CHP chief responds to undercover officer's display of weapon at protest

A plain clothes California Highway Patrol officer who drew his gun and pointed it at protesters in Oakland on Wednesday is still on active duty and his supervisor said Thursday there is no indication that he did anything wrong.

CHP Golden Gate division Chief Avery Browne said the officer, who was dressed as a demonstrator with a bandana over his face, felt his life was in danger when he drew his weapon on the crowd.

“(The officer) told me he didn't know if he was going to make it out alive,” Browne said. “They were outnumbered, they were assaulted, and at that point, two officers were not going to be able to arrest 30 or 40 or 50 individuals.”

The officer, a detective in the agency's auto theft division, was walking with his partner in the crowd when several protesters began pointing and yelling, “Hey, they're undercover. They're cops!”

The demonstrators began pushing the officers and knocking their hats off their heads.

Witnesses said it appeared the officer pushed the protester, who responded by ramming his body into the officer. Browne said one of the demonstrators pulled the hood off one of the officers and punched him in the head.

The officer tackled the man to the ground and handcuffed him. The crowd, incensed, began to gather around them. One woman ran up and kicked the arresting officer in the head as he was handcuffing the demonstrator, Browne said.

A second officer pulled out his baton and then his gun and pointed it at the crowd. Oakland police officers quickly arrived and dispersed the crowd, forcibly pushing them away from the scene.

Browne said the officer displayed his badge after the two plain-clothes patrolmen first started to leave the crowd, but witness accounts contest that claim.

One demonstrator at the scene, Dylan, who declined to give his last name, said he pulled off one of the officer's bandanas. At no time did the officers identify themselves as police, Dylan said.

Browne said it is department policy for officers to identify themselves before taking any law enforcement action.

“We're looking into the use of force,” Browne said, adding the report that the officers prepared about the incident will go to the district attorney. “We understand that it's upsetting, it's disturbing any time a weapon is displayed, so we look into those situations very carefully.”

Browne said the officers had been following the protesters for some time in an unmarked police car to gather intelligence on whether the group planned to take the highways as they have in previous nights, or whether they were carrying weapons or planning to vandalize property.

The officers were joined by plainclothes police from other agencies as well, Browne said.

“We put plainclothes officers in the crowd to listen and gather information,” Browne said. “We have discovered that individuals who want to commit criminal acts are texting, they're tweeting, and communicating to other people in the crowd, trying to incite the protest.”

The CHP helicopter was also unable to maintain a steady course Wednesday night due to high winds speeds and inclement weather conditions, further necessitating the need for on-ground intelligence, Browne said.

CHP has used the same tactic at other demonstrations in recent days and Browne said it helped CHP block protesters from entering state Highway 24 and Interstate Highway 80 on Wednesday night.

The two officers in Wednesday's altercation parked their car and joined on foot at the intersection of 9th and Harrison streets after receiving reports that people marching alongside or infiltrating the demonstration vandalized a T-Mobile store and an ATM, Browne said.

Some people infiltrating the group of demonstrators indicated they had weapons, Browne said.

Despite the reports of weapons, Browne said the CHP officers did not arrest anyone on weapons charges Wednesday night. CHP officers arrested one man for public intoxication and another for felony assault on a police officer, he said.

Questions about CHP's use of plain-clothes officers come at a time when the law enforcement agency is also under scrutiny for firing less-than-lethal projectiles at demonstrators Tuesday night.

Browne defended the department's use of the weapons and said the officers were “very discrete as to who they were firing on.”

“The officers were firing on people who were taking rocks out of backpacks…who were firing projectiles on the (CHP) helicopter,” Browne said. “The officers fired at specific individuals who were arming themselves and throwing those projectiles at the officers.”

Browne said the officers were “careful about what they were doing.”

Protesters complained on Tuesday that police had been targeting individuals heads. Brown said the CHP did not do that.

“That's a very dangerous place to hit someone. We don't target the head and on Tuesday, we didn't target a person's head.”

Browne also said the department has set up false Twitter accounts to engage with people on social media. CHP was able to infiltrate and disrupt a massive sideshow at the port of Oakland in November based off of tweets, Browne said.

On Wednesday, some protesters were throwing rocks at windows, and at least one person threw a glass bottle at a line of police officers, who were roughly 50 feet from where the glass hit the street.

At other demonstrations, some people at the have used rocks, bottles, fecal material including urine in bottles, and explosives devices as projectiles, Browne said.

The officers at the scene were specially trained as plain-clothed detectives, in serving dangerous search warrants and have received crowd control training at the police academy and special protest or demonstration training, Browne said.

But, Browne said they also feared for their lives Wednesday night when the crowd turned on them.

“I am very much sensitive to how disturbing it is when a weapon is drawn, and I don't take these matters lightly at all,” Browne said. “At the same time, we have to understand these officers were under attack.”

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