Tucson’s police chief is rethinking tactics employed during the unrest that followed the University of Arizona’s March loss in the NCAA tournament after a board of inquiry released its findings.
In a memo to the city manager released late Wednesday, Chief Roberto 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 near the university following 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 police 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 to drive them back.
During the March unrest, nine aerosol canisters were used and about 200 rounds of pepper ball ammunition were fired.
Although the crowd was peaceful at first, some began taunting officers and throwing bottles, cups of liquid and firecrackers at officers.
TPD had what Villaseñor called a “significant presence” in Main Gate Square — almost 150 officers; enough manpower 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 policed 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. If I have them out there without helmets and face shields, I can’t say they shouldn’t have that equipment out there, but it’s going to be the judgment of the incident commander.
“Maybe we’ll still have officers nearby, but not visible so it doesn’t become a focal point and a challenge,” to unruly members of a crowd, Villaseñor said.
“It’s an exercise in human psychology in some of these things and what sets them off,” he said of the unpredictability of crowds. “I have no doubt we are going to be in the same situation next year.”
He and senior staff also are considering asking the city council to enact an ordinance to create “celebration zones” for future “significant events” that would close streets to vehicle traffic 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 TPD officer appearing to shove several people on the street.
“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 within an hour and the only property damage was a bent street sign, Villaseñor 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,” he said.
Video clips causing the most reaction featured Sgt. Joel Mann, an 18-year veteran of the TPD. One clip shows him shoving a young woman over a sidewalk bench.
Body cameras were worn by 50 TPD officers the night of the NCAA loss. Late Wednesday video from Mann’s camera was released, showing the incident from his perspective. The clip shows a woman talking on her cell phone 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 to the TPD in mid-August, Villaseñor said. He is currently on a military deployment.
“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. However, he does not want Mann’s behavior to mitigate the actions of the other officers working crowd control that night.
“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.
“My officers, it hasn’t been talked about enough, the amount of restraint they showed. For 20 or 30 minutes they were just enduring projectiles thrown at them. I think they showed restraint in responding to that and I think they minimized impact.”