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San Jose: Public sounds off on force at protests over police violence

San Jose: Public sounds off on force at protests over police
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SAN JOSE — Dozens of residents called into a virtual City Council meeting Tuesday to denounce officers’ use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other crowd-control methods they say only served to escalate tensions and violence at protests calling for less police force after the killing of George Floyd.

The vast majority of those residents also called for defunding or diverting funding from police services in the city’s budget toward community-led intervention and safety-net programs, aligning themselves with a rising political movement in large cities across the country. Mayor Sam Liccardo aleady has voiced his resistance to the extreme incarnations of those demands, saying he favors police reform over removing their presence altogether.

“Reform isn’t good enough because you don’t care to reform the police or hold them accountable,” Almaden Valley resident Sarah Enzminger said during a rapid-fire online public-comment period that lasted over an hour.

Other residents offered their accounts of peacefully protesting but encountering an onslaught of rubber bullets and tear gas anyway.

“I was shot by one of your projectiles. I did not throw anything. I have a plate-sized bruise on the side of my arm that’s still visible 11 days later,” said Alex McGregor, who was wounded on the first day of protests May 29 when police said they scrambled to respond to the growing demonstration. “There were other people around me who were much younger and much smaller, who were very peaceful with nothing to protect themselves but their cardboard signs.”

McGregor concluded: “I’m suffering now from PTSD from having been to my first protest in my life standing up for my black brothers and sisters. I do not appreciate police making justifications for the physical pain on me and other innocent protesters violating our First Amendment rights.”

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The council session on police force at the protests was announced last Friday as a response to ongoing public backlash and outcry over a stream of protest and witness videos and images of people being injured by rubber bullets and other projectiles. The San Jose Police Department attempted to get ahead of some of the discussion topics Monday by quickly instituting a ban on rubber bullets as a method to disperse crowds and updated crowd-control training.

Police Chief Eddie Garcia said he was proud of his officers’ efforts to maintain order downtown in the early days of the protests given the circumstances in which they found themselves. He also sought to offer a receptive ear to the scores of critics who have contacted him and the police department.

“We understand there is frustration in the community,” Garcia said. “Although I feel the majority of my police officers acted admirably and bravely to keep our city safe. … There is no question there are things I’m not happy about that occurred.”

During the session, San Jose special-operations Capt. Jason Dwyer reiterated his stance from a news conference last Thursday that officers were faced with an unprecedented amount of resistance and violence from protesters hurling rocks, chunks of asphalt and bottles at officers.

“We were getting our butts kicked,” Dwyer said, adding that the first day of protests unfolded too fast for a methodical response. “Our officers were being assaulted repeatedly with flying debris. I got hit and a lot of violence was going on out there.”

That was met with fierce objection by residents calling in to the council meeting. They took particular issue with Dwyer’s contention that rubber bullets were primarily “fired into the ground for ‘shock and awe’ effect” and that anyone directly targeted was “likely throwing rocks or other objects that could cause serious bodily injury.”

Dwyer offered an estimated count of just how many rubber bullets and projectiles were fired by line officers during protests between May 29 and June 7: 665 assorted rounds, more than two-thirds of them during the first day of demonstrations. That does not include 89 rounds deployed by the SWAT team.

At least 31 pepper-spray grenades were lobbed by skirmish line officers to break up crowds the first day. SWAT officers accounted for the use of at least 44 more of those grenades and 42 flash-bang, or stun grenades, over the course of the week. Those officers also deployed at least 32 tear-gas canisters.

In addressing the multiple residents who have claimed to have been hit by rubber bullets despite not fitting those criteria — including Derrick Sanderlin, a community organizer and police anti-bias instructor who police shot in the groin — Dwyer said that “it is up to the individual officer who fired to articulate what the specific threat was if they did target an individual and did in fact not skip it off the ground and actually was targeting a person with it.”

Areej Hasan, who identified as an East San Jose teacher, said she mostly saw police officers as aggressors, especially as she and her companions sought to leave downtown on May 30.

“As we were walking to our cars to go home, the rubber bullet guns were pointed at us and cops were saying expletives at us,” she said. “It’s ridiculous to say they were in a riot when they’re actually starting the riot themselves.”

Jesse Springer, an elementary school educator in East San Jose, was succinct in his criticisms.

“You have let the people of San Jose down,” he said. “You have shot, violated and traumatized our children.”

Several commenters added to a growing call demanding the firing of Officer Jared Yuen, whose taunts of “Let’s get this motherf—er” and “Shut up bitch” at protesters were viewed across the country in social-media videos, leading to Yuen being taken off street duty as police investigate the incidents.

After the final allowed comment was stated, Liccardo said the issue would continue to be addressed by the City Council on Friday morning.

“I can assure you I am hearing with different ears than I was hearing with a few weeks ago,” he said. “I certainly am cognizant we are learning new information that has us looking at this issue, I think differently.”

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