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Berkeley police get flak for hands-off approach to protest mayhem

As a chaotic series of bloody brawls erupted in Berkeley over the weekend at a far-right rally in support of President Trump, hundreds of police officers were stationed nearby but didn’t immediately jump into the melee.

The hands-off approach marked the latest strategy by a police force dealing with violent demonstrations in a famously liberal city that has become ground zero for confrontations between supporters of Trump, including white supremacists, and opponents who want to shut them down.

But the response — one of the first big tests for Berkeley’s new police chief and mayor — attracted criticism from some experts in police tactics.

“Doing nothing empowers the miscreants,” said Charles “Sid” Heal, a retired commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the president of the California Association of Tactical Officers. “The first and fundamental reason government exists is for protection. When government fails, the people take the matter in their own hands.”

Berkeley, he said, is “getting a reputation among law enforcement agencies as nice to have, not need to have.”

Berkeley police officials declined to comment Monday on their handling of the violence, while releasing a list of 20 people who were arrested Saturday on charges including assault with a deadly weapon, battery, inciting a riot and obstructing officers. Many were from Oakland and Berkeley, but three men were from Southern California.

Police had not arrested one of the rally’s organizers, white supremacist Nathan Damigo, despite the spread of a viral video showing him punching a woman in the face. Efforts by The Chronicle to reach Damigo, a Cal State Stanislaus student, were not successful. A police statement said investigators would “continue to develop criminal cases.”

At Berkeley City Hall, the police actions were met with praise by a range of elected leaders, who had to cancel a Saturday retreat when the violence broke out. Some defenders of the Police Department had previously strongly criticized the force for being too aggressive in December 2014, when officers shot tear gas into a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Councilman Kriss Worthington said that while city needs to figure out how to prevent dangerous confrontations, the police force was “excellent in multiple categories.”

Councilman Ben Bartlett hailed new Police Chief Andrew Greenwood, sworn in two weeks ago, for responding “rationally to an irrational set of actors.” And Councilwoman Linda Maio said that had police officers rushed into the fighting, they could have inflamed tensions and made the situation worse.

“If the police went in more aggressively, more people could’ve gotten hurt,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguin. “We have to balance how we respond with the goal of trying to keep as many safe as possible. Do you insert yourself in the middle of a brawl and put officers at risk and escalate things even further?”

The debate over tactics is important because Berkeley may face similar demonstrations in the future, with right-wing activists seeking to show that their freedom of speech is being attacked. The Berkeley College Republicans are hosting right-wing columnist and provocateur Ann Coulter for a talk on immigration on April 27.

Critics of Berkeley’s handling of Saturday’s rally-turned-street-fight say police should have done more, laying out a mobile, flexible crowd-control plan and calling in mutual aid from other Bay Area police agencies far in advance.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that it was sending deputies to help around 1 p.m., by which time numerous scuffles had already broken out. The pro-Trump rally was advertised to begin at noon.

Some observers say the department should have anticipated the bedlam after a series of similar episodes in Berkeley recently, including a pro-Trump rally in March in Civic Center Park and a riotous Feb. 1 protest on the UC Berkeley campus against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

But on Saturday, many videos spread of men punching other men with no police officers in sight.

“There’s no way to reconcile standing on the sidelines, getting five figures of pay and saying, ‘It’s not my job, it’s too dangerous,’” Heal said, adding that “policymakers,” not police officers, are the ones making strategic decisions. “Sometimes retreating is a good tactical call, but we’re not allowed to flee and abandon the situation.”

Although police made nearly two dozen arrests, detaining some individuals earlier could have set a different tone and quelled some of the mob, said Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who advises human rights groups and law enforcement agencies about policing protests.

Many police departments have scant experience when it comes to dealing with warring political groups, Vitale said.

“Political violence of this sort is very rare in recent history, so this is new territory in a lot of ways,” he said. “This is not part of the experience of most police departments. We should keep in mind that even a well-crafted police strategy is going to have limits when you have two groups intent on fighting each other.”

Berkeley police confiscated numerous weapons, including a stun gun, Mace, knives, pepper and bear spray, an ax handle, and a can filled with concrete. Many of the seizures happened before protesters could enter Civic Center Park, where the opposing groups initially gathered.

Vitale said the Police Department could have done more enforcement both in the park — where plastic orange netting was erected to divide the two groups, with little success — and later when the demonstrations spilled onto city streets.

“They could’ve done more to create more barriers and greater distance between the two sides,” he said. “They could’ve said, ‘One group has a permit for the park and the other has to be on the other side of the street.’ They should have known this was a possibility.”

Yvette Felarca, an organizer with the group By Any Means Necessary, which went to Civic Center Park to confront the pro-Trump demonstrators, said Berkeley has become a target because it acts as “a stronghold for the left wing of this nation.”

“They were trying to terrorize this community because of everything positive about Berkeley and the Bay Area. It’s because we’re strong that they’re terrorizing us, and because we’ve defeated them,” Felarca said. “If they try to come back, we are going to defend against them again.”

Kimberly Veklerov and Filipa Ioannou are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: kveklerov@sfchronicle.com fioannou@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kveklerov @obioannoukenobi

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