SPRINGFIELD – Rick Braziel, a veteran law enforcement professional tasked with reviewing the Springfield Police Department’s behavior during the July 29 protests in Thurston, heard from more than 30 residents on Dec. 10 during a community forum.
While acknowledging his status as an “outsider,” he heard plenty of straight-talk accounts from eyewitnesses and participants in the protest and counter-protest that turned violent in July.
“I understand I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said at the start of the event. “I’m asking questions and grabbing information. I’m looking for not just things that we see, not just symptoms, but potential causes.
“It’s an improvement approach. If you think of your favorite sport, the best of the best always look at the game film to figure out how to do better next time. It is Monday morning quarterbacking, quite candidly. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t part of the events.”
He certainly knows more about it now. The emotion remained raw and evident in many people’s voices during the forum, an event coordinated by city manager Nancy Newton and assistant city manager Niel Laudati. It was Newton’s idea to bring Braziel from California.
Braziel said he has more than 294 videos submitted by residents, video from the police department, and footage he found on his own. “I’m still receiving them,” he said.
Braziel heard from a mix of residents who supported the police, supported the Black Unity protesters, or supported the counter-protesters.
There were a mixture of people who said they felt the police followed protocol and acted appropriately, and those who said the police took a targeted approach and acted with bias and unnecessary force during the protest.
Several speakers cited concern for their safety by voicing police criticism in a public forum, and participants were allowed to register with an alias.
According to forum participants, the boiling point came approximately 20 minutes after the protest began, when police barricaded the group from moving downtown.
Counter-protesters argued that Black Unity did not come with peaceful intentions, that the content the group shared on social media suggested violence and disruption forthcoming to the Thurston neighborhood. Protesters rejected those claims throughout the night, arguing it was the police and counter-protesters who stoked the violence that night.
Some participants, like David, who showed up with basic medical supplies to assist those hurt, said police protected the counter-protesters more fiercely, and he himself was among those attacked.
“I looked to the police for help and I watched several turn their backs anytime there was a confrontation,” he said. “The police officer thought it was safest to turn his back on the man with a bat threatening a woman … there was a man stabbing people with a sharpened American flag.”
“My partner is an emergency room nurse who took care of a woman who was bleeding profusely from her face after having been basically cold-cocked by a cop,” another protest supporter said. “We watched a video of it. He pushed her. She pushed back on his nightstick and then he just punched her in the face. To me that’s just kind of emblematic.”
In support of the police, Richard, a Thurston resident said, “I commend the police for exercising phenomenal restraint against people who were there to create chaos,” and others voiced support saying that police did “exactly what we expected of them” and were “grateful that they had their boots on the ground and acted to keep the neighborhood safe.”
Protesters “should have stopped at that barricade and not attempted to enter the highway. They had other choices and they chose violence,” said Stacy, a Thurston resident. “To expect to be able to charge the barrier without a response from the police … SPD did a fine job that night to minimize risk to our community.”
Counter-protesters said they came to defend their neighborhood and say they have been falsely accused of being racist.
“That garbage for our neighborhood wasn’t the brightest idea. Who are (protesters) to infringe on our right to live, to invade our neighborhood, scaring our kids,” a Thurston resident said in support of the police. “I’m utterly amused that Thurston residents have been labeled as racist and white supremacy ad nauseum … We will not tolerate that. I want to make clear, very, very clear and unequivocal support for our police department and our officers. It’s exactly what we expected them to do … Make no mistake, that behavior will be run off again.”
“When we protest, and when we block traffic, we don’t want traffic to get your support,” an anonymous protest supporter said.
She continued: “We do it so you can see what it feels like to be stuck in a powerless situation. How do you respond? Are you calm and peaceful? Nope, you want to run over and kill protesters who have you stuck in traffic. Imagine what you would want to do to a system that patrols and harasses, because the sooner you learn perspective, the sooner you won’t have to be stuck in traffic.”
As for a timeline on findings and recommendations from his review, Braziel said “the goal is to get this done by Jan. 31. But again, I don’t know what I don’t know. So maybe something either speeds up the review, or maybe stalls it slightly. But I will be communicating with the city manager about that.”
Newton said the City will continue to work with Braziel as he finalizes his investigation and subsequent report. “And then we will be getting back in touch with the community and talking about what our next steps will be,” she said.