San Mateo councilmembers and others who participated in a peaceful protest in San Mateo Wednesday sparked by the killing of George Floyd say the police response was at times unnecessarily intimidating and are taking action to prevent such interactions in the future.

Police, however, have described their handling of the protest as “appropriate” and say the equipment they brought, which in part prompted the concern, is consistent with the approach of law enforcement agencies throughout the world.

Attracting roughly 2,000 people, the protest saw zero injuries, detentions or arrests and no property was damaged. It started at City Hall, where a rally was held for speeches from a variety of community members, before a march to the Police Department 1.7 miles away. It was slated to end about 7 p.m., well before a countywide curfew called for two nights at 8:30 p.m. The protest followed numerous ones throughout the Bay Area and nation that were largely peaceful, though many elsewhere were also marred by violence and looting.

What appeared to be an otherwise positive experience in San Mateo turned sour for many after about 200 protesters broke off from the main gathering at the police station on Franklin Parkway and headed for the Hillsdale Shopping Center.

When that happened, San Mateo police deployed a supplemental group comprised of officers from local police departments and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, according to a statement by the San Mateo Police Department. Twenty of those officers were sent to the shopping center and 10 were sent to the police station.

What happened next around 7 p.m. at both locations prompted a backlash from residents and councilmembers alike. According to many, the supplemental group of officers showed up in an unnecessarily intimidating manner, equipped with tactical gear including helmets, batons and zip-tie handcuffs, and some also carried what was widely believed to be tear gas launchers and rubber bullet guns.

“Seeing the police officers wearing the things they wear when things are out of control was not necessary. It was heavy-handed for a situation that was very peaceful and in control,” said Mayor Joe Goethals. “It spoiled the mood for some people.”

Councilman Rick Bonilla also said he was disappointed by the response.   

“I was waiting for the moment of silence as we approached 7 p.m. but I never heard a call for it,” he said. “Instead I was disappointed to see a line of police vehicles with lights and sirens driving through the crowd and officers dressed and armed in a way that I felt was inappropriate.”

Shara Watkins, a member of the San Mateo-Foster City School District Board of Trustees, spoke at City Hall and was with her family during the march. She said in a letter to the San Mateo City Council, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and San Mateo Police Chief Ed Barberini that she witnessed a man jump out of the way of a Sheriff’s Office vehicle and children crying.

BLM San Mateo

A San Mateo police officer talks to a citizen in front of the police station during the peaceful protest.

“I personally witnessed an older gentleman literally jump out of the way of a sheriff car backing up into the driveway. Children were running into the arms of their parents in tears,” she said. “This was nothing more than an unprovoked, blatant show of force which negated the otherwise positive nature of the demonstration.”

In the statement, San Mateo police noted the supplemental group of officers were outfitted in helmets and other gear because they’re only deployed “when potential unlawful activity presented itself.” San Mateo police spokesman Officer Michael Haobsh said residents before the protest “expressed immense fear about the viral threat of looting that was spread across the internet before Wednesday.” He also noted police discovered local social media posts encouraging looting of retail centers on the Peninsula.

Haobsh said the tools the responding officers were equipped with are common around the world.

“Any tools seen by members of the public are common around the world; San Mateo is no different,” he said. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to use any of our tools during the protest because it was a peaceful demonstration. However, having these tools were part of our contingency plan in the event looting vandalism, or civil unrest took place. Something all to common in the Bay Area these days.

“Our response was appropriate,” he concluded.

The incident has prompted some protesters, including Sarah Fields, president of Peninsula Young Democrats, to call for a change in police policy.

“We urge our cities and county to review these practices immediately and share with the public how you will change and do better,” she wrote in a letter to Barberini and Bolanos with a copy to the San Mateo City Council and San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

Bonilla said the situation could have been handled differently and met with the city manager about it and will meet with the police chief Monday. He also endorsed policy changes moving forward.  

“I believe that there are additional policies that we can put in place to help ensure the safety and well-being of all (including our police) when interfacing with the police,” he said.

Goethals apologized to the protesters and said he will take steps to ensure the behavior that caused concern won’t happen again.

“I own it and I apologize for it and will take steps to ensure in the future we’re not exposing peaceful protesters to that kind of show of force,” he said.

Despite the criticism, Goethals and Bonilla both expressed high praise for the police department generally and for its handling of the protest before 7 p.m.

“I have a great deal of confidence in the San Mateo Police Department and their abilities to keep the people of San Mateo safe,” Bonilla said.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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(21) comments

Pacman

Its a shame that San Mateo's mayor criticized rather then supporting the Chief's planning and response to the planned protest.

Pacman

If there had been any violence or looting, (e.g. Oakland, SF, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Vallejo) who would of had to engage? The police. If there was any rock throwing, who would had been on the receiving end? The police. Any law-abiding citizen would want to have their men and women in blue to have the equipment and resources to protect themselves and the law-abiding public. Would the snowflakes been more comfortable if the police showed up wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a ballcap?

Lou

""Where there is no law, there is no opportunity. Where there is no justice, there is no liberty . . . if malice or violence reigns, then none of us is FREE!" - Donald J. Trump"

aball52

Brought me back to raising 2 teenage boys and the FC police dept. many stories. Using a yearbook for mug shots, shining lights into eyes as I pull up to pick them up. then laughing I knew all the names with a scanner and recognized all the behavior . once I went to the city Council with a complaint and they issued a warrant for my oldest son out of spite. There sat Stanley Roberts next to me explaining how he knew all kinds of police but had never been followed and pulled over as much as the FCPD Jordan is right about being of color dealing with the PDs all over the country. I even reported one for pulling over a teenager with the officer saying to me OH yeah you and your FC school sweat shirt. .I called the city manager on that one. no going to commander let the boss handle it and he did After that when I saw him tormenting a teenage driver he stopped in his tracks as I looked at him. He is still around friends i believe of one of our council members. You are right Jordan. not fun having rocks break windows in riots nor being pulled over by some of them. I still would rather the riot gear police be standing infront of rioters to make them think twice about destruction looting, etc..either riots, violence . citizens can handle hopefully the dailly unfairness harassment we see with some officers.

Officer Michael Haobsh

We shared three statements with the DJ. I’ve included them here for your review. Please let us know if anything needs clarification. We’re always here to listen and learn to get better as an agency. PDPIO@cityofsanmateo.org or 650-522-7626

aball52

totally appropriate as word spread gangs from the valley were organizing to start trouble at this protest you view this as a white privileged person askn the rioters in san Jose wher peace came when riot gear was used also in Minneapolis these guys will be the ones to step in when the violence starts Don't be a Naive Nelly it could have been happening right then at the mall looting and pillaging sacve your gripes for when they don't do their jobs. protecting citizens Did you ever wonder what a deterrent just standing in riot gear? Like leaving a light on at home. You will never know how many you didn't have breakins because the light was on so is the riot gear just take a look looters give that a try. Stop this self righteous thinking and appreciate what you have. I lived through a 1969 riot in N>C.. We need those guys appreciate them . They rock! Click on I survived the 1969 Asheville High school riot see for yourself. SJ mayor just wrote whit suprmecist groups in san Jose caused the dumpster fires etc looting. intersperes with protesters causing the violence trouble..Wake up and smell the coffee.

Officer Michael Haobsh

To be completely transparent, here are the 3 statements provided by SMPD to the Daily Journal.

Statement 1

We are so appreciative to all of those who helped make yesterday’s protest event in the City of San Mateo safe and successful. This includes you, members of the public, our law enforcement partners countywide who assisted us in this large event, our public safety partners in Fire and EMS who stood by, and numerous staff members and volunteers who put forth the effort to keep this event safe for all in attendance. Over 2000 concerned people were able to assemble, march over a mile and a half in over 90-degree weather, assemble a second time, and disperse without any arrests, uses-of-force, injuries, or damage to any part of our city. We thank you.

 

It is often difficult from any one perspective to know how well any such event is perceived by others. We appreciate the calls, emails, and social media posts providing us with a broad range of perspectives from which we can debrief, learn, reflect, and improve. 

 

We’d like to provide some insight into our preparation for an event of this scale and the decisions required to monitor and make adjustments to ensure the safety of all and to protect property. 

 

Over the weekend we became aware of a protest planned for San Mateo City Hall in reaction to the heinous acts in Minneapolis resulting in the tragic death of George Floyd. In addition, we were also made aware of a viral social media post indicating looting of several businesses, both large and small within San Mateo County, with our Hillsdale Shopping Center being specifically named. Unable to validate the post, we reached out to the organizers of the planned protest and offered our assistance in facilitating a peaceful assembly at city hall and a safe walking route to the San Mateo Police Department once their initial plan changed. The organizers originally estimated a group of 150-350 people would attend this demonstration and ensured it would be a peaceful protest. 

 

Demonstrations locally were monitored over the week and included some instances of violence and destruction, and viral social media posts threatened looting on the Peninsula. Our preparation therefore included contingency plans for a much larger crowd and a number of variables, such as the presence of agitators unrelated and unanticipated by the original organizers, and significant traffic and parking impacts related to a large crowd.

 

In accordance with our established mutual aid protocols we contacted our local partner agencies in the county to coordinate a response that was scalable to the size and activity of the crowd. We were prepared both for a peaceful, small group and for a large, unruly gathering requiring control and dispersal. Obviously, we hoped for the peaceful event, but it is important to the safety and security of our community to be as prepared as possible. 

 

Our SMPD Media Team in coordination with our City Communications Team monitored social media platforms for information leading up to the event to help us estimate the size of the protest group and any plans to disrupt the peaceful plan. The team also created messaging for the community in preparation and answered scores of residents’ questions about their safety and that of their businesses in relation to unrest and large crowd demonstrations locally and nationwide.

 

In his opening message to the multiagency team working this event, Chief Barberini’s message was very clear – handle things safely so that staff and protestors all go home safe, do everything possible to facilitate a successful event, and assume a community-friendly presence whenever possible. He was also clear that small disruptions were to be precisely dealt with swiftly as to not disrupt the event and maintain a safe environment to prevent the destruction of property. 

 

A command post was established to provide overview monitoring of the event at all locations, direct resources when needed, and scale up or down our response when necessary. This is referred to as a “unified command,” with personnel directing law safety measures and monitoring and correcting for traffic issues, directing medical aid when needed, and the monitoring of incoming news, social media, and information from the field. 

 

Over 2000 individuals attended this event, which turned out to be very successful. Our team closed off S. El Camino Real and subsequent streets to facilitate the crowd’s movement from city hall to the police department. Participants were able to move freely through the planned route. Once at the police department, large portions of the crowd threw a couple of curveballs our way. A couple hundred individuals from the group separated themselves from the mass gathering and moved to the intersection of E. Hillsdale Boulevard and Saratoga Drive where they stopped traffic for several minutes. While not anticipated, we allowed this to peacefully run its course, facilitating the closure of the intersection and a portion of the roadway on Saratoga Drive. While this was occurring, we also experienced members of the crowd attempting to breach our security measures at several access points. We observed individuals attempting to climb over walls at one of our driveways and near the rear of the building.  

 

The crowd of about 200 individuals that had been blocking the intersection at Hillsdale/Saratoga, began walking west on E. Hillsdale Boulevard toward the Hillsdale Shopping Center.  Additionally, individuals in the crowd were observed encouraging others to walk toward Highway 101, therefore, officers were positioned to ensure there were no attempts to block the freeway.

 

To address the additional challenges, we implemented a contingency plan by deploying a supplemental group comprised of officers from local police departments and the Sheriff’s Office. Twenty of these officers were sent to the shopping center and ten were sent to the police department. Because this supplemental group was only to be deployed when potential unlawful activity presented itself, they were deployed wearing helmets. Fortunately, at no point did these officers, or any other personnel have to employ any use of force and no arrests were made.

 

The group that had walked toward the shopping center later blocked the intersection at Hillsdale Boulevard and S. El Camino Real and then additionally, the intersection at 25th Avenue and S. El Camino Real for several minutes before returning to the area near city hall and dispersing.  

 

The remaining larger crowd at the police department stayed into the ‪8 o’clock‬ hour. In collaboration with SamTrans, attendees were offered transportation back to the area near city hall. A smaller crowd remained, and slowly dissipated closer to ‪9 p.m.‬, when they were admonished about violating the countywide curfew.  

 

Our department appreciates our community’s right to peacefully assemble, to speak and demonstrate for what they believe in. We are empathetic and very willing to listen to these timely and important concerns. We recognize that a gathering of this size is not likely to be entirely in synchronization with an organized program, and we appreciate your patience and partnership in working with us to ensure that constitutional rights can be exercised safely.

 

We also know there are many important questions being generated by this national conversation, and we look forward to continuing to learn your concerns and use your feedback to fortify our dedication to constant improvement in this profession.

Statement 2

Thank you for inquiring with us about this, and I appreciate your follow-up after our incident summary message last night. I wanted to follow through with your response email regarding the Sheriff’s Office personnel, so that we are 100% clear. I was assigned as the Incident Commander for Wednesday’s event. My team at the command post oversaw the safety management for massive assemblies at two major city infrastructure positions, and monitored a crowd of thousands as they proceeded over 1.7 miles of city streets. Our mission was to guide over 100 police personnel from over a dozen different law enforcement agencies through peaceful interaction with one of the most massive crowds this city has ever seen, under some very tense and uncertain times. The uncertainty of the times required that we had a well-equipped back-up plan should the safety of our community be compromised.

When the group of 200+ individuals broke from the assembly at SMPD to peacefully demonstrate at the intersection of Hillsdale and Saratoga by blocking traffic and kneeling, we patiently observed to ensure no violence or unlawful behavior erupted (which it did not). Once that group began to move west towards Hillsdale Shopping Center, we needed to re-evaluate what was occurring. There were now two groups to manage, as well as potential dispersal of attendees, and our resources were divided accordingly. Based on local social media posts encouraging looting of retail centers on the Peninsula, and multiple reports of looting and destructive activity Bay Area wide, I made the decision as incident commander to send a supplemental team of officers to protect the retail area of Hillsdale Shopping Center against any contingent looting or destruction, and to supplement the reduced resources at the SMPD police station. These were resources from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services. They were equipped for potential crowd control, and were dispatched to the Shopping Center location for that potential purpose. Once it was clear that the crowd was continuing to be peaceful, with no intention of destruction or looting, I ordered the supplemental team from the Sheriff’s Office through incident command to “monitor only, unless the crowd becomes unruly. If they are just impeding traffic, there is no need to take action.” The group assigned to the Shopping Center was dismissed shortly after we were confident that the safety of that location was not compromised.

While I understand your concerns regarding their appearance, I ask your understanding that this was an additional measure taken during a time where we were carefully monitoring to ensure that the temperament of the demonstration did not turn.

Thank you for taking the time to communicate with us.

Statement 3

The residents in the city of San Mateo entrust the police department with protecting life and property. This happens on a daily basis as well as when we have events scheduled in our city. The San Mateo Police Department trains on the latest tactics to ensure the safety of our citizens, which included those protesting on Wednesday.

Any tools seen by members of the public are common around the world; San Mateo is no different. Every profession has access to tools, sometimes they are needed, and sometimes they’re not. Thankfully, we didn’t have to use any of our tools during the protest because it was a peaceful demonstration. However, having these tools were part of our contingency plan in the event looting, vandalism, or civil unrest took place. Something all to common in the Bay Area these days.

And, by reading the last two emails I’ve sent you, you should understand that our community expressed immense fear about the viral threat of looting that was spread across the internet ‪before Wednesday‬. Our response was appropriate.

Pacman

Thanks for posting these statements. Allowing John Q Public a glimpse into the decision-making process before and during the protest. Hats off to Chief Barberini, his staff and the other participating LE agencies.

Jeff Regan

I guess SMPD and SMC Sheriff departments aren’t clear on the concept of irony? A protest about police brutality and they scared and intimidated mothers and children at a peaceful protest with their militaristic posturing. Doesn’t sound like they are taking the concerns of city leadership onboard. Again, more irony.

Cathy Baird

Just because it’s “standard” doesn’t make it right or wise.

Jeff Regan

Yes! Standard operating procedures by PD nationally are what got us to this point.

matthewhmcintyre

Are the police in the the first photo covering their body cameras? It looks like the exact position shown in San Mateo County guidelines. https://www.cityofsanmateo.org/3890/Body-Worn-Cameras

Christopher Conway

What absolute BS. Merchants were forced into spending money they didn't have on boarding up there windows. Those protestors and and council member who want to criticize the police should debate the issue with other citizens of this city who appreciate the police and everything they did. I support the police on this one and would like to tell this high school protestor to grow up, this city isn't here so that you and your friends can march around disrupting our beautiful city. How many of those protestors are from San Mateo?

JustMike650

Chris, did you march down S. B. Street or ECR during the 60's and 70's Civil Rights protests or did you sit in your San Mateo bedroom watching TV? Our young San Mateo kids are fabulous. Put YOURSELF in their shoes and sometime today read this so YOU can also 'grow forward and upward'.

https://thesixfifty.com/all-of-us-can-do-something-local-black-restaurant-owners-react-to-george-floyd-protests-fdbe31acc400

Christopher Conway

first of all, my parents did not allow us to watch TV in our bedrooms. Now, I can start to understand your issues a little better. Also, I don't do protests, they are a waste of time and energy, but I am sure people like you have plenty of time and energy to do something as useless as protesting a man killed in Minnesota. Nothing to do with me or my city. #GetaLife

JustMike650

Well done Chris, your new name is now. #GetaLifeChris.

By the way one of your closest members of Your Family has a profile photo with these exact words #8 Black Lives Matter.

Time for you to join up CC

JustMike650

Chris even over at Shenyang No. 120 - Black Lives Matter. Join up Mr. 6th generation Cali Guy. #PleaseChrisPlease

SOD

Well said Chris! The bubble people live in would not exist without our wonderful peninsula law enforcement!

JordanG

They're not so wonderful if you're Black or another person of color.

matthewhmcintyre

Nobody forced the merchants to be so dramatic with their fear. Their irrational fear does not outweigh my constitutional right protest. I am an adult citizen. This country was founded on protest.

JustMike650

You should act like a true San Matean where the Screaming Eagles were adopted and Peace marches were held.

Educate yourself Chris.

Start here

Former San Mateo mayor Claire Mack addressed the crowd with a candid story of the racism her father experienced as the first black city employee working at the San Mateo dump in the ’40s.

“To be an American black is to be schizophrenic. Part of my life is fabulous, the other part has been lived in H E L L ,” she said. “Who would have thought the man who ran the dump would have a kid who ended up being the mayor of one of the best cities?”

She also expressed pride in today’s youth who have been galvanized to join the Black Lives Matter movement and the push against systemic racism.

“I’m loving what you youngsters are doing,” she said. This is homegrown. This comes from the roots. ... Stay within the law, raise heck.

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