EXCLUSIVE: ECM INTERVIEWS LA MESA MAYOR AND POLICE CHIEF ON PROTEST PREPARATIONS AND RIOT RESPONSES

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By Miriam Raftery

Videography by Paul Kruze

June 10, 2020 (La Mesa) – Hours after the city of La Mesa released a timeline and incident narrative on the May 30-31 protest over police violence and the riot that ensued, ECM editor Miriam Raftery and contributing editor Paul Kruze conducted exclusive interviews with Mayor Mark Arapostathis and La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez yesterday at the La Mesa community center, seeking answers to questions on protest preparations and riot responses.

The Mayor told ECM prior to the interview that before nationwide civil unrest over the past couple of weeks, he never imagined violent riots would engulf La Mesa (a small town long likened to the fictional Mayberry RFD of TV fame.) After the killing of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minnesota police officer triggered protests across the nation as well as riots including burning of a police station in Minneapolis, La Mesa Police did arrange for the Sheriff to preposition resources before the May 30 protest here. Squadrons from the Sheriff’s department responded as the situation escalated at the police station. But the combined forces were quickly overwhelmed after a peaceful protest ended and the city became engulfed in looting and fires, with rocks, bottles and burning Molotov cocktails lobbed at police. Two banks and a historic building burned to the ground, with Heartland Fire unable to respond initially due to conditions unsafe for firefighters.

INTERVIEW WITH MAYOR MARK ARAPOSTATHIS

View video:  https://youtu.be/lY_BXCB1zuw

We asked Mayor Arapostathis, who appeared haggard from the ordeal, how concerned he was after initially learning that a large protest was planned in La Mesa.

“I’m always concerned about the city of La Mesa,” he replied. “But I watched the protest, I live close by and I was watching it from home, I wasn’t concerned. It was peaceful.” But after he saw people throwing objects and “different groups, different dynamics going on, that’s when I became concerned like everyone else, like the rest of the Council,” he continued. “When an advisory came out to avoid the area, there were fires started and I was devastated, that it was starting to devolve into something like that.”  

ECM then asked the Mayor about communications with police and efforts to reach out to other agencies. 

The Mayor stated, “We don’t make command decisions. We don’t order the police we can’t give them suggestions. They are an independent agency…the city manager was our contact and always is, that’s the way the city manager form of government works.,,The City Manager was keeping us informed of what was going.”

Then he revealed that after being informed that all agencies contacted had responded and no more resources would be coming to La Mesa, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, mother of La Mesa Councilwoman Akilah Weber, “reached out to me. She asked me what more could be done, and I said `we need help.’ The Mayor of La Mesa doesn’t have the power to ask for the National Guard or other agencies…it has to come from the Governor.” He was not aware of whether Governor Gavin Newsom was reached that night. “I was not able to contact the governor,” he said, adding that mutual aid comes from the Sheriff and Police Department.

The City Council convened after 1 .a.m. and the city issued a 1:30 a.m. curfew.  ECM asked why more alerts were not sent out to the public via Nixle or reverse 9-1-1 calls during the riots, particularly when multiple buildings were on fire.

“I don’t send out Nixle reports,” the Mayor said.

Asked if there was any effort for the city to have an official media presence to speak to the public and press, or whether this was left up to the police, the Mayor said, “Yes.”

ECM asked whether there had been any discussion early on about having someone from the city address protesters in the first gathering at the police station earlier in the day, before the afternoon march. The mayor replied, “No.”

Asked whether in hindsight, did he think making people at the protest feel that their voices were heard might have helped, he again answered “No,” then said he needed to leave.

ECM asked the Mayor what else he would like to say to the people of La Mesa concerned about the damage and to the protesters concerned about perceived racism by police.

Mayor Arapostathis replied, “I’m sorry all of this happened. I’m sorry for what happened at the trolley station [a reference to the Amaurie Johnson arrest viewed by some as racial profiling. Charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest have been dropped after a viral video raised controversy and body cam footage failed to support the officer’s version of events.)

The Mayor concluded, “I’m listening to every voice.” He stated that a police oversight task force set up previously by the City Council will be “meeting next week--and nothing is off the table.”

INTERVIEW WITH LA MESA POLICE CHIEF WALT VASQUEZ

View video:  https://youtu.be/LjFv3dGPp0A

ECM first asked Chief Vasquez, given the events in Minneapolis and following protests nationwide, how concerned he was early on and what precautions were taken to protect his officers and the city.

“That truly was the concern, is the safety of our officers and the safety of the city and our staff,” he told ECM. “Early on, we reached out to our partners, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, the mutual aid coordinators for the county,” he said, adding that outreach began two days before the event “just in case it reached the state where it turned into a riot.” These precautions were taken after protests turned violent in other cities including Minneapolis, where the police station was burned down.  

Since the city’s narrative claims that Leslie Furcron was preparing to throw an item at police before she was shot in the head with a beanbag, ECM asked about surveillance footage of the incident and whether the officer aimed for her head.  Chief Vasquez indicated that a review is underway that will include exterior surveillance video and body cam footage. “Officers, per our training when we use less lethal munitions” are supposed to aim for the “lower torso or stomach area,” he replied. “It’s not the head.” [Furcron was hospitalized on a ventilator, but has now been released from the hospital. Her lawyer has stated that he reviewed multiple videos which he claims do not show Furcron engaged in any violent act, although she was calling police “murderers.”]

ECM asked what precautions are taken to prevent firearms from going off inadvertently in emergency situations. “It comes down to the training constantly built into the officers,” Chief Vasquez said, but added, “Once they’ve seen the threat, when the object was thrown at deputies or officer, they had to fire their less lethal weapons.”

ECM next asked the police chief why there was no aerial firefighting support in a situation where Heartland Fire initially refused to send in firefighters unless police could assure their protection from the rioters who were hurling rocks at police and vehicles, as well as igniting numerous fires across downtown La Mesa.

“An after action report will happen,” Chief Vasquez promised.  “From that report, we will partner with our public safety partners, our fire department.” From the report, he indicated lessons will be learned and the information will be analyzed. “Unfortunately in that circumstance with the firs, still with the resources we had at that point and the attacks that were occurring, the violent acts, violence throughout the city, we could not safely get the firetrucks into the city,” he said, adding that a battalion chief’s vehicle was among those burned by rioters.

As for rumors online of bombs or booby traps in the burned buildings, Vasquez replied, “I’m not aware of those being found.”

ECM asked whether the Secret Service as well as the FBI are investigating the burning of the banks.  “Yes, since actually banks were destroyed, that would go to a federal level to look at arson,” Vasquez confirmed.  (The FBI has asked for public tips including photos and videos from eyewitnesses to help identify the arsonists as well as looters.)

Asked how many arrests have been made related to the protest and riot, Vasquez said that seven were arrested the night of May 30th and night of May 31st when the rioting and arson acts took place. “Since that incident there are two additional arrests we’ve made due to tips from the public,” he added.

ECM asked whether busses had been pre-positioned in case of civil disobedience to arrest protesters. We also questioned why after an unlawful assembly was announced at the police station (after rocks were thrown and protesters were advised that anyone who failed to leave could be arrested) no arrests were made and instead, non-lethal weapons were fired (such as tear gas, pepper balls and bean bags).

Vasquez indicated there was a vehicle at the command post staging area set up “if we entered a situation where we had to make mass arrests.” However when the illegal assembly was declared, “at that point we just didn’t have the resources due to officers on scene around the police station. Even before the unlawful assembly announcement, they were already facing rocks and bottles, under siege from multiple individuals at multiple locations. We did have at least two Molotov cocktails (bottles with gasoline and wicks ignited) thrown at the police station.”

ECM asked Vasquez to clarify the timeframe at Vons in the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, where fires and looting occurred.

“When the situation at Vons started to occur, that’s when incident commanders and those working for the  safety of citizens started to request more resources…trying to figure out how to get them into the scene,” Chief Vasquez explained. “When resources did arrive, they could not get into the Vons due to burning vehicles, and when police vehicles did come down the road, they would be hit with rocks and bottles.” As a result, emergency responders had to be rerouted,”so it took us some time to get them in there,” he added.

ECM asked about the incident involving the arrest of Amaurie Johnson near the La Mesa Trolley station. A short video had gone viral raising questions of racial profiling, which were further exacerbated after body cam footage failed to back the officer’s version of the incident.

 Charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest were dropped after body cam footage showed the officer grabbing Johnson by the shirt and Johnson vociferously objecting.  The officer was placed on administrative leave during an investigation.

The incident was in part what prompted protesters to target La Mesa, in addition to the national protests over the killing of George Floyd by a white officer now charged with murder in Minneapolis.

ECM asked what more the La Mesa Police Department plans to do to try and heal racial relations in the community and assuage anger by some over perceived racial injustice.

“That is definitely part of the healing process, without a doubt,” Chief Vasquez replied. “The outreach is already starting. I’ve had people reaching out to me. The police and Sheriff are already talking about this,” he promised. “As we progress through this and start that healing, those kinds of outreach and changes will happen,” he promised, “without a doubt.”

Miriam Raftery, ECM Editor and host of ECM's radio show on KNSJ, has won more than 350 journalism awards for national and regional coverage. Her experience covering major protests, disasters and civil unrest includes the Alfred Olango police shooting in El Cajon, anti-war marches in Washington D.C. during the Iraq War, protests over lack of federal resources after Hurricane Katrina, demonstrations by Iraqi-Americans in El Cajon, and front-line reporting during the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 firestorms in San Diego County. A La Mesa native, she has also covered local news in her hometown over the past two decades for multiple publications.

Paul Kruze, contributing editor of East County Magazine, is a multimedia journalist with experience in print, broadcast and web platforms. A tenacious investigative journalist, he has  covered a variety of subjects, particularly governmental and educational issues. He has been recognized with multiple awards from San Diego Press Club and Society of Professional Journalists, including the Gloria Penner Award for political reporting from SPJ as well as first place honors for investigative reporting, news features and multicultural reporting from SDPC.  His work appears in local and regional venues as well as in nationwide syndication. Follow Paul Kruze at facebook.com/paulkruze and Twitter @paulkruzenews

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