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SLO council continues tense meeting reviewing police use of tear gas 

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted on Feb. 16 to continue its discussion about local law enforcement's use of tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters in the city last June—following an emotional meeting that lasted until close to midnight and included scathing public comments about police officers' conduct.

click to enlarge REFLECTION The SLO City Council discussed the findings of an after-action police report focused on a Black Lives Matter protest last year on June 1 (pictured). - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • REFLECTION The SLO City Council discussed the findings of an after-action police report focused on a Black Lives Matter protest last year on June 1 (pictured).

The council discussion—slated to pick back up on Feb. 23 at 5 p.m.—centered on a recently released "after-action review" of the June 1 protest, which was completed by the SLO Police Department.* The document compiles testimony from officers and protesters while weaving a police-centric narrative about the events leading up to its use of tear gas, pepper balls, and flash bangs against demonstrators.

In presenting the report, interim SLO Police Chief Jeff Smith said that after an all-day protest that included demonstrators marching onto Highway 101, the fatigued police force, concerned about protesters re-entering the freeway, formed a line at the corner of Santa Rosa Street and Walnut Street around 6 p.m. to halt forward movement toward the on-ramps.

"Nightfall was coming and we felt there was a greater risk for catastrophic injury, especially on the freeway as people were getting off of work," Smith said. "Fatigue was starting to set in. We were hoping we could communicate with the group encouraging them to turn around."

At around 8 p.m., police declared an unlawful assembly, as the crowd was not heeding orders and lacked unified leadership, according to Smith. After that, officers began firing tear gas into the crowd.

In the report, interviewed protesters offered a different view of events. Participants described a chaotic atmosphere at the end of the day that police helped create by donning riot gear and gas masks. Many said they never intended to re-enter the highway and didn't hear the police's orders. They also didn't want to turn around and walk away.

"Turning around felt like a defeat," one protester, Jackie, said in the report. "People don't want to have a protest for hours and then just turn around when meeting a police line."

At the Feb. 16 meeting, SLO City Council members peppered Smith with questions about the report and police response. Mayor Heidi Harmon asked whether protesters at any point tried to break the police line prior to its use of tear gas—which Smith confirmed they didn't.

"To me, that seems like a problem," Harmon said.

Smith claimed that officers tried to convince protesters to turn around for two hours and gave "six warnings with clear direction of what would happen."

"We may be able to wait longer [before using nonlethal force]," Smith said. "It wouldn't be advisable."

Public commenters, some of whom identified as participants in Black Lives Matter protests last summer, offered critical feedback on the report and the police actions. Many saw a conflict of interest in the police department conducting a review of its own conduct.

Others criticized the 10 areas that the police identified as items for improvement—like the need for equipment to make louder announcements.

"What if we include bias as a top 10 issue?" asked resident and activist Rita Casaverde. "Or institutionalized racism? Or flawed training? Or a flawed understanding of what the actual role of the police as peace officer actually is?"

Michelle Arata, the mother of 20-year-old Tianna Arata, who's facing criminal charges for her alleged role in protests in the city last summer, said "all I've heard tonight is justification for the use of force." She said that "the trust is gone" between activists and law enforcement.

"Had my teenage child remained anonymous and not taken the initiative to participate in meetings with the police, I fully acknowledge she would not be targeted nor stalked nor criminalized," Arata said. "What is the incentive to ever communicate or collaborate with you again?"

Calling the Feb. 16 meeting "one of the hardest" of her tenure, Mayor Harmon closed by saying the city has "lots of work to do."

"We're talking about huge systemic issues," Harmon said. "They need systemic solutions that are way beyond the individuals that are in these systems." Δ

* Correction: In the original version of this article, New Times misstated the author of the after-action review. The SLO Police Department produced the report, and James Bueermann was retained to review it.

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