Two years ago, the Berkeley Police Department used tear gas and force to disperse crowds from Telegraph Avenue after an hours-long “Black Lives Matter” demonstration, sparking months of public outrage and dialogue, and leading BPD to take an in-depth look at what it might have done differently.
The night of the tear gas use, Dec. 6, 2014, police said some members of the crowd attacked officers with projectiles, and that the police force later became surrounded at Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way. That night, BPD gave many dispersal orders, which the department said — it later realized — only served in the end to make the crowd larger. Police ultimately used an estimated 50 tear gas grenades and “blast rounds” to clear Telegraph Avenue, and some people reported being struck and clubbed by police at different times throughout the night.
Last week, a preliminary settlement was reached between the city and seven plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit that challenged how police responded Dec. 6, 2014. According to some reports, the city has agreed to a payment of $125,000, as well as policy changes that would require officers to document force better, and work toward equipping officers with body cameras. (A Berkeleyside story is forthcoming.)
After last week’s demonstrations, sparked by a campus visit by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Interim Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said in a memo to city officials that the lessons learned in 2014 absolutely played a role in decision-making Wednesday night.
In the hours and days following Wednesday night’s protests, many — particularly outside the Bay Area — decried the police response on campus and in the city of Berkeley. Two entirely separate law enforcement agencies handle those jurisdictions: the University of California Police Department, a statewide agency, handles security on university property including campus, and the Berkeley Police Department, which deals with the rest of the city.
Berkeleyside had an in-depth conversation Friday with UCPD Police Chief Margo Bennett about how she handled Wednesday’s demonstrations. And Berkeleyside has spoken with BPD about why the agency made no arrests and did little to intervene in intensive vandalism to more than a dozen Berkeley businesses. But, to this point, Berkeleyside had not heard from the BPD chief himself.
Chief Greenwood sent a 2-page memo to Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley on Friday outlining his thinking Wednesday night during what he called the “Feb. 1 riot.” Berkeleyside has obtained a copy of that memo from the city.
“Elements of the crowd were actively looking for a conflict with our officers”
Greenwood told the city manager that the department’s actions Wednesday night “were informed significantly by our experience in the December 2014 riots.” The department’s thinking and approach “has significantly evolved” since those events, he said, and new training and policies have been put in place.
The department’s focus during riots, he said, is life safety: “I think this is not only in keeping with the values of our community, but with the best-informed practices of Law Enforcement across the country, in a time where community trust in our actions is absolutely essential.”
He described crowd management as “a complex challenge” for law enforcement.
“A large, leaderless crowd may appear to stand together on one hand to exercise their 1st amendment rights to assemble, and to speak freely, yet have different motives and intents throughout the course of a given demonstration. When such a crowd includes within it a faction of armed people intent on committing violence, as happened Wednesday night, safeguarding the community’s safety becomes particularly challenging.”
Greenwood said he watched live-stream coverage of the protest on Sproul Plaza last week, as it was unfolding, and saw many who were peaceful, “standing, singing, dancing, chanting, watching, playing music, and generally boisterously expressing their views.” But they weren’t the only ones.
“Into this crowd came a large group of armed, masked individuals, often referred to as ‘black bloc’ anarchists, who brought projectiles, shields, explosive fireworks and other weapons. In a coordinated effort, this group carried out an organized, focused attack on UC Police, barricades and campus property. This action prompted UC officials to cancel the speaking engagement.”
Eventually, after demonstrating on campus, the crowd moved into city streets and BPD became involved. BPD has said it initially assigned 12 officers to oversee the demonstration and provide traffic control. When tensions rose, the department pulled officers from patrol to help out, for a total of about 20 officers on protest duty.
Greenwood said BPD monitored the crowd continually. One BPD staffer was in the UCPD command post all night, and police also were watching “open source livestream videos on the internet.”
BPD responded to several people who were injured, but exercised caution when it did so, Greenwood told the city manager.
“All this was done knowing that placing police officers into a potentially volatile crowd situation could have prompted a focused, sustained violent attack on police, thereby rapidly escalating the risk of harm to all involved — peaceful protestors, violent actors, residents, businesses and police officers,” he wrote.
Greenwood said BPD had to take that stance because it was clear some “elements of the crowd were actively looking for a conflict with our officers.” (UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett has made a similar point.)
“In one case where officers came into view, they reported being seen by the crowd, and members of the crowd started to move towards them, even from hundreds of feet away,” Greenwood wrote.
Greenwood said BPD had seen the “opportunistic rioters” who attacked UCPD, and who “were eager to provoke and escalate a police response to an already boisterous and potentially volatile crowd, thereby putting relatively peaceful protesters into harm’s way. The black bloc typically uses a peaceful crowd to shield their activities during a police response, and we kept this in mind.”
He wrote that using force “indiscriminately” on the crowd “can harm more people, including protesters who are not breaking the law.”
Greenwood said no one has come forward to make an official report to BPD about any crimes or injuries Wednesday night. He asked people who are interested in that to call 510-981-5900 to do so. (UCPD is also attempting to collect these reports.)
In the memo, he also thanked Mayor Jesse Arreguín for visiting BPD on Thursday morning to express “his thanks and support of our folks.”
Greenwood continued: “None of our staff could recall when a Mayor had come by like that, and it meant a lot to our team.”