When they were ushered outside a campaign rally, supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump didn’t expect the rally to erupt into violence. They expected their police department to protect them. But they said that’s not what happened.
And now four years later, the lawsuit, filed in July 2016, was quietly settled last week. The 20 plaintiffs were not awarded any money, but as part of the March 26 settlement, the police department agreed to provide additional training to its officers on crowd control. It also specified that Mayor Sam Liccardo and Police Chief Eddie Garcia meet privately with plaintiffs to discuss the changes and apologize for how the situation played out.
Liccardo issued a statement saying such violence has no place in civil society, and that it’s “all the more reprehensible” when used to intimidate or dissuade others from free speech or political expression. Liccardo also assured the “blameless individuals” who were assaulted at the Trump rally that the police department will do “everything in its power to provide a safe environment at these events.”
“Where we can do better, we will learn and improve on our strategies, tactics, and planning with the goal of achieving safety for all,” he said.
However, according to the order, neither party has admitted liability or responsibility.
The suit originally named Liccardo and Garcia, but, after a judge dismissed charges against Garcia and attendees dropped the charges against Liccardo, it later shifted to seven other city officiers. Judge Lucy Koh, of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court, said that while the city was not liable for the incident, Garcia’s comments afterward gave weight to officers’ allegedly unlawful conduct.
During a June 2016 rally for Trump at the McEnery Convention Center, police led nearly 3,000 attendees out a different exit than rallygoers anticipated — right into the midst of an angry mob of protesters that allegedly shouted vitriol and attacked them.
“They led us literally directly into the protestors then suddenly the police line wasn’t there,” said Juan Hernandez, an attendee and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Then you see people stepping on American flags, and you think ‘oh my God, this is armageddon.”
Police failure to prevent the assault led to a class action lawsuit filed by prominent San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon aimed at reforming how police handle politically-charged public events.
After seeing and hearing about the aftermath, Dhillon opted to spearhead the lawsuit. Speculation swirled that someone, possibly Mayor Sam Liccardo, a vocal Trump opponent, ordered police to not interfere. Liccardo vehemently denied those claims.
“We saw people we knew being assaulted, spat on. How unamerican,” Dhillon told San José Spotlight. “Authorities standing down takes it from appalling to illegal.”
After Dhillon filed the suit against the city of San Jose, including the police department in representing 20 people who attended the rally, the city of San Jose fought back, seeking to have the court dismiss the case. The city claimed officers had qualified immunity — essentially that the failure to protect the public was a judgment error, not negligence. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court disagreed, dismissing the attempt to block the lawsuit in 2018.
That ruling, Dhillon said, is just as much of a victory as the settlement that came earlier this year. As part of the settlement, the police department agreed to additional training and Liccardo issued a statement apologizing for the incident.
According to the mayor, San Jose authorities are prosecuting 22 people for the incident. Although Liccardo’s statement expressed “regret” that police were unable to “fully prevent the assaults,” the settlement is clear that neither he nor the police department admit any wrongdoing.
The mayor’s office did not return a call for comment this week.
Hernandez, the lead plaintiff in the case, said while he was satisfied the agreement called for additional training for the police department, the mayor’s “apology” rang a bit hollow.
While walking to the parking garage after the rally, Hernandez suffered a broken nose when a man holding a Mexican flag targeted him, he suspects, because he too is Mexican. He claims the man ran up on him and his date, punching him and sending Hernandez to the ground.
Hernandez, a clinical rehab counselor for Santa Clara County’s criminal justice system, is no stranger to political diversity. His mother is a self-avowed liberal Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton and his father is conservative. But this took things to another level. Such tensions had been brewing for a while, he said.
“I never let anyone know who I supported because I knew I was going to be attacked verbally,” he said. “Looking back to when I was 18 or so, it was so much easier coming out gay than it was coming out a Trump supporter.”
Hernandez said Garcia’s apology seemed genuine.
The city did not have to pay anything to the plaintiffs. More than anything, Dhillon said, she filed the suit to teach the mayor and police department a lesson, which she feels she did.
“I didn’t file the lawsuit to get money or humiliate anybody,” she said. “The mayor may have felt comfortable mocking Trump supporters in the wake of that attack. I feel confident that he would not do that now.”
Contact David Alexander at [email protected]