UCLA acts to protect scientists

March 4, 2009
University's animal researchers targeted by activist group

LOS ANGELES -- Attacks on UCLA researchers by animal rights activists have become more common and increasingly violent, prompting law enforcement officials to pursue new tactics to protect researchers and arrest suspects.

The Animal Liberation Front has declared a campaign of harassment against UCLA's animal research facilities and UCLA vanpool vehicles, and they said attacks will continue until UCLA puts a complete stop to its animal research program.

As a result, UCLA has stepped up measures to protect researchers and arrest those responsible for illegal acts, although no arrests have been made yet in connection to violent crimes, university police Capt. John Adams said.

The increase in violence began about four years ago, said Roberto Peccei, vice chancellor of research.

"What used to be campus demonstrations against animal research escalated, and, since 2005 we've seen a number of much more serious incidents," he said.

The last major attack took place in November, when three vehicles were torched outside a home that activists believed belonged to a UCLA researcher.

To combat attacks, UCPD has organized patrols in the neighborhoods of targeted researchers. Security guards have been placed at the homes of some researchers, and enhanced security systems have been installed in other locations, Adams said.

He said the drivers of vanpool vehicles have been warned to check their vans for incendiary devices and to notify police if they see anything suspicious.

UCPD has worked closely with other law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI, to investigate attacks, Adams said.

"We take this very seriously and are committed to protecting the researchers and catching those responsible for crimes. We don't plan to let this go," he said.

Peccei said he believes the activists are a small group of people who are "hell-bent on creating some havoc." He said he does not think any of the activists are UCLA students.

A team of investigators is working on identifying the activists, Peccei said, adding that police hope to catch them in the act of committing or attempting to commit a crime.

"We have taken certain measures which we cannot make public that we hope will eventually lead to us arresting some of the perpetrators," he said.

Along with expanding law enforcement operations, UCLA has pursued legal methods of limiting activist violence.

The university obtained a preliminary injunction last April that prohibits activists from distributing information about researchers and bans them from coming within 50 feet of a faculty member's home during a demonstration, university spokesman Phil Hampton said.

In November, one activist was found in contempt of court for an earlier violation of the terms of the injunction, after being caught distributing fliers with the names and addresses of several UCLA researchers printed on them, according to a university statement.

"We believe the injunction has sent an important message that the illegal harassment of researchers will not be tolerated," Hampton said.

He said the injunction has led to fewer incidents of researcher harassment.

"While (nonviolent) demonstrations have continued, they are less frequent and less boisterous. In addition, the personal information of researchers has been removed from the site operated by one of the defendants," Hampton said.

Still, attacks against researchers by some activists have continued since the injunction was issued.

And despite efforts by law enforcement, no arrests have been made in connection to serious crimes such as fire bombings and vandalism.

"It's important to be patient in a law-enforcement investigation. These are complex investigations, and arrests cannot be made overnight," Hampton said.

The trend of escalating violence against universities by animal rights groups is not limited to UCLA and has been observed across the University of California system and nationwide, said Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

The foundation keeps a database of violent acts against universities and animal research clinics across the country.

"In the past, animal rights activists would break into research facilities, trash the labs and steal the animals," Trull said.

When research facilities began to implement improved security measures, she said, activists turned instead to targeting individual researchers.

In response to this change in tactics by animal activists, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 2296 into law in September.

The bill is aimed at protecting California researchers and their families. The University of California sponsored the bill.

"We supported passage of AB 2296 because we believed that it would help state law enforcement protect academic researchers and their families without jeopardizing legitimate expressions of free speech," UC spokesman Chris Harrington said.

Because the law was just signed and is still being implemented, it is too early to tell whether it will be effective at limiting violence, Harrington said.

Measures taken by the state and UC system aided in the Feb. 19 and 20 arrests of four people who are suspected of harassing researchers at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, according to an FBI report.

Hampton expressed optimism at the news of these recent arrests.

"While we are disappointed that arrests haven't been made (at UCLA) and we want to see more action on that front, the recent arrests in connection with the harassment of researchers at our sister campuses in Berkeley and Santa Cruz demonstrate the importance of patience," he said.

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