This message was released Tuesday by Walnut Creek Police Chief Jay Hill in response to criticism – leveled largely on social media – of his department’s response during a weekend protest this site covered as it happened Saturday evening.
During the incident, approximately 80 protesters blocked downtown traffic, set fire to Trump 2020 and Gadsden flags, engaged in a standoff with customers and staff at “Bourbon Highway” at the corner of North Main and Civic Drive, shoved a man to the ground after he allegedly assaulted a member of the protest and eventually assaulted Bourbon Highway staff and patrons with pepper spray.
Dear Walnut Creek Community Members:
As I read through the comments on our social media sites about the events of this past Saturday evening, I see that many of you want to hear from me directly and want to know where I stand on the issues facing our community. You have a right to ask these questions and are owed a response. This has been an unusual year of protest activity in Walnut Creek. Most of it has been peaceful, but in cases where demonstrators have jeopardized the safety of others, we escalated our response. On occasions, we have been accused of being heavy-handed and doing too much and we have also received criticism for not doing enough.
As an organization, we support the rights of citizens to peacefully protest and we recognize our obligation as police officers to protect that right. We also believe that protests should be lawful and that protesters do not have the right to infringe upon the rights of others. We believe everyone should have the ability to enjoy a night out without fear of being verbally or physically assaulted.
We learned late last week that a group that has been regularly marching through City streets would likely be back on Saturday night. Their protest marches have been inconvenient for some people, but with one exception, have not risen to a level where we would need to escalate our response; we had no reason to expect anything different on Saturday. Still, we had extra officers and reserve officers on hand. When the group arrived, it was apparent they were preparing for a confrontation. Some had helmets and ballistic-type vests on, others carried sticks or other items that could be used as weapons and most were wearing backpacks. Our intention that evening, like previous protests, was to monitor from a distance but not get baited into an altercation for minor transgressions (like marching in the street). Unlike previous protests, this time they brought spray paint and vandalized several businesses with anti-law enforcement graffiti while they marched throughout downtown. Based on the totality of circumstances (including the number of officers vs. the number of protesters and type of crime being committed), the decision was made not to intervene.
Some on social media have (Chief’s emphasis: stated that there was an order to “stand down” by the Walnut Creek Police Department. That is simply not the case. The reality is a tactical decision was made by on-scene supervisors who used all of the information available to them at the time (including severity of criminal activity and available resources) to choose a course of action. I feel strongly about our duty as police officers to uphold the law and protect the community we serve. In fact, over the past two weeks I have personally met with nearly every member of our department and specifically discussed my position as it relates to protest activity and shared my support for holding law violating protesters accountable. I further suggested they be mindful of the intent of many of the protesters who are arriving with the intent of baiting officers into a confrontation. We are not looking to use force for a minor transgression of the law. We know, when the protesters arrive wearing ballistic type vests and carrying sticks or pepper spray, their intent is not simply to start a march or demonstration.
To be perfectly clear, the message I have delivered to our officers is to consider the safety of the public, the safety of the protestors, and their own safety when deciding whether to take action in the moment for minor offenses. Our supervisors and watch commanders are empowered to use their discretion and experience to make judgment calls as they see fit based on the totality of circumstances that are unfolding in front of them. These “judgment calls” do not apply when public safety is at risk and we see assaultive behavior occurring. When that is the case, our officers will take immediate action and respond swiftly.
In all cases, we encourage our officers to fully investigate potential violations. Often, an arrest is not made at the scene, but we hold people accountable by gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and sending the case to the District Attorney for filing of charges. We have done this on several occasions since the protests began earlier this year, including arresting several looters from May 31. We have also issued citations to several protestors in recent weeks when their activities in the streets have warranted doing so.
As always, when an event like this occurs, we review our response as an opportunity to improve, and to make adjustments as necessary. We are already making adjustments and the community can rest assured that if this or any other group comes to town with unlawful intentions, the Walnut Creek Police Department will be prepared and will not stand by and let criminal behavior go unchecked. We want Walnut Creek to be a safe, welcoming community to our residents and visitors. We will continue to work to minimize instances where peaceful events turn into unsafe ones, and follow up on all leads possible to hold those who break the law accountable.