An Open Letter to the Cities of Clayton, Concord, Their Police Departments and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office

I am writing to you today regarding the peaceful protest against police brutality that was held in downtown Clayton on June 2nd. As you may recall, once the 6pm curfew started, police from a variety of agencies sent smoke and tear gas into the crowds in order to disperse them.

I am a citizen and homeowner who has lived in Concord, CA for more than 15 years. Like most Americans, I have watched with deep concern and anger the growing unrest happening across the nation. What started with a call for justice for the wrongful death of George Floyd has evolved into a massive referendum against the brutality experienced by American citizens at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us. These instances of unwarranted violence have been well documented for years, but little has been done to address the underlying issues that cause it systemically.

In recent days as I have continued to shelter in place during a worldwide pandemic, I have watched in horror as police agencies in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities have responded to protests against police brutality with more police brutality, often in full view and awareness of the cameras. I have decried this and naively thanked God it was happening “over there” and not here.

That is, until I tuned into Claycord.com on June 2nd. You can view the video in question yourself here:

The videos captured by the KPIX news crew around the time the 6pm curfew started in Clayton clearly show peaceful protesters – most of them apparently high-school aged – in defiance of orders to disperse. Their defiance took the form of standing their ground and shouting at the officers – no actual physical violence of any kind can be detected here.

Where protesters wore protective face masks and wielded little more than cardboard signs and plastic water bottles, the officers were fully armored in the type of tactical gear typically reserved to quell acts of violent rioting. The agency badges identified these officers as a mix of Clayton PD, Concord PD and Contra Costa County Sheriff personnel – an unusually large show of force for a small, peaceful protest. Some citizens in the video mentioned vague threats to burn local businesses. No such damage was evident or reported in Clayton by this time.

Within moments of the curfew’s start, an unidentified member of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office released a canister of colored smoke toward the crowd, which was quickly kicked back – a very minor act of resistance. When the crowd refused to disperse, an unidentified Sheriff’s office representative – possibly the same one – tossed a tear gas canister into the air toward the protesters, which quickly filled the air with noxious gas, indiscriminately affecting everyone within the vicinity, including the news crew covering the demonstration.

There’s a lot wrong here. To start, 6pm is a ridiculously early curfew, especially for a town such as Clayton. These curfews nominally exist to reduce the chance of destruction to private property during periods of unrest, but have effectively been used – as it was in Clayton – to quell peaceful protests. The amount of damage that has occurred in the city of Clayton during this time of unrest doesn’t come close to justifying such an overwhelming response. A 6pm curfew says less about the potential for destruction than it does about the Clayton Police Department’s ability to effectively control it, which is apparently minimal.

Beyond that, though, the firing of tear gas toward peaceful protesters is a clearly excessive use of force. Tear gas, oleoresin capsicum, mace, and other similar chemicals used for crowd control are considered non-lethal, but are not harmless, especially for those like myself with a respiratory illness. Their use during a pandemic caused by a virus whose main hallmark is severe respiratory distress is even more alarming.

The videos I watched on Claycord.com, KPIX and other local news channels do not in any way demonstrate a well organized police force using adequate methods to control an unruly crowd. They instead show a fully armed paramilitary unit firing tear gas on peacefully protesting American citizens. A friend recently shared a quote with me: “In a protest against police brutality, police are not peace keepers – they are counter protesters.” The videos showing what happened in Clayton on June 2nd reinforce that viewpoint.

I was not present at this protest, so I can only rely on what has been reported by eyewitnesses. Joe Vasquez, the KPIX reporter on the scene, started his report by saying, “It was a polite protest – until it wasn’t.” Comments on the Claycord Facebook page from purported eyewitnesses back the narrative of excessive use of force. Even a statement about the incident released by the City of Clayton hints that the police initiated the struggle, writing, “When stronger methods were used to disperse the remaining crowd, protesters began throwing objects at our officers.” (https://ci.clayton.ca.us/fc/agendas/council/Joint%20Mayor.Chief%20message%20clean.pdf)

As I am not a citizen of Clayton, there’s not much I can do about their own police tactics and the apparent callousness of a city government that puts a perception of peace above actual public safety. However, the canisters seen thrown in the videos I saw were clearly thrown by members of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s office, with members of the Concord Police Department standing by.

I want to point out here that, during my 15 years living in Concord, I have had very few interactions with our police officers. Those times when I have had to work with them, most often addressing some public safety issue in my neighborhood, they have never shown me anything other than the proper positive professionalism and courtesy I expect from them. However, one’s character is not revealed in times of relative peace, but is on full display in times of struggle.

As a citizen of Concord and Contra Costa County, I should be able to trust my elected government officials and the staff they hire to serve and protect us to do their jobs without fear of them abusing their power. The clear evidence of inconsistent policing practices with the goal of maintaining control at any cost has eroded the trust I and many of my peers have in these organizations. Seeing Concord police and Contra Costa County officers actively partake in such tactics erodes my faith in them as well. This creates a dangerous environment both for our citizens and our uniformed police officers.

I have witnessed first hand dozens of peaceful protests that were dispersed without resorting to military-style weapons. Though no organization is perfect – especially when it comes to policing – the City of Berkeley seems able in most cases to handle crowds much larger than the one seen in Clayton without pulling the pin on a single canister.

All of this is to say the officers who were present on June 2nd acted inappropriately and with excessive force, and they should be held accountable for it. In the very least, they should be publicly identified, put on suspension while the incident is thoroughly investigated by an impartial, external agency, and fired with cause if no convincing counter evidence can back their actions. But that’s only the beginning.

The Clayton Police Department, Concord Police Department, and Contra Costa County Sheriff’s offices must immediately review their procedures for handling protests – peaceful and otherwise – to ensure they are not violating every American citizen’s constitutional right to peacefully gather and demonstrate. The emphasis on protection of property over the safety of citizens must be reversed, and these policies must be enacted consistently for all incidents and all citizens – no one should be treated differently solely for superficial things like race, color, sexuality, or creed. Your departments claim to agree with these principles, but your procedures clearly do not.

This is only the beginning of a reckoning on how policing citizens in a democratic nation should be performed. Sites like https://8cantwait.org/ have additional policies police agencies can adopt that can reduce police brutality by more than 70%. Report after report has been filed over the past decades with recommendations to improve policing and make it more fair to all citizens with very few of those ideas actually being implemented. In the coming days, these will be reviewed and hopefully condensed into a set of policing standards that can be adopted and followed by agencies across the nation and the world to protect public safety while promoting democratic values for everyone.

Far from merely paying lip service to these reforms, I call on the Clayton Police Department, the Concord Police Department and the Contra Costa Country Sheriff’s office to be part of the vanguard to help define, adopt, and promote such policies as a matter of standard operating procedures. The only right action now is to take a stand, both for the officers in your organizations and the citizens you serve, to defend and protect the constitutional rights of all of our citizens as their very first priority. This will likely require sweeping changes to every aspect of what we currently recognize as a police force, but the hard work is worth a better future for everyone.

Police officers like to position themselves as heroes in the community. Real heroes do not shy away from the hard work when it’s the right thing to do. I do believe there are officers in each of these agencies – likely an overwhelming number – who are truly vested in doing what’s best for all their citizens, but they are shackled by a police culture and set of procedures that positions them as a combatant rather than an ally. Those officers need to speak out and identify those procedures that prevent them from doing truly positive community policing. Root out the corruption from the inside and improve the situation for all of us.

I have mailed a copy of this letter to Clayton PD Chief of Police Elise Warren, Concord PD Chief Mark Bustillos, Contra Costa County Sheriff David O. Livingston, and the Clayton and Concord city councils. I am also posting it on my own web site and promoting it among my social media channels in order to rally support for real police reform, not only in Clayton, Concord and Contra Costa County, but throughout our nation. There is hope we can make things better, but only if we’re willing to be honest with our failings and do the hard work necessary to evolve. I still stand firm in my belief that I can count on these police agencies to admit these faults and do the hard work, with strong input from all of our citizens.

Sincerely,
Rob Zazueta
Concord, CA

Leave a Reply