Athens police justified in use of force against protesters, internal review finds

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

An internal review by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department found that officers were justified in their use of tear gas and rubber bullets against downtown protesters two months ago, the department announced Friday.

A group of demonstrators clashed with officers May 31 following what had been a peaceful protest against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Some officers used tear gas and “impact munitions” after remaining demonstrators were ordered to leave the intersection of College Avenue and Broad Street and refused, police said at a news conference.

A total of 19 people were arrested during the protests, previously reported.

Ahead of the Sunday evening protests, police received tips that some demonstrators planned to loot downtown businesses and damage government buildings, said Lt. Harrison Daniel, who heads the department’s Office of Professional Standards.

“Additionally, intelligence indicated that certain extremist groups and agitators would be present in the crowd during the protests,” he said. “Then at about 7 p.m., an armed group of self-identified Boogaloo arrived at the protest and began intermingling with protesters.”

Many of the demonstrators left the area when the far-right group arrived, but a small group remained, according to police.

“Individuals within the crowd were seen and overheard agitating others to engage in violence and property damage,” Daniel said.

Some of the protesters who attended the demonstration, however, have pushed back on the police narrative that it was infiltrated by “extremist” groups.

Erin Stacer told last month that she didn’t see signs of any violent group among the crowd. The only group she saw with weapons, she said, was a small number of demonstrators wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying rifles.

Shortly after 9 p.m., county officials enacted an emergency curfew for the downtown area and ordered all remaining protesters to disperse. For the next three hours, no action was taken by police, though protesters were ordered to leave if they didn’t want to be arrested.

“The order was repeated about a dozen times over the course of 10 minutes,” Daniel said. “Instead of heeding repeated warnings concerning the curfew and the potential for arrest and use of force, many within the unlawfully assembled crowd chose to remain.”

Authorities said they deployed smoke bombs as a final warning. About that time, members of the crowd began throwing bottles and shooting fireworks at Athens police, Daniel said, prompting police to use tear gas and begin making arrests.

Following a review of surveillance and body camera footage from the evening, the internal investigation determined the use of force was justified.

“This investigation found that the use of chemical irritants and impact munitions as part of the dispersal efforts was within department policy,” Daniel said.

The investigation found several “shortfalls” within the department’s response, however.

Among them was that the department was not adequately trained or equipped to deal with incidents of “mass civil unrest” and had to rely on state resources. Additionally, the internal investigation found there was a communication breakdown between officers patrolling the protests and the demonstrators who remained after dark.

Lastly, police said, the investigation found an “inadequate after-action response” when it came to following up on the protests, documenting events and collecting evidence.

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