UCLA removes police chief over handling of Gaza protests

UCLA removes police chief over handling of Gaza protests
UCLA’s police chief has been reassigned temporarily after campus officials came under fire for the handling of a violent attack on pro-Palestine activists.
3 min read
23 May, 2024
The police break through barricades set up by pro-Palestinian protestors at an encampment at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on 2 May, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. [Getty]

The police chief for the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) has been removed from his post three weeks after campus officials came under fire for their handling of a violent, overnight mob attack on pro-Palestine activists encamped at the institution. 

John Thomas, who was formally named head of the UCLA police force in January after a year as interim chief, has been reassigned temporarily, as the university evaluates its security processes, Vice Chancellor Mary Osako said on Wednesday. 

She added that instead, campus police captain Gawin Gibson will be named as UCLA's acting chief of police, effective on Tuesday.

Thomas and other university officials, as well as the Los Angeles Police Department, drew sharp criticism for their response to violence that flared at UCLA between pro-Palestine activists and a group who attacked them late on 30 April.

The masked assailants, later described by university officials as "instigators", stormed the tent camp with clubs and poles.

Both sides traded blows and doused each other with pepper spray with fireworks reportedly hurled at the students. 

Confrontations continued for at least three hours, into the early morning of 1 May, before police moved in and restored order. No arrests were immediately made. 

Pro-Palestine and anti-war activists and students have been carrying out protest encampments across the US and globally since 17 April, demanding their institution's divest from Israel-linked companies and calling for a ceasefire.

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'Delayed law enforcement'

A spokesperson for California Governor Gavin Newsom criticised the "limited and delayed campus law enforcement response" to the unrest as "unacceptable." 

Newsom himself and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass each issued statements condemning the violence and calling for an investigation. 

On 2 May, hundreds of state and local police officers raided the encampment and removed the protesters' tents, arresting 210 people. 

The two days of disturbances thrust UCLA to the centre of mounting weeks of tensions at dozens of US college campuses, where protests of Israel's conduct of its war in Gaza led to pro-Palestine students being attacked by either law enforcement or pro-Israel supporters. 

Pro-Palestine activists, including many Jews, say political opponents have unfairly equated their message of support for human rights and condemnation of the Israeli government with anti-Jewish hatred. 

Days after the UCLA upheaval, university officials said a panel of outside experts would conduct a broad review of campus security operations and the law enforcement's response to the incident.  

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block announced a separate investigation to identify and arrest perpetrators of the melee. 

Reacting to Thomas' removal, the police union representing 250 officers who patrol all 10 UC campuses, issued a statement questioning whether university administrators had followed existing protest and crowd-control protocols. 

"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 Association. 

The UCLA police shakeup came as Block prepared to testify before a US House of Representatives committee, the latest in a series of congressional hearings called by Republicans to focus on campus unrest. 

The presidents of Rutgers and Northwestern universities are also due to appear for Thursday's hearing. 

Press agencies also contributed to this report.