Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said his officers arrested 169 protesters in the span of three days last week, more than any other department in the country during nationwide protests over a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict a Ferguson police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teen in August.
About 350 police officers responded each night last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to large marches of as many as 2,000 people that shut down freeways and eventually turned destructive, with fires, spray paint, broken windows and looting, Whent told a meeting of the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee Tuesday evening.
The marches protested a grand jury's decision announced on Nov. 24 not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the on Aug. 9 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who is black.
Whent said that the speed of the protesters prevented officers from being more proactive in stopping them from breaking the windows of 23 businesses, five of which were looted.
"We absolutely attempted to minimize any vandalism from occurring, however we were also challenged by... the fact that these were very, very fast moving crowds," Whent said.
In one instance, a smaller group of protesters and officers was left behind on Telegraph Avenue as police tried to make a mass arrest of a larger group occupying the freeway nearby. The quick-moving protesters were able to get ahead of the officers, leaving a line of burning dumpsters behind them that further obstructed police movement. Several businesses were then vandalized before the police could catch up, Whent said. He suggested adding more bicycle police officers to protest
staffing to help keep up with demonstrators.
Of the 169 arrests, 48 percent were Oakland residents and the majority was for misdemeanors such as blocking the street, obstructing a police officer and spray-painting buildings, Whent said. There were 10 arrests for vandalism, four burglary arrests of suspects who were charged Tuesday, one arrest for battery on a police officer and one for arson.
Police used force a total of 18 times during the three nights, Whent said, mainly tackling protesters while making arrests but also using tear gas on Monday and Wednesday.
But he said that police have to be careful to walk a fine line between facilitating the demonstrations and overreacting in response to criminal activity, something that risks expensive payouts from the city down the line as it did during Occupy Oakland demonstrations and protests over the police shooting death of Oscar Grant.
Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney pointed out just how delicate that line has become as the recent protests have grown from the deep distrust between minority communities and the police.
"There's an epidemic in this country of too many black men, brown men, being killed in their interactions with police officers," McElhaney said. "It's about more than Mike Brown, it's about more than Ferguson. It's about an egregious practice that we have to wrestle with in this country."
She asked Whent what he was doing to foster community trust and limit racial profiling.
Whent said an Oakland police officer has not shot a suspect in the last 18 months, while the department previously averaged seven or eight shootings per year. There was an unarmed suspect shot and killed during a search in August, 23-year-old Jacorey Calhoun, but he was shot by an Alameda County sheriff's deputy who was assisting Oakland police.