By KENDRA SITTON | La Mesa Courier
At the La Mesa City Council meeting on Jan. 26, the firm Hillard Heintze presented their final after-action report based on the events of May 30, 2020. The report was already made public but this was the first time the City Council had an opportunity to discuss it with the firm and La Mesa Police Department Acting Chief Matt Nicholass.
The report was made based on briefings with the City Council, staff, LMPD, Heartland Fire, citizens, business owners and Citizen Public Safety Oversight Task Force members. In addition, Hillard Heintze held a community listening session and viewed video files and listened to dispatch recordings from the night in which two banks and an architecture firm’s building were burnt down. In addition, resident Leslie Furcron lost an eye to a police beanbag round.
The report praised the police department for showing restraint during the protests and riots on the night of May 30 despite little training with crowd control. The citizens in charge of dispatch also received high acknowledgement for remaining calm while the windows near their desks were broken.
However, the report also had scathing indictments of the department’s policies, or lack thereof, and the communication breakdowns during the night of the riot. The firm noted that LMPD had no First Amendment clause, which is a best practice, and the crowd control plan was only a few pages long. By August when there was another protest in the city, that policy expanded to fill a few three-ring binders. In addition, the firm found LMPD does not have robust written policies and strategies directly related to community policing, community engagement and biased policing.
“We are forming our oversight committee and it’s very clear our protocols and procedures are outdated and definitely need to be reviewed and brought up to standard,” Council member Dr. Akilah Weber said. “One of the things I am disappointed about is the fact that the use of force policy and the community policing policies were not up to standards. They were out of date. This was something I had addressed previously when I had addressed the incident that happened at Helix High and I asked the chief at that time about updating the use of force policy and I was told then that it was going to happen.”
In addition, the firm found that there was no clear central command on the night of the riot and people doing intelligence gathering did not have someone clear to report to. The firm found there was a lack of communication to rank and file police officers as well as the City Council. The command post that did exist was inside the police department building despite that building being the target of the protests. When other agencies came with mutual aid, radio communication was also disrupted.
Council member Bill Baber took issue with the lack of central command being blamed on a lieutenant left in charge for the night. He said someone of higher rank should have been in charge, especially the police chief who on May 30 was spending his time trying to be a diplomat between the agencies.
Acting Police Chief Nicholass said that is being addressed by naming a Public Information Officer and having an officer in charge of logistics during a similar event so the chief can be in command.
Council member Colin Parent praised the department for already improving ahead of the August protest. He was bothered by the San Diego Sheriff’s Office, who took command of the riot response after midnight on May 30, not cooperating with Hillard Heintze’s investigation. The department refused to hold interviews and eventually responded to a few written questions, unlike the more robust response from LMPD.
“I’m troubled that we haven’t had full participation from our partners at the Sheriff’s Department,” Parent said.
He requested the city manager send on the after-action report to the Sheriff’s Department in case it could inform their policy as well.
Council member Shu, the only council member who was elected after the protests, said he thought the report should have taken into account the Helix High School incident and at the very least the trolley incident with Amaurie Johnson that led to the protests. He also noted that the perspective of the report was limited, something Mayor Mark Arapostathis later agreed with.
“This is a very good, credible report through the eyes of law enforcement. Hillard Heintze is an organization made up of law enforcement experts and their perspective. They reviewed through the lens of law enforcement. There’s really nothing wrong with that and I welcome that but that is very limited,” Shu said. “This incident included lots of people. What would this report look like if we went to the fire department and asked them? What would it look like … through the eyes of business … the faith community? I think it would look quite different.”
Mayor Arapostathis said, “Although this was new to all of us, everything could have been done better. I think that communication is key.”
He noted in the future that he wanted to be better about releasing information when it was available and openly admitting when the city staff did not know something. He also called for another listening session so the community can respond to the report’s findings.
Acting Chief Nicholass said, “We are taking the recommendations seriously and we will use this report as a guide for our efforts in the future. we are committed to serving this community and we will strive for improvement as we move forward.”
— Reach contributing editor Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.