duress – a consequence of thousands of threats made against him in the months after the pepper-spray incident. The former US Marine faces “continuing and significant internal and external stress with respect to resolving and solving the significant emotional upheavals that have occurred,” concluded psychiatrist Richard Lieberman.

The university compensated 21 protesters who said they suffered anxiety and trauma that harmed their school careers. They received about $30,000 each. 

The university, in a statement Wednesday, said Pike’s workers' comp ruling is fair.

“This case has been resolved in accordance with state law and processes on workers’ compensation,” UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell said in a statement.

The pepper-spraying sparked both outrage and debate, and the incident prompted the University of California system to change its pepper-spray rules. The California prison system also recently changed its protocols for using pepper spray.

Pike's compensation award, however, upset some Americans, who say it sends a wrong message. California lawyer Bernie Goldsmith told the Davis, Calif., Enterprise newspaper that the Pike award “sends a clear message to the next officer nervously facing off with a group of passive, unarmed students: Go on ahead. Brutalize them. Trample their rights. You will be well taken care of.”

But under state and federal law, workers who are injured on the job are not disqualified from receiving benefits due to workers, even if they, like Pike, acted as an aggressor or offended many people. 

“Whether you can get compensation when you’re the aggressor varies among states, but there certainly are a number of states [including California] where, even though you’ve done something that most people would find offensive, the aggressor can still be compensated,” says John Burton Jr., a labor law expert and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The reason is that the workers' compensation system is, at heart, a “no-fault” system intended to protect both workers and employers, he says. In most states, for example, a worker is eligible for compensation even if he or she is injured after removing or bypassing safety systems, although some states reduce awards if employees acted carelessly or contrary to the rules.

Most states, however, disqualify workers' comp claimants who are injured on the job while intoxicated.

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