The San Luis Obispo Police Department is changing the way it responds to peaceful protests after a review of a Black Lives Matter rally that ended in violence.
A nearly 100-page report, called an 'After-Action Review' (AAR), includes 10 action items for the San Luis Obispo Police Department after tear gas was used to disperse a Black Lives Matter protest on June 1, 2020.
On June 16, then-police Chief Deanna Cantrell presented information about the June 1 protest to the city council. As a result, council members and the city manager requested a report of the police department's response to that particular protest.
SLOPD, with the help of a team of independent consultants, interviewed participants and looked at social media, news articles, and surveillance video to get a clear view of what happened.
Here are the 10 action items:
- The protesters only had one way to disperse which was to turn around and go back, this is difficult for crowds.
- No city personnel had a relationship with the group protesting and thus no way to communicate with them.
- Lack of proper equipment to make a loud enough announcement.
- Received feedback during independent interviews about the early appearance of officers in riot gear during a peaceful protest.
- Lieutenants needed in the field overseeing the tactical operation.
- There was insufficient sworn staffing to prevent protesters from entering the freeway.
- There was insufficient civilian support staff to assist with traffic control during events.
- Mutual Aid agencies assisting self-deployed and lacked sufficient direction from Command Post.
- Lacked drone pilots and batteries for equipment to staff lengthy events.
- Body-worn camera batteries have a 7-8 hour run capacity on internment use, constant use 3 hours max. Cameras must be docked to recharge.
Out of more than 70 protests that took place in 2020, this June 1 event was one of the few that resulted in violence.
“Tear gas everywhere, had a canister literally bounce and explode right in front of me,” said Cavin Stokes, a local BLM activist. “One of the worst things that could ever go down."
Stokes says the use of force on the crowd that day was inappropriate and unnecessary.
“I think our local police department gets an 'F’ on this. This was terribly handled and it should have been handled better,” Stokes said.
Interim Police Chief Jeff Smith said tear gas is used as a last resort. In this case, the concern was protesters blocking Highway 101 traffic, public safety, and nightfall.
“We want to do everything we can from talking to individuals, to giving them warnings, letting them know of the violation they may be committing at the time and giving them options to leave. But it comes to a point where the public's safety is in jeopardy or officers' safety is in jeopardy," Smith said.
According to the report, officers deployed pepper balls to disperse the crowd and when protesters became "hostile" towards officers, throwing fireworks and objects, that’s when the decision was made to fire tear gas.
Consultants wrote, “At approximately 8:14 p.m., command authorized chloroachetophenone (cn) gas (tear gas) canisters be deployed in front of the hostile protesters to encourage them to disperse. Two canisters of cn gas were thrown in front of the protesters. Once the cn gas was thrown, the line of officers continued to move southbound on Santa Rosa as several hostile protesters threw rocks and fireworks at officers. To stop being battered by the projectiles being thrown at them, officers utilized pepper balls, foam 40mm impact rounds, marking 40mm impact rounds, bean bag shotgun impact rounds, and oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray).”
Interim Chief Smith said June 1 was a challenging day and that officers did everything they could do to disperse the crowd without force.
In hindsight, he says using tear gas was still the appropriate call to disperse the crowd and cause little injury.
"What's important is that we as an agency are willing to come to the table,” Smith said. “We want to serve and protect those who want to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. We understand that, we agree with it because that is one reason why we became police officers. What we think is important is that there is open communication during these events.”
Following the incident, Stokes said the police response to protests has improved. He just wishes it happened sooner.
“[SLOPD has] been a lot better with this because I think they saw the mistake that they made. Just to understand, we are not here to fight you guys. We are here to stop the violence that is happening upon people of color. That is what we are protesting," Stokes said.
Before the June 1 protest, the last time SLOPD used tear gas was in 2004 during the Mardis Gras riots near Cal Poly.
While many still criticize the use of force, interim Chief Smith said this report serves as a learning opportunity to serve the community better moving forward.
Before the city council reviews this report on February 16, the police department will also review it with representatives from numerous community organizations through its 'Police and Community Together' or 'PACT' program.
CLICK HERE to read the full After-Action Review.
The city council will be accepting public comment regarding this report. Public comment can be submitted in the following ways:
- Mail or email must be received by 3 p.m. on the day of the meeting.
- City Clerk, 990 Palm Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
- All emails will be archived/distributed to council members. Submissions received after 3 p.m. on the day of the meeting may not be archived/distributed until the following day. Emails will not be read aloud during the meeting.
- Verbal public comment (prior to the meeting)
- Call (805) 781-7164, state and spell your name, the agenda item number you are calling about, and leave your comment.
- Comments must be limited to 3 minutes.
- All voicemails will be forwarded to council members and saved as agenda correspondence.
- Voicemails will not be played during the meeting.
- Verbal public comment (during the meeting)
- Join the meeting/webinar (instructions will be included on the cover of the agenda posted on February 9, 2021).
- Submit your name before the meeting to speak during public comment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- During the meeting, and once public comment has been opened, raise your virtual hand.
- Names submitted prior to the beginning of the meeting will be called first, then those who have raised their hands will be called next.
Questions from the public may be directed to the Office of the City Clerk at email@example.com or (805) 781-7100.