LA MESA LEADERS ADDRESS UNREST, PROMISE REVIEW, END OF POLICE CHOKEHOLD AT PRESS CONFERENCE

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Lack of answers stokes activists’ anger after violent arrest, injured woman at protest

By Kendra Sitton

Photo,left by Kendra Sitton: La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez

June 5, 1010 (La Mesa) – At a press conference held Wednesday, La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, Chief of Police Walt Vasquez and other officials provided more information on the protests and riots that engulfed the city last Saturday. Officials also revealed more details about two recent controversial police incidents in La Mesa, although not enough to satisfy the citizens involved and their families.

Mayor Arapostathis said of the George Floyd protests, looting and fires that ensued Saturday night,  “I’ll be frank. We were totally overwhelmed with the situation. We were not prepared for a peaceful protest to erupt into the level of civil unrest that we witnessed.”

An update was provided on Leslie Furcron, who was hit between the eyes with a less-lethal round while protesting at the La Mesa Police Station Saturday.  In addition, police released the body cam footage of all officers involved in the Amaurie Johnson arrest on May 23, which went viral on social media with activists asserting racial profiling by police.

In addition, the La Mesa Police Department announced that along with the San Diego Police Department, it will be stopping use of the controversial carotid restraint technique. A day later, the San Diego Sheriff also announced discontinuation of carotid restraints.

After the official press conference, local black activists held a press conference of their own that included testimonials from Amaurie Johnson and two of Furcron’s adult sons.

San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez was the only official to stay for the second press conference, while other government leaders did solo interviews with the media.

Amaurie Johnson arrest

Photo,right, by Kendra Sitton: Amaurie Johnson speaks at press conference

Vasquez said that La Mesa Police Officer Matt Dages initially approached Johnson about smoking in public while waiting at the Grossmont trolley stop to be picked up by his friends. Johnson was charged with assaulting an officer and resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer, but nothing related to smoking. In the body cam footage, it also shows that when searched, the only items Johnson had on him were his keys and cell phone.

“They continue to lie to you. What Chief Vasquez did is he tried to give you what is considered probable cause. Probable cause ended when they found nothing,” former San Diego mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson said.

Dages is still on leave but has not been fired or arrested as community organizers are demanding. The arrest is being reviewed by an independent third party, but Vasquez and city officials did not share their reaction to the video.

“I thought we were gonna have some light shed today or at least some transparency. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re gonna receive that today,” Johnson said. “There was no accountability taken here today.”

Former district attorney candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright spoke in defense of Johnson’s decision to repeatedly stand up and try to walk away during the interaction before he was officially detained. She said she was proud of him for asserting his rights under the constitution and God to walk away when that officer had no probable cause.

“What we see here is why it is so hard to be black in America,” Jones-Wright said. “I want more people to stand up like Mr. Amaurie Johnson.”

Protests and riot

Photo, right, by Jake Rose:  Police stand guard to protect firefighters battling blaze at the Randall Lamb historical building, as a pastor walks through the chaos in La Mesa's downtown village.

The footage of the arrest filmed by Johnson’s friends, along with national outrage over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minnesota police officer now charged with murder, set off the peaceful demonstrations on Friday and Saturday that devolved into looting and arson on Saturday night. It remains unknown whether any of the looters and arsonists were affiliated with the protests, or whether outside groups perpetrated those criminal actions.

Araphostathis said that the city requested help from county partners and even the National Guard — who could not come because they were deployed in Los Angeles — that night. San Diego Sheriff’s Department came in response to the request. California Highway Patrol was also on scene during the march on University Ave. and the Interstate-8.

The mayor said firefighters successfully saved City Hall from rioters but Chase and Union banks and the Randall Lamb building burned because they “could not safely put out the fires at the banks and Randall Lamb because of concerns about the safety of citizens, firefighters, and protesters.”

City Council member Dr. Akilah Weber said that in addition to the independent review of the Johnson and Furcron situations, the city will be doing an internal review of  its response to the crisis.

Dr. Weber acknowledged that many people were disappointed in the review done of the 2018 incident at Helix High School that found the officer who slammed a 17-year-old girl to the floor twice did not use excessive force. She assured the crowd that it is a new city council and a new day.

“We are committed to making sure we implement our police oversight commission which we did not have in 2018,” Weber said. “We will do an internal review of our own self and our own police department to see what kind of extra training do we need. We need to make sure that our police force is diverse. We also need to make sure about who we hire in the first place to join our police force.”

“It’s clear from the destruction, damage and injuries that our best was simply not good enough,” La Mesa Mayor Araphostathis acknowledged.

There was contention between activists and officials about what happened first: protesters throwing rocks and bottles or officers firing tear gas on the I-8 during a civil march.

During the second press conference, organizers faced questions about the violence and destruction. Williamson said the city would not be having a press conference about the arrest or releasing footage were it not for the civil unrest. Law enforcement officials told activists as late as last year that they would never under any circumstances give up using the carotid restraint technique.

“What happened over the weekend forced these agencies to come together to start to make change,” Williamson said.

Leslie Furcron’s severe injury

The press conference did bring some positive news about 59-year-old grandmother Furcron: she is being taken out of a medically-induced coma and is waking up. However, she is still severely injured and may lose an eye.

Vasquez said that the projectile shot between her eyes was a beanbag, not a rubber bullet as initially reported. The officer who shot the beanbag is known, but has yet to be placed on leave or assigned to desk duty.

Vasquez and other officials did not apologize for Furcron’s injury, which occurred around 7:30 p.m. after an unlawful assembly at declared just minutes after Furcron had arrived and begun live-streaming the protest outside the La Mesa Police Station Saturday evening.

Vasquez explained that officers are trained to shoot beanbags at the center of mass, not the head.

This training is counter to industry best practices which include aiming for the abdomen, legs or arms as less risky alternatives. The Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center 2009 report which included model policies said beanbags should be shot when a suspect is 21-50 feet away and not aimed at the head, neck, chest or groin.

Steve Ijames, a retired Major in the Springfield, Missouri Police Department, wrote in Police One that officers shooting beanbag rounds should “avoid the chest unless you have no other viable target and the risk of a fatal outcome is acceptable.”

This video shot by ECM photographer at 8:03 p.m., about a half hour after Furcron was injured, shows the final push by officers to oust protesters.  Altough a helicopter had warned those who stayed would be arrested, multple witnesses report that no arrests were made before non-lethal rounds were fired into the crowd:

One person present asked why three people had been hit in the face with less-lethal rounds at the protest. Vasquez said he had not heard of any other protesters being hit in the face by rubber bullets or beanbags.

However, a man at the press conference spoke to East County Magazine about being shot in the head with either a rubber bullet or beanbag. He had a visible wound above his eye that was still bloody and swollen. He showed datestamped video footage to East County Magazine indicating he was at the La Mesa protest.

“They said only one person was shot. Everyone got shot,” the man said after the press conference on the condition of anonymity.

An ECM photographer at the scene documented another man shot with a projectile in the upper chest. ECM's own photographer, Henri Migala, was repeatedly struck by pepper spray balls including on his chest, despite wearing a yellow vest and media pass around his neck. Migala has indicated he had distanced himself away from the protesters.

Video by another photographer who was live-streaming from downtown later in the evening, after the rioting began and police fired pepper spray and other non-lethal projectiles downtown, included footage of yet another man with an injury to his head who claimed to have been hit by a police projectile. The photographer voiced concern that the man appeared to have a concussion because his eyes were not dlating in response to a light shined in them.

Another witness at the press conference questioned Vasquez about why after Furcron was visibly wounded, no officers came to help her.

That witness spoke to East County Magazine to explain what he saw. Joseph Macrae said he was five feet away from Furcron when she took the direct hit to the forehead while she was recording live on her phone and fell to the ground.

“Once that happened, I ran to like 20 police officers and I begged them to help her. I begged them to call the paramedics. I begged them to call the ambulance. I begged them to do something,” Macrae said. “They didn’t do anything at all. They just sat there.”

This interaction is what bothered Macrae the most of anything that happened during the riot. It was other protesters who eventually helped transport Furcron to the hospital.

Vasquez offered very few details and repeated that the situation would be reviewed. Vasquez said in the review they will look at body cam footage if there is any “to see exactly what happened with our opportunity to get to her, which was difficult at first.”

Furcron’s sons attended the press conference to speak on their mother’s behalf.

“The Chief got up here today and said that the officer's aim might have been off. My mother was shot in the middle of the forehead. How is his aim off? That doesn’t make sense,” Azim Sanders said.

“It’s not even possible that he missed the shot. It’s between the eyes. That’s a direct shot. These are the people who protect. Who are supposed to protect us? Excuse me,” Ahmae Furcron said.

Along with the other activists, the sons are calling for the release of the officer’s name who shot the beanbag, in accordance with California state law.

“We need justice in this situation. Things need to change immediately,” Sanders said.

Kendra Sitton is a local editor at San Diego Community Newspaper Group who also serves as the editor of San Diego Uptown News and Downtown News. A freelance reporter for ECM and other publications, she has won awards in 2019 for her articles on San Diego Police Department policies regarding transgender civilians and other LGBTQ issues. She holds a degree in mass communications with minors in sociology and global cultural studies at Concordia University Irvine.Her coverage for ECM has included border, immigrant and refugee communities, land use issues and the recovery of Deerhorn Valley ten years after the Harris wildfire.

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