CHP Defends Undercover Officer Who Pulled Gun on Protesters in Oakland

An undercover officer points his gun at the crowd while his partner subdues a protester who struck him in the back of the head, as demonstrations continue for a fifth night in Oakland on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. (Michael Short/San Francisco Chronicle)

A plainclothes California Highway Patrol officer brandished his firearm at a group of about 50 people during an Oakland protest Wednesday night decrying police brutality.

While protesters were debating whether to take over a highway or march downtown, an individual began shouting that there were undercover police, said freelance photographer Michael Short, who was covering the demonstration for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two plainclothes officers began backing away from the crowd when a man ran up and punched one of the officers in the head from behind, Short said. As the officer and his attacker wrestled to the ground, the second officer brandished his baton and then his weapon, the photographer said.

"We started shooting photos," said Short. "It wasn't that he was targeting me -- he was trying to keep everyone in the crowd back."

Avery Browne, chief of the Golden Gate Division of the Highway Patrol, confirmed that there were two plainclothes officers at the protest and that one of them brandished a gun. The officers had previously followed demonstrators in a car, listening to their conversations and then sending information back to the Highway Patrol and the Oakland Police Department. Browne said that the officers left their car after hearing that protesters were vandalizing an ATM and a T-Mobile store near Lake Merritt.

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"We know that it is upsetting and disturbing anytime a firearm is displayed," Browne said during a press conference late Thursday afternoon. "We want to prevent someone from getting hurt. And last night, these guys put their lives on the line because a group of individuals chose to destroy small businesses."

The Highway Patrol will investigate the incident, Browne said. The assailant was arrested and booked at Santa Rita jail for assaulting an officer. The police are still looking for a blond woman who ran up and kicked one of the officers before fleeing back into the crowd.

Police Will Continue to Use Plainclothes Officers

Several police agencies have been using, and will continue to use, plainclothes officers for intelligence, Browne said.

"We are very cognizant of the danger and we will continue to use plainclothes officers to observe. We will use all of the avenues that we can to keep the public safe," he said.

Police are also using Twitter to monitor protesters, and say that they were able to keep demonstrators off Highway 24 and Interstate 80 because of both sets of intelligence, Browne said. Plainclothes officers reported they saw people with guns at some protests, and some people on Twitter claim to have brought firearms. However, police did not arrest anyone with a weapon on Wednesday night.

Short has been covering the protests for several days, and says he doesn't blame the officer.

"If a group of, you know, 50 or 75 angry people (are) yelling at me and advancing on me, and my friend gets hit and knocked on the ground, I'd be pretty scared for my life and I think I would pull out my gun if I had one," said Short.

But he is concerned with other police actions that he's seen.

"I feel like things are kind of escalating," Short said. "There's definitely been complaints about the response in Berkeley."

Protesters Call Use of Force Excessive

During the ongoing protests, CHP officers have also used batons, smoke, projectiles and other so-called less lethal devices to control demonstrators on and around freeways in Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville.

Protesters called the CHP's response excessive. But Assistant Chief Ernie Sanchez says being on freeways is dangerous and against the law, so officers use "the necessary force" to keep people off.

“The CHP is saying enough's enough. Too many community members are fed up with being stuck in traffic. Too many community members are fed up with their property being damaged," he said.

Sanchez says he hopes putting legal pressure on protesters will deter future shutdowns, which he says are not a peaceful form of protest.

"What we are pushing for is for full prosecution of those demonstrators that are choosing to break the law," he said.

During the demonstrations, people threw projectiles, including rocks and "incendiary devices," at officers, according to Sanchez. On Tuesday night fireworks were launched at a CHP helicopter, the Associated Press reports. A police spokesman in Emeryville said some protesters threw bottles and chunks of concrete at officers and damaged some stores.

More than 250 people have been arrested by Berkeley, Oakland and Highway Patrol officers during the protests since Saturday. The majority of arrests were made on Sunday night.

Legal activists began attending the protests to observe police activities.

"My sense is that there's lots of things that law enforcement are doing and have done that are either designed or have the unnecessary effect of stifling political activism. Particularly when they're using explosive devices, using pepper spray or using tear gas and that sort of thing," said Carlos Villareal, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Villareal says the Guild is trying to provide legal resources to anyone who was arrested, and is putting pressure on prosecutors to drop the charges.

The Northern California Society for Professional Journalists posted an open letter denouncing the police response, alleging that officers used force on credentialed journalists covering the protests Saturday evening.