Council Ring confrontation

Group calls for police transparency in wake of police encounter with children

Emily Alma of Concerned Citizens for Justice says a recent physical encounter between police and youths at Bidwell Park highlights the need for more comprehensive use-of-force training for officers.

Emily Alma of Concerned Citizens for Justice says a recent physical encounter between police and youths at Bidwell Park highlights the need for more comprehensive use-of-force training for officers.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Watch the videos:

Earlier this week at the Campfire Council Ring in Lower Bidwell Park, 15-year-old Jane described what it was like being arrested by police on July 5. The incident was caught on cellphone cameras and has caused quite a stir in the community. In the videos, an 11-year-old girl (Jane’s friend) is tackled to the ground by a police officer. According to Jane, an officer had told the girl she could walk away “peacefully.” Then the situation escalated.

“They just tackled her for walking away like they said she could do,” said Jane (whose name was changed because she is a minor).

Emily Alma and her organization Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ) say the incident highlights the need for more comprehensive training for officers when it comes to use of force.

“Our underlying concern is to see a change in culture—it feels like there’s this command-and-control mindset that is traditionally part of law enforcement culture everywhere,” she recently told the CN&R. “We’re concerned by the fact that an 11-year-old girl ended up on the ground in handcuffs.”

All of the footage is viewable on CCJ’s website (see infobox). In one video, an officer and a park ranger are seen struggling with the 11-year-old girl on the ground, putting her in handcuffs while at least one person asks the officer to let the girl fix her bikini top, which had become askew, exposing her chest. In another video, an officer is seen shoving people on the scene, and another officer appears to grab a detained girl by the hair.

The Chico Police Department issued a press release the following day, saying officers responded to the Council Ring for a “possible assault” and a “welfare check” regarding a missing or runaway juvenile.

“When the officers attempted to detain the missing juvenile at the request of her guardians, several other juveniles attempted to interfere and prevent the detention,” the release says. “One juvenile attempted to physically pull a detained juvenile from a police officer’s hands. The crowd of approximately 10 other juveniles interfered and exasperated the already tense situation. The officers ultimately arrested five juveniles for resisting/delaying a peace officer.”

Police Chief Mike O’Brien told the CN&R that the department had received a complaint regarding the incident and is reviewing the matter, but wouldn’t comment further. It’s unknown whether body camera footage of the incident was recorded. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Wednesday (July 31) he personally was not aware of any pending charges against any of the children arrested. Some cases may not fall under his jurisdiction because of the kids’ ages.

CCJ emerged two years ago following the law enforcement shooting deaths of two young men experiencing mental health crises in Chico, and its main focuses are on police department transparency and increased crisis intervention and de-escalation training. Last October, its members spoke out against the handcuffing of an 8-year-old boy by Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputies. The recent encounter in Bidwell Park brought the issue back to the forefront.

“[Concerned Citizens for Justice] is dismayed to learn that another incident has occurred in our community where law enforcement officers used force to subdue a child,” reads a press release the organization penned. “It is critical that law enforcement personnel are trained in de-escalation techniques and that de-escalation is a first response in every response.”

David Blake, a retired California peace officer and consultant on use of force, reviewed the cellphone videos posted by CCJ and the statement issued by police for the CN&R, prefacing his analysis by saying it would be “very difficult” and “likely negligent” to develop an accurate opinion without access to officer reports and witness accounts.

However, Blake said it appeared officers had a lawful reason to investigate a crime, and their attempts to detain or arrest some of the youths on the scene were met with resistance. He said he also saw “behaviors” officers may have perceived as threatening, such as one person approaching an officer quickly. To Blake—who cited state laws pertaining to resisting arrests in his analysis—the “question is not how we see it on the video, but rather how this was perceived by the officers on the scene.” He said he saw “nothing out of line” regarding the uses of force by the police.

“As far as the female who is on the ground—she is clearly actively resisting their attempts to arrest her, but using very little force to do so (trying to get her hands behind her back). Whether or not there were opportunities to de-escalate are a matter of subjective opinion but certainly cannot be derived from what little we know from these videos.”

Alma emphasized that she’s no expert and CCJ doesn’t claim to have all the answers, she said. But the group does advocate for more transparency when it comes to training for police officers.

“Mike O’Brien has said that he’s brought in more training since Desmond Phillips’ death,” she said. “That’s great, but this just happened. There’s so little transparency that we don’t know what kind of training they’ve had.”

CCJ sees children as a vulnerable population—much like minorities, people with mental illness, and people who are homeless. Those are the groups for which transparency will add protection, she said. Whether or not the use of force was warranted, what happened on July 5 was a particularly negative encounter with law enforcement for Jane, the 11-year-old girl and even Jane’s sister, who can be seen in a video being grabbed by the hair.

“The people who are supposed to protect us are the ones threatening us,” Jane said.