Tucson’s police chief is rethinking tactics employed during the unrest that followed the University of Arizona’s loss in the NCAA tournament after a board of inquiry released its findings.
Chief Roberto Villaseñor also said Thursday that an officer whose actions the board said were inappropriate uses of force will be disciplined.
In a memo to the city manager, Villaseñor said not all of the board’s recommendations will “prove useful,” however, the department will have to take into consideration the power of social media to foment crowds and the effect a visible police presence has on large groups.
The raucous crowd that gathered March 29 at East University Boulevard and North Tyndall Avenue in Main Gate Square after the Wildcats’ loss in the Elite Eight round of the tournament was a departure from past years.
“In all the previous years, we never had any problems for all the lead-up games,” Villaseñor said. “This year it was somewhat surprising for us, as well as other cities across the nation, that problems started occurring at the Sweet 16 level. We’ve never staffed this way for Elite Eight in the past. Staffing levels definitely played a role.”
The board of inquiry said TPD “staffing levels hindered the ability to quickly arrest the significant number of persons violating the law.” Added the board, “The inability to address the conduct of persons inciting the crowd and fomenting riotous behavior allowed the situation to escalate.”
The board suggested that during future crowd-control situations, in addition to more swiftly arresting “inciters,” officers make greater use of “aerosol munitions” to disperse the crowd. TPD uses canisters of aerosolized pepper spray that can be thrown into a crowd.
During the unrest, nine aerosol canisters were used and about 200 rounds of pepper-ball ammunition were fired. At least 15 arrests were made, mostly UA students.
Although the crowd was peaceful at first, some began taunting officers and throwing bottles and firecrackers at them.
Villaseñor said TPD had a “significant presence” in Main Gate Square — almost 150 officers — enough that leaders expected crowd members to obey orders to disperse.
Instead, “they’re just launching stuff at us and staying there and not leaving, and we’d push them back and they’d come right back in. It’s unfortunate, but I think in the future we’re going to have to staff additional (officers) to keep this from happening,” Villaseñor said.
The board suggested the use of lights and sirens on police cars may have agitated the crowd, as did seeing officers dressed in riot gear. Villaseñor said next time TPD will rethink having officers visible in full riot gear.
“I think this time it served to antagonize some of the kids,” he said. “Maybe that’s the lesson we learned — to keep them out of sight.” However, “you don’t know which way to go. You have to protect your people.”
He and senior staff members also are considering asking the Tucson City Council to enact an ordinance to create “celebration zones” for future “significant events” that would close streets to vehicles and establish guidelines for business owners.
One area where Villaseñor has little control: social media. It likely played a part in stirring up the crowed, too, he said, especially after video went viral of one officer shoving several people.
“Instantaneous communication, that shapes a perspective of an event,” Villaseñor said. “If you look at all the coverage, it’s the same clips over and over and over, and that starts to shape people’s perspectives that it’s a war out there.”
Though there were moments of volatility, the incident quickly subsided. Officers had the streets cleared in an hour, and the only property damage was a bent street sign, he said.
But from the video clips taken by people in the crowd, “the community, and for that matter the nation, has a whole different perspective of the situation,” Villaseñor said.
Video clips causing the most reaction featured Sgt. Joel Mann, an 18-year police veteran. One clip showed him shoving a young woman over a sidewalk bench.
Body cameras were worn by 50 officers that night. Late Wednesday video from Mann’s camera was released, showing the incident from his perspective. The clip shows a woman talking on her cellphone as she walks by Mann, seemingly unaware that he is repeatedly yelling for the crowd to “get back.” As she passes, Mann rushes her and pushes her down on a bench.
Another segment of Mann’s video shows him walking through the crowd yelling, “Get off the sidewalk.” When he spots a woman standing next to a man who is seated at a sidewalk table, Mann walks up to her, shoves her down on top of the seated man and repeatedly yells, “Move.” As the seated man struggles to stand up, Mann continues to shout at him to “move” while shoving him back down into his chair.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety and the TPD’s Office of Internal Affairs have reviewed Mann’s actions, and the FBI is reviewing his behavior for civil-rights violations.
Though findings of those reviews have not been released, Mann will be served with a disciplinary action when he returns in mid-August from a military deployment, Villaseñor said.
“I can’t talk too much about that right now. Even though the administrative investigation has been completed, it hasn’t been served,” Villaseñor said.
“The board said Sgt. Mann’s actions were inappropriate. I agree, but there were a lot of good actions that night by our department, and people who bash police just don’t want to accept that,” Villaseñor said.