When the city’s elected leaders brought the San Jose Police Department’s after-action report of the George Floyd protest up for discussion earlier this week, some of them questioned the terminology peppered throughout the 243-page document.
The post-event analysis frequently called demonstrators “rioters” and referred to those who were detained at the protests as “prisoners.”
According to San Jose Inside’s review of the document, the words “prisoners” appears 30 times, while there are three times as many mentions of “riot,” “riots” or “rioters.” References of “agitate,” “agitator” or “agitators” shows up in 20 places.
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Sam Liccardo said that while he believes SJPD’s overarching narrative about responding to violence provoked by protesters, he took issue with the specific terms the department used to describe civilians in the report.
Instead of saying “prisoners,” for example, he suggested the more neutral “detainees.”
Some of the references to “rioters” fit the context—such as when referring to people who actually engaged in violence. But in other parts of the report, police used the term to describe groups that included civilian bystanders. Most notably on Page 119.
Under a section addressing injuries to demonstrators, SJPD states: “While numerous officers documented their use of force against specific rioters, most often the rioters fled back into the crowd and were not captured. Therefore, it is not possible to quantify the exact number of injuries sustained by participants.”
The phrasing suggests that only “rioters” sustained injury, which is far from true.
Derrick Sanderlin, an activist who used to teach SJPD recruits to keep their subconscious biases in check, was struck in the groin by a rubber bullet while raising his hands in a plea for officers to stop shooting.
Former San Jose Planning Commissioner Peter Allen suffered a football-sized bruise on his thigh from the same kind of projectile while observing the protest from the sidewalk. Shante Thomas was struck in the chest while peering out the window of her apartment across from City Hall. Adira Sharkey was hit while walking away from the chaos.
The after-action is SJPD’s self-examination of its highly controversial protest response. And to its credit, the analysis acknowledges some of the department’s shortcomings, such as a lack of training and preparation.
That it also includes so much presumptive rhetoric speaks to how normalized it is among the rank-and-file and the command staff calling the shots.
Records obtained exclusively by San Jose Inside suggest that SJPD referred to the protests as “rioters” as a matter of course.
In a June 1 email to SJPD Division Manager Lisa Perez titled “VIS Code? Floyd Riots,” Lt. Rob Imobersteg writes (emphasis added):
Good Morning Lisa,
Over the weekend and going forward we (BFO) are incurring overtime associated to the Floyd Riots and associated events in San Jose. Many officers and supervisors have inquired if they should be using a specific ViS Code and/or should it be for pay or comp.
Please advise how you would like this handled on time sheets. Thank you,
Lieutenant Rob Imobersteg #3054
BFO Admin Unit
A May 30 email sent by Sgt. Joshua Erbes ro Lt. Douglas Wedge and Capt. Jason Dwyer was “riot footage” and offered to provide video to refute journalistic accounts that the protests comprised mostly peaceful participants.
We have all the footage from AIR3 on a thumb drive if anyone needs it. It can clearly refute any media narratives that the protest was peaceful or that the police were the aggressors. Just in case.
Sergeant Joshua Erbes #3633
Bureau of Field Operations, Air Support Unit
During the council meeting earlier this week, several members of the public echoed the mayor’s concerns about the way police described the protests.
Most of the 70-plus people cited and released or arrested for breaking curfew or other protest-related violations won’t even get prosecuted, some of the speakers pointed out. So calling them “prisoners” in an official record isn’t even accurate.
Iheoma Umez-Eronini, who organized one of the protests a few months ago on behalf of The River Church Community, said the report’s framing undermines public trust by using “incendiary language throughout.”
“Given the fact that many of the folks who were taken into custody were not charged with a crime I would just ask for consideration of how we supplant that term as to how we refer to them arrestees or something of that nature,” he said at the Tuesday meeting.
When asked by the mayor why SJPD chose the term “prisoner,” for example, Acting Chief Dave Knopf said that's because it’s “common terminology.”
Liccardo also pushed back on Knopf conflating protesters simply present after an unlawful assembly declaration with “violent assailants.”
“I think there’s a very big distinction between those who were unlawfully present and those who were violent assailants,” the mayor said. “I think we both know people who got hit who were not ‘violent assailants’ and perhaps they were standing there—they might’ve been yelling, they might’ve been jeering, they may have been unlawfully present—but they still got hit. And there’s a very big distinction between the two.”
Knopf batted away the mayor’s critique, saying the people who remained on the scene “chose to stay in a riotous situation.”
Though the mayor didn’t advise Knopf about his use of the word “riot,” or variations thereof, he did suggest avoiding the term “prisoners” going forward.