After examining the San Luis Obispo Police Department’s (SLOPD) decision to use tear gas at a June 1 Black Lives Matter protest, the City Council will review ten areas in which SLOPD can improve its police response.
The after action review (AAR) report highlights the ten areas, which includes providing additional routes for the protestors to disperse and establishing proper connections with protest leaders.
The San Luis Obispo City Council will review the report at a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The meeting will have a section for public comment, and instructions can be found on how to submit a comment in a press release from the city.
The goal of the report was to examine what happened at the protest, why it happened and what could be done in the future to avoid similar outcomes.
According to the report, the use of teargas came after protestors and police came to a standstill at the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut Street. Police believed the protestors were trying to gain access to Highway 101, so they blocked the path of the protestors causing their only option to be to turn around and walk southbound on Santa Rosa.
Neither the police nor the protestors backed down. Police used pepper balls, foam rounds, bean bag rounds, pepper spray and finally, tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
Marine science senior Janelle Ross joined the protest at the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut Street, and she was among the crowd who was tear-gassed.
“[The tear gas] definitely stung,” Ross said. “I did get shot by two rubber bullets, I had some bruises on my back from that.”
Ross said that she had attempted to leave the protest, but she needed to pass the police blockade to walk home and officers wouldn’t let her. Without being able to leave, she got tear-gassed.
Ross said that she didn’t see a level of hostility from the protestors that warranted the use of tear gas, and said she views SLOPD in a more negative light now than she did before the protest. She said she didn’t feel heard by the officers who were there.
“We were trying to talk to them in a more open way, and they wouldn’t respond or look at us,” Ross said. “There was definitely a realization that they’re not going to listen to us.”
The identified ten areas where SLOPD could improve are as follows:
- The protestors only way of dispersing was to turn around and go back the way they came, which according to the report is difficult for crowds.
- City personnel had no relationship with the protestors, making communication difficult.
- The police lacked the equipment required to make loud enough announcements for the protestors to hear.
- Police appeared early in riot gear during a peaceful protest.
- Lieutenants are needed in the field to oversee the tactical operation.
- There was an insufficient amount of officers needed to bar protestors from entering the freeway.
- There wasn’t enough civilian support staff to assist with traffic control.
- Other agencies assisting SLOPD lacked sufficient direction from SLOPD Command Post.
- They lacked drone pilots and batteries for equipment required to cover long events.
- The officer’s body-worn camera batteries have a seven to eight hour run time when being used intermittently and will run for three hours max when being used constantly.
The report also recommended ways to address these issues and stated many of these recommendations have already been implemented, including the purchasing of a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to make louder announcements and body-worn cameras with replaceable battery packs.
The report was “guided and reviewed” by Chief James Bueermann, who according to the report is nationally recognized for his work with after action reports. He has supervised reviews of notable policing incidents including the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and the Orlando, Florida Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. The report notes that Bueermann was paid $7,500 for his consulting services.
San Luis Obispo’s Interim Police Chief Jeff Smith said that after action review reports are important for examining what happened and what could’ve been done differently.
“In any organization, you should always look at ways to be better,” Smith said. “The after-action report was an opportunity for us to take a look at what happened, and what could have been done better.”
The report also features a detailed timeline and description of the protest, which Smith said is important to establish transparency for community members who may have not attended the protest but who still want to know what happened.
Smith said one of SLPOD’s biggest takeaways from the report was that they need to establish an open dialogue with the leaders of events to better explain their guidelines and offer assistance if needed. According to the report, no city personnel had connections to anyone leading the protest, which made communication difficult.
Smith said that any time the police department uses force, it’s usually as a last resort.
“We take the use of force very seriously,” Smith said. “Any time a decision like this is made, it is not a decision that’s taken lightly.”
Interim Director of Wellbeing at Cal Poly Kari Mansager was brought on as an independent consultant to conduct the community review portion of the report. Her work with this report is not affiliated with her work at Cal Poly.
She interviewed 11 protestors to get their viewpoints and input on how SLOPD handled the situation.
“I heard a lot of similarities in their stories, and common themes which I pulled out in the report,” Mansager said. “It was quite emotional for a few of them.”
Mansager said it is important to provide a space for community input after these incidents so that the narrative that develops will have multiple viewpoints. She said one interviewee told her they thought the narrative being shared immediately after the protest was very one-sided coming from law enforcement.
“They felt it was really important to give another picture of what actually took place from their point of view in the protests,” Mansager said.
Mansager said that for some interviewees the process was cathartic, but for others, it was difficult to bring up such traumatic memories.
“It is always important to hear multiple viewpoints on a situation like this, and to really honor the voices of folks who have experienced trauma, pain, anger and sadness,” Mansager said.
Microbiology senior Leilani Ramirez joined the protest during the standstill at the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut Street. She said that there was a general sense of confusion among the protestors and that she tried asking the police officers what they wanted her to do but was met with silence. There was an officer announcing directions, but Ramirez said nobody could hear what was being said.
Ramirez was arrested after a line of officers blocking the path of the protestors began to push the crowd back.
“It was a very, very forceful push, so I was resisting being pushed to the ground,” Ramirez said. “Then [an officer] grabs my wrist, pulls me and tells me I’m under arrest.”
The report notes that protestors were throwing fireworks and water bottles at officers, but Ramirez said she thought SLOPD’s use of tear gas was unnecessary and that she didn’t see the level of hostility from the protestors that the report describes.
“From what I could tell, there was no aggression on the part of the protestors that warranted the use of force,” Ramirez said.
She said that the ten areas of improvement identified by the report are a fair assessment of the situation and that they look great on paper. However, she said she hopes that the recommended changes will be sufficiently implemented.
In regards to the aftermath of the protest, Ramirez said she views police in a different light.
“I can feel my heartbeat get faster when I see a cop car. In hindsight, I realized that that wasn’t the case when I was younger,” Ramirez said. “It wasn’t something that was significant to me until last year after the protest, I have a lot more distrust.”