Carrying clipboards and a video camera, about half a dozen students ambled up and down Del Playa Drive looking for trouble with police officers this past Friday night.
From 11 p.m. to about 2:30 a.m., students from Law and Society 199 followed and filmed Isla Vista Foot Patrol (IVFP) officers arresting one person and taking others aside to issue citations. Undergraduate students Myles Rush and Rachel DiFranco, who started the class, said they intend to study the videos and submit some policy change recommendations to the IVFP. Although the observers witnessed and filmed only four incidents Friday night, DiFranco, a fourth-year global studies major, said the group plans to return on subsequent weekends.
“If there’s a concern in the community, we try to react to it,” said Rush, a fourth-year political science major. “If we don’t find there’s anything going on out here we’re going to write an editorial saying, ‘I’m sorry, students of Isla Vista, you guys are wrong – misconduct is not taking place.’ [But] right now we know nothing. We just have complaints and allegations.”
Rush said the class will work with the IVFP through the duration of the class. He said Lt. Sol Linver, of the IVFP, was currently collecting data on crime statistics and the demographics of the foot patrol.
“We had a meeting with Lt. Linver,” Rush said. “He gave us some guidelines [to observing]… It’s definitely a collaborative effort. They recognize it’s good for the community.”
Some of these guidelines include not interfering with a police search and maintaining a respectable distance from officers, although the law does not specify a particular distance, said Katie Maynard, group studies project director for the Education for Sustainable Living Program.
Rush and DiFranco said they started the class because they wanted to continue the work Associated Students Student Lobby started with the “Fall Defensive” campaign. The organization sent out legal rights information sheets and collected complaint forms about alleged police abuse.
Rush said the tactics used by the 12-student class slightly diverge from those in the Student Lobby campaign in both its collection of physical evidence and its attitude toward police authorities.
On Friday night, members of the class met at Java Jones around 11 wearing neon orange signs with “legal observer” written in black. Three people were drinking their beverages at the coffee shop, and a solo guitar player had just finished his act. From there, the class walked to DP where bands playing rock music, stereo systems blaring various genres and people cheering and yelling could be heard up and down the street.
At 11:50 p.m., the group witnessed IVFP officers sit a male on the curb of the 6600 block. The officers passed the man’s red cup back and forth between them. It seemed they were trying to determine if it contained alcohol, but the man was eventually released.
The observers didn’t run into another police incident for another hour and a half, but they talked to several students in the interim. Between being eyed by skateboarders transporting kegs and helping a girl who was passed out on a sidewalk, the group told and retold passersby about their objective that night. One man, who appeared to be inebriated, pointed at one of the class’s members and said in slurred speech “legal observers,” before laughing and walking off. Others, however, said they were glad someone was out in the community holding police accountable for their actions.
“Sometimes people assumed we were another branch of the law or we were taking on a student-police officer role where we were a part of the police department,” said Maynard, a fourth-year College of Creative Studies biology major. “Most of the times people were confused by us. If we stopped and explained what we were doing, people were really receptive and excited by what we were doing. A really typical thing was folks would actually stop and tell us their stories [about police].”
Rush said he asked many of those who complained about their behavior when they received citations, which they said they did not deserve. Most students do not know their rights or the rights of police in such situations, he said.
“I think students are very good at incriminating themselves,” Rush said. “They won’t know that a police officer can’t search their person… If they’re going to ask you if they can search, then there isn’t probable cause to search.”
Many I.V. residents don’t know police cannot search their house without a warrant or probable cause, but can if invited to enter, Rush said. Educating people on their rights is the first priority of the class, and the second is to observe police activity in I.V., he said.
Rush also said informing police and community leaders about the problems they observe and if officers are abusing their power is another object of the class. The observers did not see police overstepping their bounds on Friday night, Maynard said.
“For the most part, what we’ve seen is not so much police officers breaking the law as language being harsher than it should be,” she said. “The aggressiveness in the way police officers approach is sometimes really intimidating. The fact that you’re in a situation where you have a police officer approaching you saying that you allegedly did something is a very scary situation.”
For the remainder of the class project, Rush said, the group is attending a training session put on by the Midnight Special Law Collective May 7 and 8. Other students interested in the seminar are welcome to join, he said. After the session, the attendees will be certified by the organization as legal observers.
Rush said the group is also planning a newsletter and another, similar class Fall Quarter. But DiFranco said she and the others will continue the observing project next weekend and hopefully maintain it for a much longer period.
“We’re not just doing it as a one-time thing,” she said. “We want it to become established.”