Oakland cops review snafus in protest response

Monday, July 26, 2010

Communication breakdowns and logistical snafus hindered Oakland’s response to mayhem after the Johannes Mehserle verdict earlier this month, leaving riot-clad officers standing by as protesters set trash fires, smashed windows and looted shops.

The July 8 protest-turned-melee marked unprecedented collaboration among 15 Bay Area police agencies on behalf of Oakland, but it also brought unprecedented logistical challenges dealing with 900 officers, said Oakland Police Deputy Chief Eric Breshears, the commander of the operation.

Police brass from those agencies are expected to meet this week to compare notes with an eye to better handle unrest that may follow the sentencing of the former BART police officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant. Mehserle’s sentencing is set for Nov. 5.

One thing commanders acknowledge is that vandalism and looting occurred while their officers stood within feet of the crimes on Broadway near 19th Street. The rampage in that area left more than $750,000 in damage and many business owners wondering why police didn’t protect their properties.

Oakland’s assistant police chief, Howard Jordan, said just what kept officers from acting is still being reviewed. There were more than 100 officers in the 19th Street area at the time.

“I don’t know what happened there, but the department will be looking into the incident and doing a debriefing … in the coming weeks and getting feedback,” he said.
Peace, then mayhem
After hours of relatively peaceful protests, things turned ugly as darkness fell. Looters smashed windows at a Foot Locker store and hauled away boxes of shoes. Protesters hurled bottles and rocks at police.

Just before 9 p.m., Oakland police Capt. David Downing – who was the commander of the downtown area – gave the order to disperse or be arrested, and officers pushed protesters up Broadway. But at around 9:30 p.m. near 19th Street, police halted.

The mayhem escalated. Protesters set fires to garbage bins and repeatedly shut off the street lights. Looters threw themselves at the window of Grace Beauty Supply and hauled off $15,000 in wigs, hair extensions and other merchandise.

“We saw our store get looted on TV,” said the owner, who declined to be named out of concern for her safety. “I just couldn’t believe it. My mother is old – I thought she was going to die.”

The police, she believed, would protect her business.

Looters emptied the Green Circle mailbox store of computers, printers, ink cartridges, sodas, candy and anything else that could be carted out through the shattered front window. The damage totaled more than $27,000, store owner Thillo Bramah said.

“I was at home and saw my business on the news,” Bramah said. “It was painful to watch. People were just coming by and grabbing things. Why did the police let this happen? I don’t understand.”
No help from police
While more than 100 officers stood by down the block, the family owners and workers of JC Jewelry were on their own.

Armed only with hammers, they were inside the store when a mob of vandals and looters used sheer force to pull down a metal cage that was protecting the store. The looters scooped up gold chains, diamond rings, gold teeth “grillz” and other items worth more than $50,000.

“The police were here, there, everywhere, but they did nothing,” said Tony Moeuth, 32, the owner of the business. “It was like they were scared themselves.”

Moeuth and two co-workers called 911 but could not get through. They did their best to fend off the looters on their own, but Moeuth was armed only with his fists and a small jeweler’s hammer.

“We just got overwhelmed,” he said a week later, nursing a black eye suffered in the melee as his family swept up the smashed display cases and scrubbed blood-splattered walls and carpet.

Moeuth still wonders what happened to the police that night.
Communications breakdown
On 19th and Broadway, meanwhile, police had a problem. How do they muster enough officers to close in on the looters from both sides of Broadway and arrest everyone, without being detected?

Breshears said getting officers to move quickly proved difficult.

“Anytime you know people are committing crimes and you can’t get to them right away, that is frustrating to police officers,” Breshears said.

One issue was communications among the various police forces through the central command post. Officers had to have Oakland police radios to communicate directly with the post because outside radio systems were not compatible. Some had radios that could patch into Oakland transmissions using special equipment, but the system was spotty.

“The communications didn’t work well,” said Renée Domingo, Oakland’s Director of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. “We’re trying to figure out what exactly didn’t work.”

She said police had a plan to handle communications among the different forces, but added: “We weren’t able to test the system (in the field) prior to the actual event. It was tested during the event and it didn’t work.”

Ashan Baig, who runs Oakland’s police radio system, said he believes any problems with communication with other agencies stemmed not from the system itself but from training issues.

“Based on what I know now, that’s my belief,” Baig said. “Sometimes the process breaks down. Technically things could be sound, but the process breaks down.”

In the end, Oakland police relied heavily on Alameda County sheriff’s deputies and officers of the California Highway Patrol, both agencies with experience working in Oakland.

But Oakland left at least 100 officers from outside the city on standby near Jack London Square, waiting for orders that never came.

The idea had been to have all the outside police forces check in at a command post and their commanders would be given Oakland assignments. Some assignments never came.

In other cases, forces from outside skipped the command post and headed right into action, with or without instructions and radios.
Apology to businesses
“We were trying to coordinate multiple agencies in a very large area of downtown and trying to maneuver them to capture as many people as possible,” Breshears said. “We caught quite a few.”

Police made 78 arrests that night and in the days that followed asked for the public’s help in identifying looters who were caught on camera.

The day after the mayhem, Oakland commanders visited Broadway merchants who had been looted.

“We got first-hand information,” from the merchants about the looting and the failure of police to act, Assistant Chief Jordan said. “We apologized for that.”

“All things considered, we did a damn good job,” Jordan said. “But there is room for improvement. I think the city has learned a lesson.”

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