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'A Step Backward': SF Police Commission Questions Mass Arrest at Skateboarding Event

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Four police officers watch a crowd of people in the middle of an intersection a block away at night.
Police officers watch as hundreds of young people gather on Dolores and 20th streets amid fighting, stabbing and the lighting of smoke bombs on Oct. 31, 2022, in San Francisco. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The San Francisco Police Commission tonight will likely probe Saturday’s mass arrests of primarily youth at a skateboarding event at Dolores Park.

More than 110 people were detained on Saturday night after an annual “hill bomb” skateboarding event in the Mission District was shut down by police. Many people have since criticized the forceful police tactics used to respond to the youth-led event.

A total of 81 juveniles and 32 adults were arrested for “inciting a riot” according to police, as well as for remaining present at an unlawful assembly and conspiracy.

Officials tasked with reviewing the city’s police department are questioning the force tactics officers employed, including pointing less-lethal rifles at teenagers to deter the activity.

One San Francisco police commissioner said the police response was “troubling, to say the least.”

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“I think there’s a consensus that events like this need to be made more safe. But I question whether what we saw made this more safe,” said Kevin Benedicto, a San Francisco police commissioner, who said he plans to discuss the actions at tonight’s commission meeting. The police commission oversees police department policy and disciplinary hearings on police misconduct.

“The department has made a lot of progress in recent years on sort of modernizing the way it deals with juveniles and with youth,” Benedicto said. “And this seems a little bit like a step backward.”

The annual hill bomb, which is not city-sanctioned, attracts hundreds of people to watch skateboarders of all ages fly down Dolores Street, and resulting injuries are not uncommon. But at this year’s event, scenes of a blocked Muni train covered in graffiti, small fires and teenagers running from police in riot gear overshadowed the gravity-defying runs down Dolores Street.

At least one attorney is exploring a lawsuit on behalf of the youth and families who believe they were wrongfully detained at the skateboarding event.

“There’s a lot of interest in suing and challenging this police misconduct to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Rachel Lederman, senior counsel at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. “Parents in particular are outraged at how they were treated.”

Lederman said she has spoken with children as young as 13 and adults in their 30s who were swept up in Saturday’s mass arrest. She plans to hold a meeting next week with the affected families, and didn’t have a timeline for when a lawsuit could be filed.

Some parents waited four to six hours to reconnect with their children after they were detained at the event, Lederman said. “They were held as it became dark and cold. A lot of kids said they were freezing. They weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom, their phones were taken.”

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju echoed some of the concerns in a public statement Monday.

“The militarized police response to a youth-led skateboarding event was a tremendous overreach that escalated tensions, endangered young people and onlookers, and violated people’s rights,” he said.

Raju said his office has heard from several parents of kids who were detained on Saturday for hours, and some were transported to San Francisco General Hospital “for unknown reasons” before reuniting with their parents. One child who was detained was not attending the skate event at all, but got swept up in the arrests while riding a scooter to his friend’s house, Mission Local reported.

“We have heard from at least one family whose child was detained on their way home despite having no skateboard or any affiliation with the event,” Raju said.

The event was organized largely through word of mouth and social media.

To many participants and onlookers, the hill bomb is a celebration of the city’s skate culture, youth and daredevil spirit. But it’s no doubt dangerous: Bruises and broken bones are a common occurrence. In 2020, a cyclist died in a collision with one of the skateboarders at the hill bomb event.

Pointing to violent outcomes in the event’s history, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said that this year’s event was “safer than last year” and said that the overall approach by police to shut down the event was warranted.

“There may be individuals who got caught up in it who should not have been. But overall, this was a mob engaged in destructive and dangerous activities,” Mandelman told KQED. “I believe that they were provided significant advance notice that arrests were going to happen if the crowd did not disperse.”

He suggested another approach the city could take would be to create a city-sanctioned event for skateboarders.

This year, police reported that some teenagers threw glass bottles and fireworks at the officers. SFPD was aware of the event beforehand and placed barricades on Dolores Street for traffic safety. Additional officers were also assigned to the area.

According to police, an officer was assaulted while attempting to detain a 16-year-old after he spat at the officer’s face. The officer was taken to the hospital, and photos show he had a cut on his forehead.

Meanwhile, a Muni vehicle on Church and 17th streets was blocked by the crowd, and some youth began climbing on top of the vehicle and spray-painting the sides of the car, video footage and police reports show. Shortly after, the park was ordered to close and the fire department arrived on scene to extinguish fires caused by fireworks.

Mass arrests began around 8 p.m. when the crowd did not comply with orders to disperse, and police kettled a large group of teenagers in the street.

“This dangerous and unlawful behavior put members of the public and our officers at risk of serious injury or worse,” said San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott. “This behavior will not be tolerated in our city and I thank our officers for taking action to hold those accountable who brazenly engaged in reckless and dangerous behavior and violated the law.”

Mayor London Breed also backed the police response.

“This was an unpermitted event that has led to serious problems in the past, including property destruction and physical injury. The last time it was held, someone died. In San Francisco, we welcome public events that are conducted safely. This event was not that. People assaulted police officers, set fires, and vandalized property, including Muni vehicles,” a spokesperson from the Mayor’s office said in an email to KQED. “No one at this event was arrested for skateboarding.”

But others criticized the militarized approach police took to try to control the activity, saying it escalated frustration and violence.

“This is posturing from Mayor Breed to appear tough on crime, and these kids were used as pawns in a political game to make it seem like they are doing something about crime,” said Lederman, who lives in the Mission District. “These are children and skateboarders, not criminals.”

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KQED reporter Alex Hall contributed to this story.

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