Public rallies to defund San Jose police
Protesters marched from San Jose City Hall to Highway 101 Friday after a Minneapolis Police Officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Photo by Katie Lauer.

A San Jose schoolteacher asked city leaders at Tuesday’s City Council meeting if Police Chief Eddie Garcia thought it was OK for teachers to use rubber bullets on students throwing water bottles in class after the city’s top law enforcement leaders justified officers’ use-of-force at recent protests.

Following a presentation on police use-of-force, the comment was one of many calling out San Jose police for using tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray against protesters.

More than a dozen speakers condemned city leaders’ refusal to defund the San Jose Police Department after police officials defended their use of force during Black Lives Matter protests in San Jose following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Speakers’ opinions on defunding the police varied from reallocating current police funding to other programs to abolishing the department altogether.

Mayor Sam Liccardo publicly opposed defunding the police before the meeting but called for a review of the police’s use of force in San Jose.

Garcia appeared to be on the same page, welcoming a review.

Garcia proposed new crowd-control tactics and restrictions on officers’ use of force to allow firing rubber bullets only if a person poses a threat or attacks police or other people. Garcia also prohibited knee-on-the-neck choking, vowed to start extensive community outreach to review department policies and supported prohibiting officers fired for gross misconduct from being hired at other police departments.

“We pride ourselves in being transparent,” Garcia said. “We wish to discuss the events of this past week. Our heads are not in the sand. We understand there’s frustration in the community about what transpired.”

The police chief praised the majority of his officers’ performance during the protests but said there are incidents he’s not happy about.

Special Operations Commander Capt. Jason Dwyer said less-than-lethal weapons were used against protesters to prevent widespread arson, assaults and vandalism. However, he said that in recent history, San Jose police had not used those methods for crowd control.

“Basically, our threshold for deploying these weapons was a violent crowd of several hundred people who were attacking officers both hand to hand and by throwing dangerous objects,” Dwyer said. The objects thrown included plastic bottles, glass bottles, asphalt chunks and metal rebar, he said.

The special operations commander said the use of chemicals was the first option because it “was purely an irritant” and other weapons would cause “blunt force trauma.”

During the May 29 protest, police used 31 OC blast grenades — devices that spread pepper spray when detonated — and 400 foam rounds against protesters, Dwyer said.

Police used as many as 32 tear gas canisters throughout the protests, he said.

Speakers rallied against the police leaders and the City Council on Tuesday after Dwyer said throwing “full plastic bottles of water” fell under “assaults with deadly weapons.”

“I think it’s contemptible to hear these officers talking about fearing for their lives in the face of rocks and soda bottles,” said Richard Gutierrez.

Several people who were at the protest said they were injured by police and called for a ban on rubber bullets. The said the police provoked the violence.

“Someone threw an empty water bottle at the cops, and in response they sent projectiles and sent tear gas and me and my friends had to run inside the stairwells of basically the parking garage,” said Areej Hasan, an Eastside schoolteacher who was at a protest. “As we were walking to our car to go home, the rubber bullet guns were pointed at us and the cops were saying expletives at us.”

The teacher said the police escalated the situation.

“It’s ridiculous to say they’re within the riot when they’re actually starting the riot themselves,” Hasan said.

Speakers extended their criticism beyond the protests.

“This was not just about the protest. My concern is that it’s emblematic about a deeper cultural issue and overall perspective in the police department about the use-of-force and bias more broadly,” said Aaron Zisser, the former independent police auditor of San Jose. “I think there has to be an examination of the culture and the leadership at the police department.”

Despite a pledge by Liccardo to reform the police, protesters urged him to defund the department and channel dollars to other resources.

“Our youth demand that you defund the police…,” said Eastside Education Specialist Jesse Springer. “We’re the adults here, these are the children asking us to do this, so let’s stand up and own up to our adulthood here.”

Liccardo said he was listening to protesters with a “different ear” than last week and apologized to people who said they were injured by police.

Though one person opposed police defunding, arguing that businesses needed their support, a local business owner said there is deep distrust of police among her downtown community.

“My personal experience with law enforcement in San Jose and around the Bay have led me to the position that I would never, under any circumstances, call the police; every interaction I’ve had with a police officer as an adult has left me feeling scared, humiliated, confused and often all three,” said local business owner Cristina Muñoz.

The mayor said the discussion will continue on Friday.

Contact Mauricio La Plante at mslaplante19@gmail.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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