On Dec. 6, the first night in a wave of demonstrations in Berkeley related to the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Berkeley police officers used tear gas to disperse crowds on Telegraph Avenue.
Many individuals involved with that first night’s protest said the use of force, which also involved baton strikes and less lethal projectiles, was unwarranted. Police said officers only took those steps after making dozens or even hundreds of dispersal orders, and being attacked themselves with a range of projectiles thrown by members of the crowd earlier in the night.
The Berkeley Police Department said costs to the city have not yet been tallied for its response to the protests — in which crowds ranged from 100 to 1,500 or more people during the first few nights. But the department anticipates costs in excess of several hundred thousand dollars, said Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan. The department does not yet have an estimate for damages to businesses.
Berkeleyside posed a list of questions to Meehan on Dec. 7, and received responses Dec. 18. The questions, some of which have been edited for clarity, follow, along with Meehan’s answers and several videos posted online by members of the crowd.
The Berkeley City Council has scheduled a special meeting and workshop for Saturday, Jan. 17, to address community concerns and discuss issues related to the protests.
Berkeleyside is working to submit a formal Public Records Act request to review documents and other information regarding the Berkeley protests in December. We invite readers to let us know in the comments below what questions they would like to see answered by local authorities and officials. Additional reporting is forthcoming.
Q&A WITH BERKELEY POLICE CHIEF MICHAEL MEEHAN
Q: How many use of force reports were filed by police for the protest that began Saturday, Dec. 6, and ended in the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 7?
A: We don’t have specific numbers regarding individual uses of force in a demonstration. Demonstrations are considered “Unusual Occurrences” under the Berkeley Police Department General Order. Situations involving large numbers of people make it impractical for each officer to document individual uses of force. The use of force and the full sequence of events will be reviewed in a post-incident report, which will also document arrests, injuries, property damage, personnel costs, and other information.
(Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside asked the police department when the post-incident report is expected to be complete. The response was that the report “is a substantial undertaking, and our interest is in the review being accurate, complete and meaningful. As such, we anticipate it being completed within the next few months.”)
Q: How many and what type of injuries were reported to both officers and the public?
A: Injuries to officers included a serious shoulder injury, a back injury, as well as numerous abrasions, bruises and other injuries. We’re not aware of a specific number of people [outside the department] who may have reported injuries. We’d refer you to [the Berkeley Fire Department] regarding calls they may have received.
Q: Why was tear gas used? How many times was it used throughout the night of Dec. 6-7?
A: Our strategy has never emphasized tear gas as a fundamental component. We have a number of tools available. Non-irritant smoke, tear gas, and foam baton rounds were used as defensive measures, dependent on the situation facing officers.
At Addison and Martin Luther King, on Dec. 6, officers were struck with bricks, rocks, pipes and other dangerous objects. Smoke was used to move people away and stop the attack on officers.
On Telegraph Avenue, officers were again struck by rocks, bottles and other dangerous objects. Smoke, tear gas and foam baton rounds were deployed only after repeated dispersal orders had been given; officers on police lines — giving clear instructions — were met with resistance from crowds; and where officers were unable to move without encountering resistance and attack.
By policy, dispersal orders are given repeatedly in order to allow people to move away from the area, should they choose.
We understand that seeing force used by officers can be disturbing to some. However, use of these tools allowed officers to bring an end to an unlawful and dangerous situation.
We are aware of instances of masked agitators within the crowd using threats, intimidation and physical violence towards others in the crowd, assaulting or intimidating journalists, peaceful protestors, and community members who were video recording or simply trying to prevent destruction.
Q: What other tactics were used?
A: Our focus throughout each night has been to facilitate peaceful demonstrations of first amendment expression. We began with an intentionally low-key approach. We attempt to contact organizers at the beginning of each march. We block traffic to ensure safety when the march is underway. We use Nixle to inform the community about protest location and direction to mitigate traffic issue and ensure marchers’ safety. Our response at any given moment depends on numerous factors, from the resources available, the ability to move our officers effectively to address problems, and the size and actions of the crowd.
Q: How many officers have been working to handle the demonstrations?
A: Throughout the first five days, the number of officers varied from day to day. The Berkeley Police Department staffed approximately 80-100 officers each day, including patrol and protest-related assignments. This required the canceling of days off for all personnel. Regarding mutual aid assistance, the number varied from 100-200+ officers depending on the day and time.
Q: Which departments assisted?
A: Department assistance for planned events is obtained through the County’s Mutual Aid system, whereby additional officers are requested through and coordinated by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. At one time or another most of the police departments in Alameda County, along with departments in San Mateo and Solano counties, provided assistance. Assistance was as little as a few officers from smaller agencies, to dozens of officers from larger agencies.
Q: Which departments used force? Might officers from other departments used a more aggressive approach?
A: BPD does not track use of force by other agencies. Agencies assisting the Berkeley Police Department arrive with and utilize the vehicles and equipment they routinely train with, in accordance with the individual agencies’ departmental directives.
Q: What type of review will take place?
A: There will be several reviews of available information, including video and photographic evidence, which will help provide a complete and factual picture of the events of last week. Thorough review will take time, but a responsible and constructive discussion of these events must be based on fact.
KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside's Daily Briefing email.