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Video shows undercover San Diego police arresting protester, rushing her into unmarked van

Thousands of protesters demanding racial justice march toward downtown San Diego on June 4, 2020
Thousands of protesters demanding racial justice march down Pershing Drive toward downtown San Diego.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Video of police officers in plainclothes and military-style uniforms arresting a female protester Thursday — and taking her away in an unmarked van as bystanders scream for the officers to identify themselves — spread on social media this week, raising eyebrows and concerns.

In the 45-second clip posted on Twitter, just after the woman is forced into the van, one of the officers dressed in tactical gear and carrying what looks like a rifle yells at the woman’s companions that if “you follow us, you will get shot, you understand me?”

On the video, people can be heard screaming, “What the [expletive]? This is an unmarked car! Who is this? Who are you?”

The video of the arrest comes as protesters around the region, state and nation are taking to the streets to rally against police tactics and treatment of people of color in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

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The video, posted Thursday night, had been viewed on Twitter more than 330,000 times by Saturday afternoon.

San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez issued a statement Saturday referencing the video.

“I am calling for an immediate and thorough investigation into this incident, and for the officer who threatened to kill unarmed protesters to be placed on leave. It is incredibly disturbing to hear police officers threaten people’s lives,” the statement from Gómez read.

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San Diego police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for the department, said Friday that the woman was arrested after undercover officers watched her swing a cardboard sign at a passing motorcycle officer. He said they arrested her and quickly loaded her into the van for safety reasons, because of the surrounding crowd.

It’s not clear from the video if the immediate area was crowded with people, though few are seen in the background of the footage.

The footage starts during the arrest and ends soon after the van drives off, so it is unclear what may have happened or been said before the recording.

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The Twitter user who posted the video did not immediately respond to questions Thursday and Friday about the events surrounding the arrest.

Takeuchi said several police detectives in plainclothes were parked in an unmarked van along Park Boulevard near San Diego High School at about 9:20 p.m. on Thursday, watching protesters march from downtown through Hillcrest, North Park and Balboa Park on their way back to downtown.

One of the detectives in the van “witnessed a woman step off of the sidewalk into the roadway and swing a cardboard sign at a passing SDPD motorcycle officer,” Takeuchi said, adding that the detectives drove up and arrested her and felt it necessary to leave quickly because of the surrounding crowd.

Takeuchi identified the woman Saturday morning as being 20 years old, but a name he provided for her did not match any recent arrest records.

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In the video, officers can be seen handcuffing the woman as she lay on the ground, then lifting her to her feet. A small piece of rectangular cardboard is briefly left in the street near where she’d been handcuffed before a detective picks it up and walks off with it.

Takeuchi said the woman was booked into jail on suspicion of assault on a peace officer for allegedly swinging the cardboard at him. “The detective felt that was dangerous because the officer had the potential of being knocked off” the motorcycle or crashing it, Takeuchi said.

Some plainclothes officers in the video are in black vests marked “POLICE.” Also in the video are San Diego SWAT officers wearing military-style uniforms.

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“We understand the concerns when arrests are made by detectives who may not be easily identifiable,” Takeuchi said. “In this incident, the crime occurred in front of our detectives, and uniformed officers were not available.”

He also said the detectives in the van chose to arrest the woman then, rather than wait for uniformed officers to arrive, to avoid losing her in the crowd.

“The detective felt it was appropriate to effect an arrest based on the crime he saw,” Takeuchi said, claiming that SWAT officers who arrived as the arrest was being made were “prepared to deescalate the situation.”

Takeuchi said the SWAT officer who threatened to shoot anyone who followed them was carrying less-than-lethal weapons — to fire beanbags or the like. He said officers are trained to announce when they might use force to seek compliance.

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The news comes a day after the department became aware of “a social media post an officer had on his Facebook page” that included “a baton and blood on the ground,” according to an email sent Thursday by City Manager Tom Modica.

The Thursday protest and march were the largest seen in the region up to that point. Police, who had a helicopter fly over the crowd, estimated there were more than 2,000 people participating.

Angeneé Sandiford, one of the demonstrators, said she found it troubling that San Diego police in unmarked vans were monitoring protests.

Sandiford, 25, said she and four friends, all of whom are black, attended last Sunday’s protest in downtown San Diego. After the demonstration, Sandiford noticed her group was being watched by “two white males in tactical gear” in a white Dodge van with its license plates covered.

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“We weren’t holding signs or anything, but it was definitely obvious we’d been part of the protest,” Sandiford said Friday, noting that the group had brought along a case of water and jugs of milk in case they were hit with tear gas or pepper spray.

The tactics used by San Diego police to monitor, protect or otherwise deal with protests are not public. Capt. Jeffrey Jordon said those tactics are laid out in the department’s mobile-force field guide, but “making the document publicly available would jeopardize the safety of officers and community members.”

On Saturday, thousands of protesters were marching from downtown San Diego to Hillcrest in a demonstration estimated to be even larger than the one that took place Thursday.


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