San Jose police deployed more than 600 rubber bullets into crowds of protestors from May 29 to June 7. And though SJPD leaders say they’re open to rethinking such crowd-control tactics, they once again defended their actions as a reasonable use of force.
At a virtual public hearing today, Capt. Jason Dwyer responded to a call from Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and council members Raul Peralez, Lan Diep and Magdalena Carrasco to explain the department’s response to local protests that kicked off a couple weeks ago in response to George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis cops.
Since the SJPD rained projectiles and tear gas on an untold number of peaceful bystanders in the first few days of demonstrations, the city has been faced with fierce public backlash. One concern expressed by community members is how the city deployed tear gas and pepper spray on protesters in the middle of a respiratory-disease pandemic.
In SJPD’s defense, Dwyer said the agency had to use it—for the first time in the city’s history—to avoid using more damaging weapons. “We saw this in the past week as not only a useful tool at dispersing a crowd and defending officers, but also as an alternative to [the] utilization of projectile impact weapons,” he explained.
The projectile impact weapons, which include foam baton rounds known more commonly as rubber bullets, “work through blunt force trauma,” Dwyer said, in apparent contradiction to his description of them a week prior as “semi-soft.”
According to the department’s policy, rubber bullets can only be used under two conditions: to incapacitate a suspect who’s armed with a weapon or in a situation where its use would prevent anyone from being seriously injured.
On May 29 and 30, he said protestors hurled water bottles, rocks, beer bottles and other objects at officers, creating what he described as “a war zone.” “We were getting clobbered” he said. “We were getting out getting our butts kicked out at Eighth and Santa Clara, Seventh and Santa Clara, and the officers were being assaulted repeatedly with flying debris. I got hit. A lot of violence was going on out there and it was not pretty.”
Part of the memo written by Liccardo, Jones, Peralez, Diep and Carrasco asked SJPD for a recommendation on whether to ban rubber bullets for crowd-control.
Protestors across the country have reported serious injuries, including blindness, caused by various types of rubber projectile. In San Jose, police fired a rubber bullet at the groin of an activist who volunteered countless hours over the past few years to train SJPD to recognize subconscious biases. The incident left 27-year-old Derrick Sanderlin uncertain about whether he can ever have children.
On the eve of the council meeting, Chief Garcia released a letter announcing that he”s open to voluntary policy changes. Among them, one that limits projectile impact weapons to “situations where a person is actively attacking an officer or another person when an armed agitator poses a threat to officers or other peaceful protestors.”
Dwyer said that prohibiting rubber bullets altogether would narrow options for police “faced with massive amounts of violence and rioting.” Without such a tool, police would have to resort to chemical agents, he said, such as tear gas and batons. Or, he added, they’d have to withdraw altogether.
Throughout the meeting, dozens of community members phoned in to express their anger with city leaders for their complicity in SJPD’s aggressive response and to urge them them to reduce funding to the department.
Cristina Munoz, who identified herself as a small business owner and downtown resident, said her experience has led her to “never, under any circumstances, call the police.” She said: “Any and every interaction I’ve had with a police officer as an adult left me feeling scared, humiliated, confused and often all three. When I see a police officer patrolling a neighborhood as they often do, I feel fear not security.”
Eli Dinh, a kindergarten teacher and parent of a preschooler, described being“disturbed at the values that folks in power are communicating to the children in our community.”
“My daughter is scared,” Dinh said. “She wants to know why police are hurting people and I don’t have a good answer. It is reprehensible that our leaders continue to make excuses and uphold white supremacy.”
Former Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser was among the speakers, calling in to tell the council that he believes the issue is bigger than the protests. “My concern is that it’s emblematic of a deeper cultural issue and an overall perspective in the police department about use of force and bias more broadly,” he said. “I think there has to be an examination of the culture and the leadership at the police department.”
Liccardo, who’s been sharply criticized by many community members for his wholesale refusal to seriously consider defunding the SJPD, assured the public that the conversation about policing in San Jose is only just beginning. “We are taking in information,” he said. “We are listening and I can assure you I’m hearing with different ears than I was hearing with a few weeks ago.”
Due to time constraints, the council opted to table the hearing to 11:30am Friday.