SFPD chief defends mass arrests at 'hill bomb'

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday July 20, 2023
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San Francisco Police Chief William Scott showed video that included a glass bottle, circled, being hurled at police from Dolores Street during the July 8 hill bomb event. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott showed video that included a glass bottle, circled, being hurled at police from Dolores Street during the July 8 hill bomb event. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott gave a dramatic multimedia presentation to the Police Commission July 19 in an attempt to quell criticism of the department's mass arrest of teenagers during what law enforcement characterized as a "riot" following chaos at the annual "hill bomb" skateboard event down Dolores Street earlier this month.

"Nobody was arrested for skateboarding," Scott said. "Our No.1 responsibility is to protect the safety of the people of San Francisco. On July 8, we deployed officers to do just that."

Over 100 people were arrested at the event that day, mostly juveniles.

Gunshots, smoke bombs, a stabbing, vandalism, the takeover of Muni streetcars, and fireworks led to the mass arrest around 8:30 p.m. July 8 after dispersal orders from the San Francisco Police Department, authorities said. In all, 81 juveniles and 34 adults were arrested, according to police.

The San Francisco District Attorney's office said July 11 that most of the adults arrested and booked were issued citations for misdemeanors. When asked about the juveniles, Randy Quezada, spokesperson for the DA's office, stated to the B.A.R. that the "juvenile proceedings are confidential."

The crowd was ordered dispersed when, during the arrest of two juveniles after an officer suffered lacerations to the face, people in the crowd threw "ignited fireworks, smoke bombs, glass bottles, and metal cans" at arresting officers, police stated. After barricades for the hill bomb erected by the police started to be torn down — about 45 minutes later — the mass arrest was conducted. A hill bomb is a skateboard maneuver in which a rider goes down a big hill.

Responses in the community were mixed, with some like gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman thanking the police for taking action, while others such as gay Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club President Jeffrey Kwong likening the SFPD response to police marching down Castro Street following the White Night Riots in 1979, when officers went to the Castro to beat up patrons at the Elephant Walk.

At the July 12 Police Commission meeting, Scott had promised a "detailed account" of events, as the B.A.R. reported. At the outset of Wednesday's meeting, Police Commission President Cindy Elias stated that both internal SFPD and Department of Police Accountability investigations of the police response have begun and are underway.

Upon completion, areas will be identified that the commissioners can address, Elias added.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott addresses the Police Commission July 19. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV  

Unpermitted event
Scott began by saying that tear gas and rubber bullets were not used, and that everyone arrested was given their Miranda warning, as required by law. He also said stories of youth urinating themselves have not yet been confirmed in the department's own investigation.

"So far we have not seen anything to corroborate these claims but we are still viewing the hundreds of hours of footage," Scott said.

Residents of the neighborhoods around Mission Dolores Park had been increasingly asking the city to get more involved in the unpermitted event, Scott said, after one hill bomb turned fatal for a cyclist in 2020 after he collided with a skateboarder. But issues had been mounting for years earlier. Scott played a video of a 2017 KGO-TV news report showing a skater sustaining an injury that required staples in his head. Police at the time said emergency responders were impeded in responding by attacks from members of the crowd.

"The city has been seeing an increase in demand from residents to intervene," Scott said. "I want to emphasize this is an unpermitted event with no organized leadership. It's dangerous for the participants as well as pedestrians and cyclists who are not participating but are in danger of being struck."

The officers were not in riot gear initially, but donned it after bottles, cans, and fireworks started being thrown, the chief said. Scott then showed videos showing two fireworks and one bottle being thrown.

"Officers in the past have sustained serious injuries due to illegal fireworks," Scott said. "Some have sustained permanent disabilities and have been unable to return to duty."

It was the attack on a police officer with an object presumed to be a nail that led to a further escalation. That'd been during the process of an arrest of a person on suspicion of spitting in an officer's face, according to Scott.

"It's unacceptable and illegal to spit in a police officer's face," Scott said. "We will arrest anyone who spits in an officer's face without hesitation, and it should go without saying attacking an officer is something we take very seriously."

After that, at 7:09 p.m., the SFPD declared an unlawful assembly. Twelve orders to disperse were read over a megaphone and with a longer-range acoustic device over the next 80 minutes.

Gunshots near the Muni J-Church line led officers to respond there, where they found vandalism to the Muni light rail vehicle, an F-line heritage street car, and several buses. It was at that point that the assembly was declared a riot, Scott said.

"Riots are declared when an unlawful assembly escalates to widespread violence and vandalism," Scott said.

Police discharged ERIWs, or extended range impact weapons, 15 times, Scott said.

"In each case, the officers targeted individuals about to or actively throwing fireworks at them," Scott said. "It's not so funny when fingers get blown off. There were 5-year-old kids out there — it's not so funny when a firework lands in front of these 5-year-old kids. It's not a joke and there needs to be some accountability."

The mass arrests started in the 8 p.m. hour, Scott said. Arrested juveniles were given a "know your rights" card and were ordered to sit on the ground until a bus arrived to transport them to the SFPD's Mission Station, also near the park.

"They were ordered to sit on the ground because they'd not been searched and the crowd had demonstrated violent behavior," Scott said.

Scott: Police had wanted to stop hill bomb
The police's intention in showing up was to prevent the hill bomb from taking place. Scott said the department had learned the 2023 event was going to occur just three days earlier.

"Announcing it, posting up, could've led to some conversation and a less violent incident," Commissioner Jesus Yáñez said. "I don't condone fireworks being thrown where there are children. I commend our officers for entering the space in a, it seems like, respectful manner. Things devolved quickly, and it became very challenging, but I still believe there was a failure of de-escalation."

Elias said that the police had missed an opportunity for outreach to the community.

"There's all this outreach the department does in the community, and I'm just wondering why the department didn't engage in any of those strategies if they knew that everything would be happening, because it's been happening for years," she said.

Scott said that the event has no organized leadership and likened it to stunt racing.

"Sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting," Scott said. "Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't."

Elias also asked if it's possible innocent people were arrested because they were caught up in the fray. Scott said that it's a crime to violate a dispersal order, but conceded once the police came in for the mass arrest people may have been arrested who'd just happened to be in the area, even if they'd been trying to leave.

"Is there a possibility some people were caught up in this? Yes. But the dispersal order was read repeatedly to give people the opportunity to leave," Scott said. "A lot of people did leave. The group that remained was still behaving violently."

Scott focused his remarks on those who allegedly committed other crimes during the chaos.

"We do plan to present the evidence of people actually involved in vandalism, assault, and all that," Scott said. "Once that's done we'll be able to tell who were actually doing what, to a certain degree."

Scott got boos when he said the teenagers arrested got the opportunity to call their parents. The Public Defender's Office was also notified, he said.

"There definitely were some delays, yes," Scott said. "Every child was picked up. Somebody had to be called to pick them up."

Commissioner Kevin Benedicto asked Scott when the last mass arrest of this size was. Scott said there were mass arrests during the 2020 George Floyd protests condemning Minneapolis police officers' murder of the Black man, but didn't remember their sizes. He also didn't recall the last mass arrest of juveniles that was so large.

"Is it possible there haven't been this number of juveniles arrested in your tenure since you've started?" Benedicto asked. Scott, who became chief in 2017, agreed that is possible.

Yáñez said getting the event permitted and established would help, bringing up the Día de los Muertos festivities in the Mission every November as an example.

"The police department steps aside and we have community members chaperoning 20 to 50 to 100 individuals — all community led, community driven," Yáñez said. "We've never had an incident.

"San Francisco is a mecca of skating, and people are going to continue to come here to skate," he said. "I hope when people give public comment we can get solutions going forward."

Among the commenters was teenager Max Reyes, who said he was speaking for those arrested.

"A lot of them were scared and vulnerable," Reyes said. "I understand there was hectic going on but I don't understand why the police treated us the way they did, not knowing who did what when it happened. That's all I really have to say."

Leslie, a young woman who didn't give a last name, agreed.

"I was scared and I just really don't understand why we were treated like animals. Even though some behavior is unacceptable, I didn't know why I was treated that way or why at that moment. Just let us skate, please," she said.

Jennifer Blanco, a trustee of the San Bruno Park District, brought up a solution similar to Yáñez.

"Seven of our kids were treated that way here in this city where I actually grew up," she said, adding that like Carnival, the Italian Heritage parade and the Pride parade, the city should find a way to make the hill bomb a success.

"We can do it for our kids," she said. "I'm all for safety — let's do it for our kids — let them have fun. Let them skate."

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