Calif. police panned for slow response to Capitol clash

Don Thompson
Associated Press

Sacramento, Calif. — Authorities were anticipating violence as a white nationalist group planned a demonstration at the California Capitol, and they brought in more than 100 officers to patrol the grounds.

But after 10 people were hurt Sunday, they faced criticism Monday about whether they were properly prepared or too slow to get involved when the demonstration quickly turned violent in a clash with a larger group of counter-protesters.

“It was basically a free-for-all,” said Cres Vellucci, an observer with the National Lawyers Guild. “I was just appalled that nothing seemed to be done.”

California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Fran Clader said CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow met with Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers for about two hours Monday “in an attempt to look for some lessons learned.”

Vellucci said his group was at the Capitol on Sunday to watch for police overreaction, but in this case the opposite happened. The California Highway Patrol and Sacramento city police failed to separate about 30 members of the Traditionalist Worker Party from about 300 counter-protesters who rushed to confront them, he said.

Law enforcement was slow to protect people who were attacked and slow to get them medical help, Vellucci said.

“We’re not going to escort people from city streets or wherever they’re coming from,” said CHP spokesman officer George Granada. “Everything turned out fairly well. There was violence, but it could have been a lot worse.”

No officers or bystanders were hurt and less than $1,000 in damage was done to the Capitol when a window in a security pavilion was broken, Granada said.

Sacramento police recovered a loaded 9 mm handgun on the Capitol grounds near the confrontation, said officer Matthew McPhail, a spokesman.

The 10 who were taken to hospitals with stab wounds and other injuries are all expected to survive.

No one was arrested, and Granada said arrests may be difficult because many counter-demonstrators wore masks. But McPhail said arrests may be possible as police review surveillance and social media videos.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson praised police and firefighters for reacting quickly and limiting further injuries or destruction. He called the incident “simply unacceptable” in a statement saying he will meet with the law enforcement agencies involved “to discuss lessons learned and how we can avoid situations like this in the future.”

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, a former Sacramento City Council member, said he and current council members want to know if police properly prepared for the anticipated violence or were slow to react.

“During the melee, did the law enforcement properly engage to prevent some of this once it was going on?” McCarty asked.

Brian Levin, who directs California State University, San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said counter-protesters made it clear on social media long before the rally that they intended a violent reaction. They collected money in case counter-demonstrators were hurt or arrested, while an organizer for the white supremacists issued a fundraising appeal afterward to pay for medical or legal costs.

The CHP had issued a permit to the white supremacists for a rally at a specific time on state property, potentially giving the agency two advantages, Levin said: They could have physically separated the two sides, and they could have searched participants for weapons.

That makes it unlike a Ku Klux Klan rally in February where police in Anaheim, California, were criticized for not doing enough after three people were stabbed and several others injured. Levin said the KKK did not get a permit and the timing there was uncertain.

“With rallies like this you have to make sure that timing and the location of the parties is such that law enforcement has control over it and there’s no time where folks just coming in can be attacked right off the bat,” Levin said. “The problem is when you have multiple flashpoints with a movable mob, some of whom are predisposed to violence, it makes it really hard to control.”

Granada said the two sides seemed intent on a violent confrontation no matter what police did. “I think this was inevitable this was going to happen. We can Monday morning quarterback anything,” he said.

But Vellucci said the dozens of officers were slow to respond when counter-protesters rushed the white supremacists as they entered the Capitol grounds.

Police simply watched without making arrests as demonstrators broke concrete-enclosed ash trays into chunks, Vellucci said. Law enforcement also was slow to intervene as counter-demonstrators bloodied two protesters with shaved heads, he said.

“In this case, it was like they just sat back and let it happen to a large degree,” Vellucci said. “As legal observers we have never seen it before. Never.”