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Chula Vista police officer placed on desk duty after video shows him tackling teen at park

Chula Vista police officer placed on desk duty after video shows him tackling teen at park
A 16-year-old girl and her supporters speak to reporters Friday at SDG&E Park in Chula Vista about an incident that was caught on video showing a Chula Vista police officer forcefully taking her to the ground. (Alex Riggins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Chula Vista police officer captured on video forcefully taking a 16-year-old girl to the ground has been removed from patrol duty and assigned to a desk job, according to a police captain.

The video was taken Wednesday afternoon at SDG&E Park near Castle Park High School during a tense confrontation between about a dozen Chula Vista police officers and about the same number of high school students.

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Police said they went to the park because one of the students flashed a gang sign at a passing officer. Police have recently increased patrols in the area amid suspected gang activity.

The students and their supporters said the teen actually put up two fingers in a “peace” sign — or what they called “throwing up deuces” — a common hand sign for greetings and farewells.

The Chula Vista Police Department on Friday promised a thorough investigation.

Videos of the incident posted on social media have sparked outrage among many Chula Vista residents and social justice activists from around the county, who point to the interaction as the latest instance of police using excessive force against an unarmed person of color.

“The police do not make us feel safe,” said the sophomore student seen in the video, who spoke at a Friday afternoon news conference. She asked to be identified by only her first name, Liz.

“We’re not gang members, we’re not drug dealers; we did not merit this level of aggression toward us,” Liz said while sitting on a park table surrounded by friends and activists. “If police want to talk to us, we demand that they do it as human beings.”

At a news conference earlier Friday afternoon, Capt. Vern Sallee, the Police Department’s acting chief while Chief Roxana Kennedy travels outside the country, said the department launched an internal use-of-force investigation and an internal administrative investigation.

Sallee promised the administrative investigation would look into the actions of every officer involved in the incident, not just the officer seen taking the girl to the ground with his baton in hand.

“We can assure the public that we understand the public concern [and] the outrage in some parts of the community about what appeared on this part of video,” Sallee said. “It does not give the totality of the circumstances that the officers faced, however we will thoroughly investigate this and hold officers accountable if they violated any type of policy.”

Salle described the confrontation as very tense and lasting roughly 20 minutes. He said four of the students were arrested and released later that night, including Liz, who allegedly threw an empty water bottle toward at least two officers.

Sallee said the girl could face a charge for battery on a police officer.

Liz told reporters she threw the bottle at the ground and it bounced off an officer’s leg.

Norma Cazares, the chairwoman of the Chula Vista Police Department Chief’s Advisory Committee, told reporters that she was “very disturbed” by the incident.

Speaking at the department’s news conference inside City Hall, she said the committee will “act proactively to address incidents of this type.”

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In their news conference at the park, the students and activists pushed back against the police narrative of what happened, especially the gang-sign allegation, and asked rhetorically if police would act the same toward students hanging out a park near a high school in the affluent La Jolla or Del Mar communities.

“We demand all charges to be dropped from our record,” Liz said.

“We will not be moved from our park,” Liz said. “This will continue to be our chill spot, this will continue to be the place we wait for our parents to pick us up. This will continue to be the park where we learn many of our life lessons. This will continue to be the place where we play games and throw up our deuces to anyone that comes through. This is our park, this is a park of the people.”

As part of their ongoing investigation into the incident, Sallee asked anyone with additional videos of the confrontation to submit them to the department for review.

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