After reviewing the San Luis Obispo Police report explaining their use of tear gas against the June 1 Black Lives Matter protestors, independent consultant James Bueermann — who has 43 years of experience with policing — said any other police department in that situation would have used the same tactics.
“I mean … that’s what the protests are about,” resident Tim Jouet said in response to Bueermann, arguing that no police department should use those tactics. “It was heartbreaking to watch that happen.”
At the Feb. 16 City Council meeting, the council spent nearly four hours reviewing a police report regarding the use of the chemical weapon known as tear gas and hearing public comments.
The meeting consisted of an overview of June 1 from law enforcement’s perspective, testimonies from protestors, questions from council and countless public comments from community members — yet an official decision regarding the use of force has yet to be made by the city.
Council voted to continue with public comment and the council’s discussion on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 5 p.m. Toward the end of the meeting, councilmembers Jan Marx and Carlyn Christianson were not present to vote due to health concerns and technical difficulties, respectively.
Police and protestors recount June 1 protest and use of force
On May 31, the San Luis Obispo High School Administration informed the San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) a June 1 protest was being organized on social media, yet police said there wasn’t a specific leader to communicate with.
The report said various sources were warning “this protest was going to potentially lead to criminal activity,” and that “real protestors” should stay home because people were going to incite a riot. Multiple citizens called in to report “potential civil unrest.”
June 1 began with about 250 protestors, which police said was “larger than expected.” An officer observed a “significant increase in hostility towards the police in comparison to the march the day prior,” and police repeatedly heard that protestors were planning to march on the freeway.
Interim Police Chief Jeff Smith said at the meeting that the officers at Santa Rosa and Walnut were attempting to prevent freeway entry; the “speed of the protest” meant police couldn’t close off the roads, and there wasn’t enough staff to block all 12 freeway ramps. He said that as nightfall neared, there were more concerns, such as traffic accidents and fatigue.
Starting around 6:15 p.m., Smith said police began negotiating with supposed leaders to prevent freeway entry. Some protestors tried to convince others to turn around, but Smith said many in the group didn’t want to.
About an hour later, Smith said safety order advisements were given three times to the group, encouraging them to disperse and not enter the freeway. When some protestors left but the protest persisted, police ordered an unlawful assembly advisement three times. Many protestors said they couldn’t hear SLOPD’s orders, which Smith said police weren’t aware of until after the fact.
Independent consultant Kari Mansager interviewed 11 community members who either protested or were present at the protest to provide care when needed. She recalled their experiences at the council meeting using aliases and did not fact check their comments.
Mansager recited comments from one protestor, Jackie, who entered the freeway.
“It felt empowering that we had the strength in numbers,” Jackie told Mansager. “It makes more of a statement that you’re stopping business as usual to address this issue.”
At one point Jackie was wedged against a wall, stuck, when one officer shouted to move and climb the wall.
“It was intense; felt like war,” Jackie said. “I stayed because I felt like I needed to bear witness and if other people are there, especially young Black people, it felt like an obligation to stay.”
Around 8 p.m., after protestors exited the freeway, the protestors threw objects such as fireworks and water bottles toward the police.
The police report stated the plan was to prepare for tear gas use but only employ it if protesters broke the line of officers that gathered at the intersection of Santa Rosa and Walnut, which did not occur. Both Mayor Heidi Harmon and residents questioned Smith on this broken policy.
Cal Poly history professor Sarah Bridger, who is also a former police misconduct investigator at the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, called for a clarification of SLOPD’s use of force standards. While the report said tear gas should only be used if the police line is broken, the SLOPD’s use of tear gas has not been labeled as misconduct.
“It suggests that there’s likely a different standard in place, that perhaps tear gas can be used when an order to disperse is not obeyed,” Bridger said.
Mansager said that the protest was generally seen as a “leaderless march,” mostly consisting of younger people. When protestors met the police line at Santa Rosa and Walnut, they generally felt trapped, shocked and fatigued, and said there was poor communication from the police.
“Police never felt like a security at the protest — they felt like a threat,” one protestor called Penny told Mansager.
Another protestor, Sam, was arrested and taken to the San Luis Obispo County Jail’s waiting cell, where the police immediately took off Sam’s mask. It wasn’t until about 40 minutes later when an officer read the charges.
“While I was being read my charges, the cops were cracking jokes about how I was some kind of cult leader,” Sam told Mansager. “When I asked them where the other van might be — it hadn’t arrived yet — one of the cops said, ‘I don’t know, they’re probably getting gassed or something.’ It was ridiculous.”
Smith said he didn’t know if the comments were from SLOPD officers or another agency.
There have been about 72 protests since June 1, and Smith said police continued to communicate with organizers for later protests, none of which involved tear gas.
“The events that occurred on June 1, I’m sorry that they happened,” Smith said. “I wish they would not have, and I wish we would have been able to come to a resolution that ended differently.”
SLOPD proposes 10 areas of improvement, says they need more equipment
The police report aims to “further the notion of a learning organization, so that in theory there should be constant, incremental improvement in policing operations,” according to Bueerman. The report includes 10 improvements that SLOPD will implement or has already begun implementing.
The most prominent areas include fostering communication between SLOPD and protest organizers, not having police appear in riot gear early on during a peaceful protest and purchasing more equipment.
SLOPD already purchased a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) to make announcements loud enough for protestors to hear. However, multiple residents commented on the LRAD’s health concerns, as it has been known to cause both short and long term issues including tinnitus, vertigo, vomiting mucus or blood, cochlear destruction and permanent hearing loss.
SLOPD also said they lacked drone pilots and batteries for long events, but they have purchased 10 more batteries and more pilots are in training. They have also purchased body cameras with replaceable battery packs to last throughout long events.
Public responds to SLOPD recommendations
Multiple residents took issue with the recommendation of fostering more communication with police and protestors.
Resident Rita Casaverde questioned the expectation that protestors would need to give detailed plans for a civil protest.
“The people that are protesting police practices who have been traumatized for years because of these police practices and who just had watched the video of George Floyd being murdered on video, are these same people supposed to make sure that they have a relationship with the police or have established communication channels with the perpetrators of this fear?” Casaverde asked.
Resident Michelle Arata, mother of 20-year-old activist Tianna Arata who was arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest last year, also spoke out against communicating with the police.
“It is with great regret — regret — that I ever encouraged my daughter Tianna to communicate with the (former) Police Chief Deanna Cantrell or actively work to build a so-called bridge with the PD,” Michelle said. “Had my teenage child remain anonymous and not taken the initiative to participate in meetings with the police, I fully acknowledge she would not be targeted nor stalked, or criminalized.”
Michelle said that as a result of discussing BLM demands and purpose with the police, Tianna has “now been labeled inaccurately as a riot instigator, protest leader and a terrorist.”
“I’m sick of being so intertwined in SLO politics, people taking my life as a freaking battle between the left and the right,” Tianna said. “The SLOPD has ruined my life, and continues to try and criminalize me, and I’m over it. So defund the police, ACAB, every single cop is a bastard.”
Other residents questioned the ongoing costs of tear gas and other equipment and whether SLOPD should get more funding when they don’t do their job properly. Multiple members of Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO called for reducing both the police budget and the number of officers by 33% for the next fiscal year.
There was only one public comment in full support of SLOPD, being from former police chief Jim Gardiner.
Gardiner said he was frustrated to hear SLOPD characterized as uncaring and unprofessional. He also said he thinks defunding the police will result in situations like the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“We are in very difficult times; now’s not the time to not support your police department,” Gardiner said. “But what you heard tonight was we’re open to making change where it’s needed.”
City staff call for less hostility
When SLOPD’s presentation ended and the public comment portion began, Smith, Bueerman, Lieutenant Fred Mickel and Captain Brian Amoroso turned their cameras off, Mayor Harmon requested them to come back so the community knows they’re still present.
Throughout public comments, multiple residents used language against the police such as calling them “pigs” and telling officers to sit up and “show some respect.” Harmon said to refrain from name calling, and City Attorney Christine Dietrick later said that the meeting had exceeded the bounds of the city’s civility policy.
“I have yet to hear anything moving in a direction of constructive input,” Dietrick said. “I would assert that we have reached a stage where we are compounding collective trauma, not alleviating it.”
Dietrick’s comment came three hours into the discussion, after many residents had posed serious questions, concerns and recommendations for the city to consider.
“If members of the panel find a lack of constructive criticism here tonight, I can only conclude that you are not willing or able to hear what countless members of our community and communities around the world are desperately trying to get you to hear,” public commenter Renny Z. said.
As the meeting came to a close well past 11 p.m., Harmon sighed.
“Lots of work to do and lots of reflecting to do, so thank you to everybody that came to the table tonight,” Harmon said. “I know this was a hard meeting for everyone.”