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San Antonio Police Explain Rules Guiding Their Use of Tear Gas And Projectiles

Some marches and vigils across the country began peacefully but descended into violent unrest last week as tensions between demonstrators and police boiled over. In San Antonio, protesters and other people who were downtown after nightfall experienced the San Antonio Police Department’s “crowd dispersal tactics,” regardless of whether they were rioting or on their knees with their hands up.

The San Antonio Police Department said officers used “less than lethal” force during the late-night unrest, with tactics that included smoke bombs, tear gas, rubber bullets, wooden projectiles and pepper balls.

Lt. Jesse Salame, SAPD’s deputy chief of staff, said police have been prepared to use “intermediate weapons” during large protests for several years but never had to use them until May 30.

“On Saturday, we had what I have never seen here at least in the 20 years I've been on the force,” he said. “I would say that was an unprecedented level of civil disobedience that we've not seen here in San Antonio in recent memory. …”

Salame said the department was reviewing at least two incidents that happened during the unrest to determine if there was any wrongdoing by officers. But overall, he said, the way the police used their weapons fell within the department’s guidelines.

People who witnessed the incidents, however, wondered what kind of accountability measures were in place when police use “less than lethal” weapons against the public during mass gatherings.

San Antonio’s use of force procedure and crowd management plan

The San Antonio Police Department’s current use of force procedure has been in effect since March 2017. It contains guidelines for officers using weapons such as tasers, pepper spray and physical restraints during their day-to-day jobs.

The procedure emphasizes de-escalation techniques. It says officers should prioritize the protection of life over the protection of property and apprehending suspects.

But the “less-than-lethal” methods recently used in San Antonio are part of a different procedure: crowd event management. Salame said details of that procedure are not openly available to the public. He added that the procedure was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be transparent,” he said, referring to the security measures around the procedures. “That is something that from a tactical public and officer safety perspective that we simply cannot release.”

SAPD Chief of Staff Robert Blanton said he didn’t doubt that projectiles may have struck people as they tried to clear the streets when the tear gas was deployed.

“What you have to understand is within those crowds,” he explained, “that some may be doing what others may not. So you may have some portion of people that are not turning to flee and so those munitions are continued to be used ... they're fired, kind of, in a general direction at that point ... the range of those things -- they're certainly not as accurate as other firearms. ...”

Blanton said the purpose behind using the projectiles and tear gas was not to seriously injure people but to force a crowd to leave an area.

A 2017 study published in BMJ, a medical journal database, explained that rubber and plastic bullets, bean bag rounds, shot pellets and other projectiles have resulted in an almost 3% death rate for the nearly 2,000 people analyzed in their study. About 15% of the people were severely injured.

“We find that these projectiles have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years,” the authors explained, “much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma. Given their inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse and associated health consequences of severe injury, disability and death, KIPs (kinetic impact projectiles) do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings.”

Salame said he’s seen the “less-than-lethal” options seemingly misused by other police agencies in recent years. He cited Austin as an example of that apparent misuse, referring to an incident in which several people were hit in the head with bean bag rounds. One person, Levi Ayala, 16, was hit and injured on May 30 while standing with his hands in his pockets several hundred yards away from the police during a protest.

“I can’t imagine that [Austin police] policy says that that would be okay to use it that way,” Salame said, adding that SAPD officers are trained to aim projectiles at people’s lower extremities.

“Those are intermediate weapons. Those are designed so that officers, they have a progression in the use of force continuum so that it's not immediately -- you’ve got to pull out your deadly weapon, which is your handgun. Those give us other options,” he said. “But, yes, inherently police work -- there's a risk associated with everything anytime an officer has to use force, and that’s why we rely on solid policy and good training.”

The May 30 protest and riot

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people attended a peaceful protest and vigil for Geroge Floyd on May 30. Police and organizers said the daytime events were peaceful and ended at Travis Park by around 7 p.m.

By then, less than around 300 people remained in the downtown area. But they ignored the march organizers' requests and walked a short distance to the Alamo to confront another group of demonstrators.

That group of about two dozen demonstrators at the Alamo had assembled, as they explained, to symbolically protect a monument that was defaced on the previous day. They legally carried weapons.

The situation was mutually antagonistic at times. Some members of both groups shouted at each other. Several witnesses reported that demonstrators near the monument brandished and even pointed their guns at the protestors. Police, who had their backs to the demonstrators, said they did not see anyone breaking open carry laws.

Peaceful protesters chanted, knelt on their knees and tried to engage officers in conversations.

Police said they eventually asked the armed demonstrators to leave the area, hoping that doing so would help ease the tensions.

But by that time, some people were breaking windows, looting and vandalizing about half a dozen police vehicles.

Salame said some protesters also threw rocks, bricks and water bottles -- some of which were frozen or filled with urine or bleach -- at officers. One officer required stitches, and another is still out of work after suffering a concussion.

Firsthand and video accounts from Saturday night reported some demonstrators sustained at least minor injuries, but Salame said none were formally reported to police, aside from heat exhaustion, seizures and other non-violently sustained injuries.

Police said the unrest at the Alamo protest, coupled with reports of looting and people trying to ignite fires, was what convinced police that they had to deploy smoke bombs, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper balls to regain control of the situation.

South Side resident Trestan Patton was peacefully demonstrating throughout the day and into the evening. He said he was in front of the Alamo and on his knees with his hands in the air when police warned that they would use tear gas.

“Because everybody was remaining peaceful and keeping their distance from the police, people started getting ... angry about that,” he said. “After that, the situation got more tense.”

Police initially released one can of tear gas among some of the protestors in front of the Alamo. Many of the activists, Patton recalled, were still on their knees, and they held their ground until police released more cans. At that point, everyone scattered.

“So everybody was running away,” he explained. “As we were running away -- we had our backs to the cops - that's when the cops felt the need to start shooting their pellets at us.”

Patton said the pellets struck him in the back of his head and shoulders and on his back as he ran away.

Just around the corner from the Alamo, Michael Thompson said a projectile struck him in the leg as he was leaving East Houston Street, an area rioters had looted and covered in graffiti. Most people had cleared the area by the time he was struck. Thompson https://youtu.be/xE3LIrC1eGw?t=4626">livestreamed the events on his YouTube channel for nearly fours hours that night, including footage of the moment the projectile hit him.

After being hit, he shouted, “I’m backing. ... You didn’t have to shoot me. I’ve been here this whole time just filming, and you seen me walking back.”

Thompson, a 38-year-old South Side resident, and others said they did not hear police warn them before officers released tear gas and opened fire with projectiles on East Houston Street. Despite being hit, he stayed at the scene and continued filming the police.

Thompson is an advocate for Second Amendment rights. He wanted to know what kind of guidelines officers have for using their weapons -- “less than lethal” or otherwise.

“Do these cops have the same checkpoint that we have as citizens because, like I said, I saw many officers firing just wildly at peaceful protesters trying to clear the street,” he asked. “They didn't go in there and try to evaluate the situation. They went in there guns-a-blazing and just started firing (projectiles)…”

Accountability: 'The million dollar question'

The San Antonio Police Department said it was reviewing at least two videos from riots on May 30 and June 2.

One of those reviews focused on a video posted on Twitter. In it, several police officers walk past a man who is yelling profanities at them. Most of the officers seem to ignore him until one of them appears to fire a projectile at him at close range. Footage shows the man’s arm bleeding immediately afterward. As the man walks away from the officers, it appears he is hit again in his leg, which also starts bleeding.

“We are aware of that incident,” Salame said. “I hadn't seen it until last night, but when I brought it up, [SAPD Chief of Staff] Blanton said that was something that had been brought to our attention already and is currently under review.”

He said body cameras along with the video on Twitter would be used to piece together exactly what happened in that situation. He added that once the review was finished, SAPD would be transparent about the findings. But until then, the department could not comment on the incident.

Complaints against SAPD officers are lumped into two categories: line complaints and formal complaints. Line complaints cover minor offenses, such as an officer being rude to someone or forgetting to give someone a case number. Formal complaints are for more egregious issues, such as when officers are accused of committing crimes or using excessive force.

The police manage the investigations into those complaints through a variety of methods including internal affairs, direct supervisory discipline or a review board made up of police officers and private citizens.

It was unclear what independent accountability measures were in place for San Antonio police officers, but the city has a Public Safety Committee, which is responsible for establishing policies and community-driven initiatives related to law enforcement.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval sits on the committee, and she chaired it in 2019. District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda is the current chair of the committee but was not available to comment.

Sandoval said she had not seen video footage from the riots. But, she added, it was discouraging to hear stories from people about projectiles and tear gas being used on peaceful protestors.

“Honestly, call me naive, I don’t see why you would use “use of force” in a peaceful protest. I just don’t see a place for it,” she said.

Police accountability from elected officials is the “million dollar question,” she said, and one the Public Safety Committee could take up when it reconvenes later this month, after not meeting for several months because of COVID-19 concerns.

“George Floyd died at the hands of police officers under the knee of somebody that was so calm that his hand was in his pocket when that happened,” she said. “That and everything it means and everything it implies is what we're talking about when people take to the streets. … We shouldn't use the fact that some folks have decided to break windows as an excuse to ignore this -- to ignore what happened to George Floyd and ignore what might happen to other people if we don’t act.”

But what elected officials can actually do to hold officers accountable for use of force or other violations was unclear. Officers are on contract, they are members of a union and they answer to City Manager Erik Walsh, not to elected officials.

Walsh did not respond to TPR’s request for comment about police accountability following the use of “intermediate weapons” on San Antonio residents. But during a press conference on May 30, he said, “I am proud of what the police department did last night and the excellent job -- that they exercised restraint last night.”

City Council is scheduled to meet Wednesday for a briefing about police-community relations and investigation and disciplinary processes for the San Antonio Police Department. According to an agenda from Walsh's office, Floyd's death prompted the consideration of "several proposals for reform."

Salame advised the public that if they have complaints about officer conduct, whether at recent protests or day-to-day, they may contact the department's Internal Affairs Unit at 210-207-7365 or at SAPD.InternalAffairs@sanantonio.gov.

Jolene Almendarez can be reached at JoleneAlmendarez@gmail.com and on Twitter at @jalmendarez57.

Jolene Almendarez can be reached at jolenealmendarez@gmail.com.