SJPD Criticized for Deploying Snipers at Peaceful Protest

On the day Donald Trump took the oath of office and lamented in his address the nation’s rusted-out factories and crime-plagued inner cities, protesters took to the streets of San Jose to denounce the 45th president of the United States. About 300 people, led by a grassroots coalition called Rise Up for Justice, marched from Plaza de Cesar Chavez, around the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and onto City Hall, where the crowd swelled to about 500 as the rain eased to a drizzle.

Activists and officials traded the microphone with orators, poets and singers before clearing the way for Akoma drummers and Aztec dancers. In a semicircle around them, people brandished signs defending the rights of the disabled, queer, foreign-born, working class and otherwise marginalized.

As motorcycle cops trailed the march and kept a respectful distance for most of the day, their colleagues—including a pair of snipers—kept watch from above.

“I saw maybe one or two of them on top of City Hall,” says Tamara Alvarado, head of the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza. “I was like ‘Huh, there’s a dude up there.’ It seemed to me that they were there to protect other officers and everyone else.”

Still, Alvarado recalls thinking, better a few San Jose police snipers than the rifle-wielding Homeland Security detail she saw outside the U.S. District Court that morning. “The federal building, which we circled about three times, was very heavily guarded,” she says. “It was a lot more tense, by far, than City Hall.”

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A source provided this image of a San Jose police sniper watching Inauguration Day protesters at City Hall.

A source inside City Hall snapped a cellphone picture of one of the SJPD snipers, which ignited a conversation in activist circles about how San Jose polices public assembly. The grainy visual of a sniper rattled many of the protesters, while organizers were concerned that the Inauguration Day protest appeared more heavily policed than the Women’s March, which by some estimates drew upward of 30,000 people to those same streets the next day.

“That’s just horrifying that they had that level of readiness when it was a peaceful protest,” says Ruth Silver-Taube, an employment rights attorney who regularly volunteers as a legal observer at political demonstrations. “Then you contrast that with the Women’s March, where I saw barely any police presence.”

SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia confirmed with San Jose Inside that the snipers—called “overwatch” in police parlance—were assigned to the Jan. 20 event and not the much larger event a day later. But he declined to explain why, citing officer safety.

“We don’t want to give our hand for tactical reasons,” Garcia says. “It is a tool that we use, and that’s not a secret. But we certainly can’t say for which events we have overwatch and which ones we do not, and we’re not going to get into whether we have a specific threat or not.”

Broadly speaking, Garcia says, SJPD reserves the right to deploy so-called protective overwatch for any “large group” gathered for a specific reason. Snipers provide an added layer of security and surveillance for visits from high-profile dignitaries, or to law enforcement during an officer’s funeral at the SAP Center, or major events like the Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in 2016.

“Our No. 1 priority is to stop some sort of active threat that’s occurring in the crowd,” Garcia says. “Ultimately, it adds security and safety for officers, but the primary reason is to try to mitigate any act of violence that’s occurring on the ground.”

Alan Schlosser, senior counsel for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), compared San Jose’s response to the Jan. 20 anti-Trump rally to the militarized response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

“That’s the only other time I’ve heard of overwatch,” Schlosser says, noting that he has witnessed three decades of protests as an ACLU attorney. “And in that case, the Justice Department specifically criticized the use of snipers this way. It’s not justified and not effective in a crowd control situation.”

In its scathing Ferguson report, the Justice Department condemned police for deploying overwatch so visibly. While snipers may be appropriate to protect police and civilian lives in certain situations, such as when there’s an active shooter, the report deemed it heavy-handed for peaceful protests. Garcia says he has taken those findings into consideration.

“We are very judicious about when we use overwatch,” he says. “There are a few things they did in Ferguson that we would not have done here.”

San Jose’s overwatch team surveys the scene through binoculars, Garcia says. Ferguson officers, on the other hand peered at protesters through the scopes of rifles trained at civilians, according to the DOJ.

“This is for community safety,” Garcia says. “We need to ensure that we prepare ourselves as best we can for when evil strikes.”

San Jose Inside obtained the operations plans for the inauguration day protest (click here to read) and the women’s march (read here), but any mention of the snipers must have been redacted (see here). According to the records, however, it looks like SJPD assigned 27 officers to police the Jan. 20 event and 14 for the march on Jan. 21.

Transparency is a work in progress in San Jose, where conversations about police militarization and surveillance predated Garcia’s tenure as the city’s top cop. Under his predecessor, Larry Esquivel, public backlash forced SJPD to ground a drone until it drafted a robust policy to govern its use. Also under Esquivel’s watch, San Jose returned a mine-resistant, tanklike military truck it quietly acquired from the Pentagon. Garcia says he regrets giving up the MRAP, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which helped law enforcement respond to the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015.

“I wish we had sat down and talked to the community and handled it the way we did with our drone,” Garcia says, adding that subsequent attacks at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and against police officers in Dallas underscored the need for greater precaution.

Several local activists say they would like to see SJPD handle overwatch that way, too, with open discussions about policy so that police and the public are on the same page.

“Some of us have been marching and dealing with police presence for years,” Alvarado says. “If I was to offer unsolicited advice to Chief Garcia, I would say let’s do parity.”

At the annual May 1 demonstrations, which trace the footsteps of Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong through San Jose’s East Side, the police presence has historically been far more visible than what Alvarado saw at the Women’s March.

“I was at the Women’s March, too, with my kids, and we saw so many people helping out with security as volunteers,” she says. “Maybe that’s part of why they didn’t see a need to bring police out in full force. But you know, we have security teams, too, so maybe we can work something out so that San Jose can ease up on the police presence at our march.”

Ironically, San Jose came under fire for being too passive during Trump’s campaign stop at the McEnery Convention Center last summer. Trump supporters sued the city, claiming Garcia and Mayor Sam Liccardo allowed the scene to devolve into chaos.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Garcia says. “We’ve gone through a lot of courses and training with regards to how to handle crowd control situations. You have to be temperate with your response, you have to give the opportunity for people to peacefully demonstrate and exercise their rights and you have to keep enough distance between two opposing groups.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

33 Comments

  1. Obviously the PD was ready for the two dozen of us trouble makers that voted for Trump in San Jose.
    Were you going to shoot us in the back Stinky Sam?

    • Mind boggling that you’re still proud of voting for a traitor who by all accounts is an absolute train wreck. Goes to show the incredible stupidity of Trump’s followers, I guess. Lemmings.

      • > who by all accounts is an absolute train wreck.

        First I’ve heard.

        Can you give an example?

      • LJW,
        I voted for Trump, the traitor for sale was Hillary who lost the election something the unhinged, hysterical,
        Marxist just can’t come to grips with.
        Hope your return trip to North Korea goes well !

  2. If an overwatch had been deployed when the “progressives” assaulted and battered Trump supporters at the campaign rally last year they probably would have shot the Trump supporters.

  3. Conflating Ferguson & SJ PD discredits Ms. Wadsworth and SJI. The only possible connection (pg 81 of DOJ Report) cites selective anecdotes from critics without any FPD explanation or perspective. Example: man handcuffed after refusing to obey lawful order to move; arrest of those with outstanding warrants. Some objected to SJPD’s drone because it was an an expensive toy and served no legitimate purpose. It was acquired in a rushed effort to grab a piece of an expiring federal grant. The Sheriff is equipped to handle bomb threats – not SJPD’s toy aircraft with a 10 minute battery life.

    If reprehensible that armed SJPD protects citizens, then we should certainly disarm them. Ditto for Liccardo’s security detail. Ditto for armed plainclothes security at all City Council meetings. Perhaps advocates prefer unarmed law enforcement in keystone cop attire. Oh snap – even Disneyland uses armed security.

    • People who attack journalists exposing police, government or judicial misconduct, are probably the very people Ms. Wadsworth is exposing, as part of her news gathering efforts to communicate information to the public.

  4. “That’s just horrifying that they had that level of readiness when it was a peaceful protest,” says Ruth Silver-Taube, an employment rights attorney…”

    Although a horrifying level of readiness has prompted more than a few wars, it has done so only when the horrified viewed the ready as the enemy. In other words, Ms. Hyphenated Attorney views the police not as peace officers but as the enemy of peaceful protesters, a perspective better explained by psychological disorder than American history.

    But looking beyond her dementia, examine the sorry state of her analytical abilities, which have somehow led her to perceive the presence of strategically-placed police sharpshooters as a threat to peaceful protestors. Being armed with rifles designed for accuracy (as opposed to rapid fire), sharpshooters provide an extremely limited type of protection at a protest march, peaceful or not. They cannot protect property, shore up a skirmish line, make an arrest, redirect a crowd, discourage a looter, and are of next to no use in preventing individual acts of violence. In short, they cannot do any of the very important duties that the crowd control cops are able and expected to do (when commanded by a real police chief), and represent absolutely zero threat to protesters. (If provided with a mailing address I would be happy to send Ms. Hyphenated Attorney a ball gag for use at her next press interview.)

    But what a sharpshooter can do, with unmatched effectiveness (stopping power plus the safety of the innocent), is to shoot dead the crazed gunman or homicidal truck driver intent on killing as many of the assembled as possible, thus making the only thing horrifying about their presence at a peaceful public gathering is that society has sunk to such a level that prudence has made them a necessity.

    • If recent history is any indication, crowd control is no longer on the list of PD todo list either. Perhaps the snipers are there to cover the back of the chief.

    • I think you have a strong argument in favor of the use of snipers, but I think it’s very unfortunate that you included in your argument nasty comments about the attorney. When you insult people, it’s harder for anyone to listen to and respect any good arguments that you may have.

  5. Someone with a rifle, who is unseen, is a sniper. Someone with a rifle who can be seen is a deterrent.

    How’s this for terror Ms. ACLU? In nearly every protest that turns violent, there are one or more instigators who whip up the crowd and start the violence; who ignite the mob mentality. They are relatively easy to spot.

    So,why not get a “sniper” with a really powerful pellet gun; one that fires a projectile that pierces the skin but is very unlikely to cause a mortal wound. An air-gun just powerful enough that the person so hit will instantly turn his attention away from burning and looting, to just getting to a doctor as quickly as possible.(Less lethal sniping?)

    Now, imagine if you are a professional agitator, easily spotted by the trained eye, and are looking to set fire to something or through a brick through a window or commit some other violence inspiring act. However, now you have to be seriously concerned about being “stung” silently from afar? It might take the fun out being a professional agitator and violence provoking slob.

    • JR.
      I don’t know about the pellet gun thing but a .308 splattering a bad guy’s brains over a mob seem to provoke them into looking for someplace else to play in a hurry.

      • Mr. Empty G,

        I understand your sentiment. The problem with your suggestion is that rioters, and the media, know that such drastic action will likely never happen. If a rioter (er, I meant “peaceful protester”) who was setting a patrol car on fire while holding the severed head of a police officer, was of a certain “demographic” and named, for example, Ferguson Baltimore King, was the recipient of deadly force, no matter how justifiable, such an action would always be viewed as just another senseless act of oppression perpetrated (undoubtedly only by white cops, aren’t they all?) against those who only seek to exercise their First amendment rights.

        With the airgun technique, the matter could be handled quietly with a small projectile (perhaps with a pinch of pepper spray on it). No firearm would be involved; it would come quietly without warning out of nowhere; and the instigator/recipient would only realize, suddenly, that they needed to get to an emergency room or an urgent care center immediately. Once the instigators are all dealt with, the riot, er, I meant the peaceful exercise of First amendment mayhem and destruction, would likely break up or fizzle considerably in short order. Problem solved.

        • The PD’s have bean bags, rubber bullets, flash bangs, teargas and pepper spray, shields and batons, none of which had little more than an annoying effect on the Berkeley mob a few weeks ago.
          In contrast the BLM shooting in Texas sent the mob running for cover even though it was the cops that were getting shot. I’m not saying that we need to shoot someone at every protest but we shouldn’t be standing by as the cities are burnt to the ground and people are murdered on the streets by professional anarkist.
          Deliberately wounding someone with a pellet may just get the taxpayers sued just like killing them would, that could be considered mayhem or attempted murder.
          A tranquilizer dart in the butt might be an interesting tactic, but I’m sure even a bad lawyer for the defendant would have a ball with that one.
          The press be damned!

  6. > But what a sharpshooter can do, with unmatched effectiveness (stopping power plus the safety of the innocent), is to shoot dead the crazed gunman or homicidal truck driver intent on killing as many of the assembled as possible,

    I suspect that Ruthie knows this will never happen in San Jose.

    It’s not clear to me how she knows this, but apparently she DOES know,

  7. What part of this is surprising, confusing or troubling? Cities lead by Democrats are the biggest abusers of stockpiling military weapons (and tactics here) while their chattel continue looking the other way for the “greater good of the state”….

  8. This sounds like the outrageous deployment of a tank in Tianamen Square.
    I want a military assault rifle with sufficient rounds and training to protect myself and family . . . . from the police!
    This type of heavy-handed tactic serves to distance the public from the law enforcement mob. We are disenchanted.

  9. What a pity! Please divulge the terrorist attacks prevented or “downsized” by police “overwatch” hit squads. Kinda reminds me of the public ignorance after 9/11 when the military deployed F-15’s to fly next to suspected terrorist infected aircraft. Their orders were to shoot down at all costs and that any innocent human collateral would be tolerated. Yea! Go Team America!

    • > Their orders were to shoot down at all costs and that any innocent human collateral would be tolerated.

      So, the F-15’s disobeyed orders?

      How many “innocent human collateral” did we tolerate?

      Are you sure you have your facts straight?

    • Ultra Klutz,
      Dallas Texas June 2016, 11 cops shot 5 or 6 dead at least one civilian, BLM peaceful protest comes to mind.

      How many do you need?

      That flight to DC was brought down heroically by the passengers with no other collateral damage.
      You should have been there!

  10. As a military member I was there! Maybe if either of you had served in the military in our nation’s time of need instead of hanging out in your mommy’s basement and writing indiscriminate BS as internet trolls you would be able to grasp reality. Do you really get all your facts(?) from other internet trolls. Time to get out of the basement and live life.
    Good Luck!
    Semper Fi

  11. Ultra Klutz was there? You must be a young-on,

    “The Facts”, we sent F16’s with no weapons, the idea was to ram the plane if they had to not shoot it down.

    Yes I served, I volunteered 70-74, the basement I was in was next to the F4’s with the nukes , my daddy served next to the nukes on Tinian Island and Grandpa well he served in the trenches of the Great War as a medic. Our next generation is serving in the Navy. How fortunately he won’t have to salute Hillary.

    Were you even born in 1970 Klutz?

  12. Police and Federal National Defense: Peace Officers: TO PROTECT AND SERVE. We need reform and clarity. We need to be ABLE to TRUST our defenders. That means the Protectors seek first and only to protect the people. They seek first and always to uphold the rights of the individual, and seek to work WITH the people, for the PEOPLE. WE CANNOT TRUST TO BE PROTECTED By those violating the laws they uphold. Nor should officers have any objective beyond ensuring public safety. In individual situations that means individual safety and harm reduction. SAFE. TO know that person HAS YOUR BEST INTEREST AT HEART, IN MIND, AND PRACTICE. THEY HAVE YOUR BACK. We CANNOT have safety officers on duty to collect funds through citations, to charge the person who needed help with erroneous crimes, or focus on the ones UNLIKELY to be violent or pose any threat, to intimidate, coerce and use for their roster of cases. What is simple Procedure to them, upsets whole lives. I don’t believe that’s why most became officers. Organization structure needs to redirect focus to protect those who need it most without negative consequences for the service, prevent public victimization by posting officers at the dangerous criminal crossings and cases, not the frequently ready spots to issue citizens non violent citations. Bring back warnings and education to improve safety. Help law abiding citizens stay informed and stay ready. Life happens, everyone has rough days, it doesn’t need to be a crushing, shattering thing if provided instead an understanding and supportive protector.
    , given the option to do the humane thing.

    Right now, people feel officers would rather pick on them than protect them. No one is there when you need sudden protection, yet our rights are not being acknowledged and upheld. I believe we need to work together to be effective. Programs that teach the people to defend themselves. Offer free training. Certification other officers will respect. Do it based on criteria if need be, women, men etc. Train everyone but trained tailored programs by group, svc and perhaps ability matters. Get certified to use self defense weapons, firearms etc. For those who cannot afford protection, have programs. We can arm other countries but not protect our interior? The certificate shows education, safety, training. Those who underwent training and received hardware would possibly be trusted and registered. Any incidents would be easier to track, however self defense is not a crime.

    A Country is safer if the average citizen can protect themselves, their homes, our border. Any external foe, entering a land the soldiers are deployed away from, to the other areas..will find heroes not helplessness, not villagers who can only plead non violence and inexperience, but children, women svc, elderly, and civilian men, who can run. Build shelter, but mostly FIGHT…quietly wait until if needed, wait for advantage and work alone, as a family, a neighborhood, a town. Training will ensure this.
    This is OUR LAND. Our lives. We deserve to protect ourselves. TO live freely. TO speak. TO be SAFE. And

    Safe in the knowledge our Country’s RIGHTS, our human rights, civil rights…those liberties given us on The Constitution and Bill of Rights..those unalienable rights, ARE. THEY DO NOT HAVE QUALIFIERS! No restrictions, permits or fees..No, we HAVE THEM EVERY TIME. NO EXCEPTION, NO QUALIFIERS. So YES we may bear arms, yes we may speak, HAVE protection against unlawful search & seizure, keep our freedom, our property..and HAVE privacy, and zones of privacy. The best way to do this is TOGETHER. United We Stand

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