WALNUT CREEK (CBS SF) — After a downtown looting and vandalism spree on May 31 and a Black Lives Matter protest the next afternoon that turned violent in the traffic lanes of Interstate Highway 680, Walnut Creek City Council members on Tuesday wanted to hear more about why their city blew up on social media for the wrong reasons.
During an eight-hour-plus council meeting that didn’t end until after 2 a.m. Wednesday, police leaders worked to explain how they reacted, why they did what they did and what they felt worked and what didn’t.
“There was a lot of great work done those days, but we’re not averse to holding ourselves accountable for what went wrong,” Police Chief Thomas Chaplin told the council.
On June 9, Mayor Loella Haskew asked Chaplin and City Manager Dan Buckshi for reports on the police response to the Black Lives Matter protest and the looting.
On Tuesday night, the council were told how law enforcement responded to vandalism, looting and various protests in that city from May 30 through June 5, including the May 31 downtown vandalism and the June 1 protest that spilled onto Highway 680 and included tear gas and an attack by a police dog.
Just before Walnut Creek police leaders gave that report, their department was put on blast by critics for more than three hours for what they called a militaristic over-response to the protests.
The City Council was similarly roasted for not having done enough to make changes in the Police Department policy since the June 2, 2019 death of 23-year-old Miles Hall, killed by police near the Hall family’s home in a quiet neighborhood south of downtown.
Hall’s family had called police for help with Miles, who was having a mental health-related episode. But Miles — who was wielding a steel rod he would not drop — was shot and killed.
As detailed in the police staff report to the council, the first peaceful protest in Walnut Creek occurred May 30. But the next night, May 31, an estimated 600 people vandalized and looted approximately 40 businesses in the downtown area and beyond.
All three of Broadway Plaza’s anchor stores – Macy’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus — all sustained significant damage and looting. One person was shot during the vandalism spree. Police officers pepper-sprayed looters, forcing some of them to leave stolen merchandise behind.
“We did not have all the advance notice that some people think we did,” said police Capt. Jay Hill, who also noted police were greatly outnumbered.
On June 1, what began as a peaceful Black Lives Matter downtown protest grew into a tense standoff between police and protesters at the Lawrence Way entrance to Highway 680.
Warning: Explicit Language
George Floyd protest at Walnut Creek takes over the 680 Freeway. pic.twitter.com/CoZceYAQ01
— Denis Ivan Perez (@dpi_19) June 2, 2020
Protesters surrounded two California Highway Patrol cars and blocked a SWAT vehicle’s path onto the highway; a protester was shooting video, in which some heard a SWAT officer’s command as, “Move or you will be dead.”
Hill said a sound recording from a SWAT officer’s body cam shows the quote was, “Move or you will be gassed.”
A short time later, officers used tear gas and one 40mm “sponge round” against protesters, gaining access to the freeway to help the CHP officers.
A protester picked up a tear gas canister and threw it back at police, striking an officer. That protester was shot in the thigh with a 40mm sponge round, the city report said. A police dog eventually bit that protester, and the wounds required medical treatment. Overall, eight protesters were arrested June 1.
Hill said police indeed planned for the worst, having seen other protests around the U.S. get out of control. Such a response, he said, required “riot gear.” He also said police didn’t expect the en masse march to the freeway. Hill also said using the dog wasn’t an appropriate protest response, and won’t be done again.
Many call-in commenters Tuesday night criticized the police response to the June 1 event as too militaristic and forceful, insisting police spurred the violence. A number of commenters, including a young woman who said she had served for two years on the Walnut Creek Youth Council, called for defunding the police.
The police showing up in riot gear, and attack dogs, was itself provocation,” said resident Susan Antolin.
Emmy Akin, a Walnut Creek teacher, told the council she felt scared at the June 1 protest because of the police. She said she saw some of her own students tear-gassed.
“It made me feel something I can’t really put into words,” said Akin, who also called for police defunding. Public comments didn’t change much in tone or content after the police presentation.
Police said they are still in the early stages of investigating both events, and pledged to report on them again at a future date.
Chaplin defended the use of tear gas when dangerous situations need to be cleared up. Some officers from agencies outside of Walnut Creek, lending mutual aid on both days, were equipped with face shields in preparations for violent situations, which may have been seen as “riot gear,” Chaplin said.
Hill said that, in his 23 years on the Walnut Creek force, he had never seen looting in the city.
“When we do see it, we try to learn from it,” he said.
Efforts to effect positive change, including de-escalation techniques and working regionally with a County Crisis Intervention Team, started months before the recent protests, said Buckshi, the city manager.
Part of that has been working with the Friends of Scott, Alexis and Taun Hall (FOSATH), a group that supports the family of Miles Hall. Despite some people’s impressions, Buckshi said, progress is being made in changing police policies, despite delays of some recent meetings by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barbara Pennington, speaking for the FOSATH group, said the city has made some progress toward needed policy changes they seek for responding to mental health calls and use-of-force, but not nearly enough.
And Taun Hall, Miles Hall’s mother, told the council she’s disappointed that Walnut Creek hasn’t taken bold steps to develop non-police response policies for mental health calls.
“Look at Oakland, San Francisco … we’re asking you guys to be innovative,” she said.
Councilwoman Cindy Silva asked city officials to set up meetings with county health officials as soon as possible to help work out long-term answers, which are elusive.
“These issues are extremely complex,” Buckshi had said earlier. “If they could have been solved overnight, they would have, here and elsewhere.”
Councilman Matt Francois said he believes the issues can indeed be addressed.
“I don’t subscribe to the dichotomy that we can support people of color, or support the police,” he said. “I think we can do both.”