An Independent Assessment of the Independent Assessment of the Springfield PD’s Response to the Thurston Protest

No More Than $35,000

On March 25, the City of Springfield released the findings of an independent investigation into the actions of the Springfield Police Department during the infamous Black Unity protest in Thurston last July.

The protest, which occurred during the peak of last summer’s Uprising following the murder of George Floyd, was the site of one of the most violent confrontations between protesters and police in the area. Fourteen people were ultimately arrested, and several protesters were seriously injured from both police and right-wing counter-protesters.

In the wake of the protest, the Springfield Police Department was heavily criticized for their tactics and targeted response to otherwise peaceful protesters. Eyewitnesses–including both of the authors–reported SPD’s apparently friendly relationship with the counter-protesters, even after they had repeatedly harassed and attacked Black Lives Matter protesters. The public outcry led the city of Springfield to hire an outside investigator to review the actions of the police department and provide recommendations for improvement.

The investigation was conducted by Rick Braziel, a longtime police officer–including a five-year stint as the Chief of the Sacramento Police Department–and current Vice Chair of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. 

Braziel, an executive fellow with the National Police Foundation, regularly travels across the United States and Canada delivering speeches, reviewing department policies, and leading training for police officers. His resume includes stints investigating the LAPD response to the Christopher Dorner shootings in 2013, the riot responses in Ferguson following the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, and the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

This career cop was tasked with providing a “thorough, fair, and impartial investigation” into the actions of the Springfield Police on July 29. He was paid “no more than $35,000” for his services.

Braziel’s overall findings show that the SPD failed in their duties that night and provide even more context regarding SPD’s preparations–or lack thereof–for the protest and its immediate aftermath. It also highlighted violent misconduct from SPD officers, including the individuals directly involved with the brutal arrest of Black Unity leader Tyshawn Ford halfway through the march. 

Ford is currently one of the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Springfield, the Springfield Police Department, and individual officers for their role in the July 29 protest.

But the report also raises some additional questions about SPD’s conduct, including the department’s apparent failure to record radio communications between officers for several months ahead of the protest. The report also doesn’t address the alleged collaboration between police officers and counter-protesters, as documented in BU’s recent federal lawsuit against the department. However, it suggests that counter-protesters did receive “preferential treatment” from SPD officers throughout the duration of the protest.

Can it be had both ways? 

And, though the report is full of recommendations for how SPD might better train and prepare their officers for future protests, none of the recommendations are binding or particularly drastic in their scope. 

They are more of the same tepid suggestions that always seem to follow high-profile cases of police misconduct – calls for better training, better communication between departments, and better use of technology to surveil and respond to peaceful protests.

Still, it’s worth drawing attention to the more salient details of the report. If nothing else, it’s a master class in passive voice.

Shit, I Forgot to Press “Record”

One of the key revelations contained in the report is noted on the third page, where Braziel reports that radio channel communications from July 29 were not recorded. As Braziel writes:

“Unfortunately, the radio channel used for this incident did not record any radio traffic. It was discovered that radio channel SPD 2 had failed to record any radio traffic from March 24, 2020 through July 30, 2020. This failure did not allow this reviewer to listen to radio traffic including directions from commanders, information provided by officers, and the extent officers and dispatchers add to or reduce the chaos of the incident.”

For just over four months, no one seemed to notice that an entire police frequency wasn’t being recorded for posterity. Typically, radio communications are saved for several months in case they’re needed for evidence or court cases; the Central Lane 911 and Dispatch center, for example, keeps their recordings for a minimum of seven months

While it is unclear what SPD’s specific policy on recording radio communication entails, a four month gap in recordings—and one that was supposedly resolved one day after a violent police incident—appears extremely fishy.

It’s likely that this is just evidence pointing to a historic level of incompetence at SPD. But it’s mighty convenient for them.

It’s Not Like He Was There for Any of This

Though we’ve been eyewitnesses to just about every protest in Springfield since the death of George Floyd, Braziel included official and detailed synopses of the department’s response to protests in his report. These summaries offer a glimpse into how SPD evolved their response to Black Lives Matter protests over those initial months of unrest, including the specific number of officers and staff assigned to cover each protest. The report also notes responses to pro-police parades and rallies in the city.

It’s clear that Braziel offers these summaries as contextual evidence for the evolution of not just The Uprising itself, but the police response to the unrest. But, all the report really finds is that the SPD was perfectly capable of maintaining the peace throughout the summer, both before and after the events in Thurston. The number of officers and staff dispatched to protests always hovered around 35 to 45, regardless of protest size, while maintaining the same basic command structure at each one. And though many of the protests were contentious, disputes were usually between Black Lives Matter protesters and Springfield’s numerous right-wing “patriot” groups, not the police themselves. 

But typical of an independent report written by someone who wasn’t there to witness these events himself, Braziel uses these overviews of the events to suggest that SPD was consistent in their enforcement and response to protests by different groups before July 29.

It’s easy to do. On paper, the different SPD responses to the opposing groups is minor.

For example, the first Black Unity-led protest in Springfield occurred on June 6, just one week after the May 29 riot in Eugene. The response from SPD “included five sergeants, 30 officers, two detectives to videotape the event, two reserves, two Community Service Officers (CSO), four dispatchers, [and] jail and records staff as needed.”

That’s 45 people getting paid to respond to a protest. 

Compare that number to a pro-police rally on June 22, which saw SPD deploy “seven sergeants, 26 officers, four dispatchers, two reserves, one CSO, [and] jail and records staff as needed.”

This one had 40 department employees on the clock.

Again, on paper, that’s not exactly a drastic difference – until you notice that only the Black Lives Matter protest had detectives filming the crowd. 

In his report, Braziel takes care to draw further distinctions between Black Unity and right-wing, pro-police activists ahead of the Thurston protest. While BU’s activities throughout the summer were labeled “protests” or “street marches,” that pro-police rally on June 22 was called a “Springfield Community Support Parade” – based solely on the way the rally was publicized online.

He even takes the time to see things from the counter-protester’s perspective in his summary of the Thurston event, writing that:

“Many counter protesters reported that they were there to defend their neighborhood from outsiders–Outsiders who they believed came to disrupt their community and damage their property. They reported that they had seen the damage caused by protesters in other cities and were not going to tolerate this in Springfield.”

But the way Braziel sees it, the chief difference between these protests and the violence that erupted in Thurston was–to paraphrase the Captain’s famous speech in Cool Hand Luke–failure to communicate.

At prior events, SPD leaders were apparently in semi-regular communication with protest leaders in order to help direct traffic and maintain what they called “a safe distance” between motorists and street protesters. 

One notable occasion includes a march from the public library to the edge of downtown Springfield via Main Street on June 27.  Braziel summarizes a meeting between protesters and police here:

“Protesters instead stopped at the line of officers and threatened to move past the closure. The report indicates that members of the protest were yelling, using foul language, and threatening officers. An admonishment to disperse was given. To gain compliance SPD leadership spoke with protest organizers and negotiations occurred over how officers could show solidarity. SPD leadership suggested that officers would remove their helmets, and everyone would honor a moment of silence. In return protesters agreed they would back away from the police line and following the moment of silence, would leave the intersection and return to their staging area. Some protesters were not happy with the agreement and turned their backs to the officers during the moment of silence.”

On July 29, however, there was no such prior communication from either side. This lack of communication, as well as the protest’s location, were the two developments that Braziel ultimately blamed for the chaos that night.

“The July 29th protest was different from the start. The protest was not focused on the police but on a community member who had a skeleton hanging by a noose from a tree. Black Unity organizers that had been somewhat responsive in the past were not responding to SPD. What also made this protest different was that it was going to occur in a neighborhood that was likely to be less accepting of the protesters and more likely to come out against them. This created a fair amount of tension even before the march started.”

The NCAA Football Player to Small-Town Cop Pipeline

One of the more interesting anecdotes from the report comes in a section recommending better mental health and wellness considerations for SPD officers.

Introducing one of his recommendations, Braziel takes the time to depict Bronson Durrant–the officer responsible for brutalizing Tyshawn Ford during the protest–as a victim of targeted race-based harassment from Ford and other protesters. Braziel writes:

How’s that “Entrepreneurship Management” degree working out, Bronson? (Source)

“During the July 29th protest Officer Durrant was placed as the lead officer directly across from protest leader Tyshawn Ford. Ford, using a small megaphone and standing within three feet of the officer, challenged Officer Durrant referring to his race and questioning his loyalties and allegiance. Another protester standing on a barricade in front of Officer Durrant was also taunting him about his race. Officer Durrant was clearly targeted by Ford and others because of his race. This type of harassment occurred during prior protests and the department should have anticipated that it would continue July 29th. 

Officer Durrant was deliberately placed in that position by incident commanders because of his size and prior collegiate football experience. However, in doing so they did not consider the stress he was under from prior protests.”

This anecdote is interesting for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, the admission that Bronson Durrant–a six-foot-three, 279-pound former offensive lineman at Boise State–was placed at the head of a riot line because of his size and football experience suggests that SPD wanted their biggest and meanest officers confronting protesters when the time came. 

But secondly–and probably most importantly–the invocation of Durrant’s race in Braziel’s report is, at best, an attempt to paint the SPD as a diverse institution whose officers deal with racism just like everyone else. If one only read Braziel’s report, one might think that Durrant was extremely stressed by the circumstances of being a Black police officer tasked with confronting Black-led demonstrations against police violence, and that this extreme stress was at least partially responsible for his violent arrest of Tyshawn Ford. 

At worst, it seems a pretty blatant attempt to smear anti-racist protesters as anything but anti-racist while failing to acknowledge the presence of literal neo-Nazis and other far-right activists at the scene.

It’s not like this was the first time Bronson Durrant has been accused of using excessive force.

Recommendations Are Like Assholes

To Rick Braziel’s credit, he does acknowledge in his report that SPD kinda, sorta fucked up in their response to the Thurston protest – though he was extremely careful with his wording.

He writes that the “policies, procedures, equipment, training, and review process related to use of force and de-escalation require attention to bring them within the standard of care in policing” while noting that the presence of Police Chief Rick Lewis and his lieutenants at the barricades forced them to “effectively remove themselves from any investigatory, review, or decision-making role related to internal investigations related to the use of force or arrests.” 

Braziel also noted that SPD officers failed to remain neutral during the duration of the protest, writing that “some officers [were] observed speaking cordially with counter protesters while not speaking with, or in a couple incidents speaking rudely, to peaceful protest supporters.” 

So, though he didn’t acknowledge that some of the counter-protesters were violent neo-Nazis or militia members, he did (carefully) blast the department for failing to uphold the guise of impartiality. 

He also noted that the SPD failed to make timely arrests in the wake of several assaults on BU protesters by right-wing counter-protesters, including Richard Elce’s flagpole attack and Geena Hager’s assault at the end of the demonstration. While Hager was arrested and charged the following day, Elce was not arrested until Dec. 2 – only to be released just in time to attack another person with his flagpole on Jan. 9 in Eugene.

But while Braziel acknowledged that SPD made many mistakes, his recommendations for how the department might improve in the future are hardly the stuff from which drastic reforms can be implemented. Much of what he recommends rarely goes beyond improved training or better communication between law enforcement agencies, the same sort of suggestions that come up every single time a police department gets caught brutalizing their subjects. 

One recommendation suggested that officers surveilling protests should always be clearly identified as police officers:

Recommendation 1.6: All SPD sworn employees used in non-covert assignments must be clearly identifiable as Police. During the protest, SPD had two officers videotaping the event. These videos were important in documenting what occurred during the confrontation at the barricades. However, both officers were in civilian clothing with no visible police identification. The inability to determine the affiliation of the officers only led to speculation and an escalation in protester response.”

Granted, it’s not like they were taking the time to blend in or anything. The man on the right has a literal antenna sticking out of his pocket. (Taken July 29, 2020 // MG Belka // Double Sided Media)

Another suggests that police get better at keeping protesters and counter-protesters apart:

Recommendation 2.8: The department needs to identify strategies to better separate protesters from counter protesters. This includes physical separation as well as facilitating the smooth and efficient flow of people out of an area.”

And this one suggests that all sworn personnel receive training typically reserved for SWAT officers:

Recommendation 2.9: The department should expand mobile field force training to all sworn personnel. In an internal after-action report of the July 29th protest, SPD identified the need for updated mobile field force training for non-SWAT personnel. Currently SPD utilizes SWAT team members for crowd management and provides them with mobile field force training. The events of July 29th highlighted the need to provide the training to all personnel regardless of assignment.”

One entire recommendation is dedicated to changing the heading on their operation plans:

Recommendation 4.2: The department should modify their operational plan goal to read, ‘Safety and Security for all people, their property, and our Staff.’ The SPD operational plans developed for all the 2020 protests identified the goal as the ‘Safety and Security for the people of Springfield, their property, and our staff.’”

This is remarkably pointless–though it does raise the question as to whether this wording helped officers buy into an “outside agitators” narrative.

Some of his recommendations even go beyond the scope of this single event and the failures that led to several people getting arrested and brutalized by SPD officers. For example, Braziel suggests that SPD improve their social media presence, as well as their relationships with local media outlets, in order to more effectively combat, among other things, “misinformation.”

“As this demonstration unfolded and throughout the events,” Braziel writes. “The only information available to the community was from protest participants. There was no information released from SPD to the public through social media, press releases, media briefings, or a press conference until the next day. A Facebook post at 11:16 AM the next day was the first public notification by SPD of the incident and Twitter was never used.”

This is untrue. Numerous journalists – including ones from the Register-Guard and other established media outlets, not to mention yours truly – were reporting on the events as they unfolded. What Braziel apparently means in the above passage is that there were no police-friendly media outlets working to spin the events in a positive light, making it more difficult for SPD to combat the narrative that they had, indeed, fucked up.

In addition to recommendations for SPD, Braziel even took the liberty of suggesting that law enforcement agencies throughout Lane County band together, share their resources, and create a single regional crowd-control team.

Recommendation 2.7: The department should consider working within the Lane County law enforcement agencies to establish a regional crowd management response team. This would require regional multiagency training including ICS and mobile field force. Agencies could share resources and personnel regionally before a demonstration begins instead of requesting mutual aid when the event becomes unmanageable.”

Just imagine how eagerly Springfield cops might sign up for regional crowd-control duty if they knew they could get shipped across the river to help bust up protests in Eugene.

I Went to Catholic School, So I Know How It Feels to Be Slapped on the Wrist

No one expected this report to contain bombshell information or language explicitly condemning the Springfield Police Department or the officers perpetuating the violence of July 29. That was never the goal of this independent investigation. 

That’s because Braziel, and virtually all other “independent investigators” before him, always give police departments the benefit of the doubt – they always ground their work in the understanding that whatever department they’re investigating is inherently good and noble in their intentions. Their recommendations for improvement are always wrapped in language reminiscent of timid high school English teachers critiquing student essays.

If anything, it’s shocking that Rick Braziel went as far as he did in his report; this carefully worded scolding of SPD is probably the closest anyone will get to officially condemning the actions of the department. Very few people, if any, will face consequences. If a single police officer is fired or forced to resign because of this report, it will come as a complete surprise.

It’s entirely likely that this independent investigation was only launched because virtually the entire command structure of SPD was involved in the protest response, making an unbiased internal review impossible. It also gave the city and the department precious time to regroup and recenter themselves after a chaotic year that they were clearly unprepared to handle – they cannot take steps to reform the police in the middle of an independent investigation, after all.

But that doesn’t matter – the department now has an “independent report” full of “suggestions” that they can use to “improve.”

And that’s the key thing to understand in the wake of a report like this. Sure, there’s a lot of positive language in Braziel’s report about community policing, public safety, best practices and other such comforting buzzwords, but it’s ultimately little more than an official slap on the wrist. The simple suggestions will be quietly implemented, while the more complex ones will be put off until the department can successfully argue that it needs more money in the budget. 

How else could they afford the additional body cameras, surveillance drones, and department-wide use of force training that Braziel recommended? 

Anyway, thanks for reading. That’ll be $35,000, please.

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