IOWA CITY — Three months after officers used tear gas and flash bangs to keep Black Lives Matter protesters from advancing on Interstate 80, Iowa City on Thursday released police videos and its most complete account yet of the controversial clash.
Earlier this week, the Iowa City Council called for the release of the recordings of the June 3 protest, while also voting to hire the OIR Group, based in California, to conduct an independent review of the incident.
The videos are body camera footage from the front and back of the police line as the confrontation was happening at the I-80 interchange at N. Dubuque Street.
“It was a huge crowd that night,” said council member Susan Mims, who has watched two of the videos. “It was a very tense situation for everyone involved. I’m not justifying, excusing any conduct. To me, that’s just a statement of fact.”
According to an overview of the confrontation provided by Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin in a news release, the crowd-control measures were deployed after law enforcement warned protesters the devices would be used if they attempted to get on the interstate to shut it down that night.
Fruin said 300 to 500 protesters marched toward I-80. The Iowa State Patrol made the call that protesters should not be allowed to access the interstate “out of safety concerns for protesters and the traveling public,” Fruin said.
Questions about the incident The Gazette asked of the patrol were not immediately answered Thursday.
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Fruin said the State Patrol, Iowa City and University of Iowa police and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office worked together to prevent protesters from reaching the interstate. The law enforcement officials decided that if demonstrators did not voluntarily turn back, they would use flashbangs and chemical munitions — including OC (commonly known as pepper spray), Ortho-Chlorobenzalmalononitrite and SAF-SMOKE, which is purified terephilalic acid.
“The use of these devices was deemed by law enforcement a safer alternative than hands-on tactics where risk of injury was considered much higher for all involved,” Fruin said.
Fruin said a small group of protesters was told by troopers it could not access the interstate and was asked to turn around. But a large group approached. Troopers called on the crowd to disperse in accordance with Iowa law on unlawful assembly.
“This order came through an amplified public-address device from a squad car and was repeated several times as protesters approached while chanting,” he wrote.
Once demonstrators were within “several feet” of law enforcement, the state troopers ordered that the devices be deployed,” Fruin said.
The crowd initially dispersed, but some protesters returned and were met with “less lethal munitions” including pepperballs “to stop aggressive behavior and to prevent violence toward law enforcement officers,” Fruin said.
More chemical munitions were deployed to turn back a portion of the demonstrators.
Fruin said nine members of the Iowa City Metro Special Rescue Team — an interagency unit made up of Iowa City and UI officers and trained to respond to high-risk situations — used chemical munitions during the incident.
Mims said one of the biggest take-aways from watching the videos was how loud it was at the incident. Between watching the video and speaking with someone present that night, Mims said shes believes it was “very difficult, if not impossible” for most of the protesters to hear the warnings about the crowd control devices.
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“I think that is important information because it very much helps inform some discussions we need to have at the council level and with police,” she said.
Mims noted the video taken from behind the police line clearly depicts officers giving warnings.
“I think for me the biggest take away was the difference in the audio depending on where the individual was as to what could be heard,” she said. “Everybody will be able to watch them and get their own perspective. I’m sure there will be many, many, many different perspectives.”
The council on June 16 passed a resolution responding to the demands of the Iowa Freedom Riders — the local group representing the Black Lives Matter movement. Included in that resolution was a review of the June 3 protest, which was to be complete by Aug. 1. However, the council opted to turn to an independent group after it became clear the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation could not complete the review.
A public report on the Iowa City Police Department’s involvement in the June 3 incident is expected in 60 to 90 days from the beginning of the OIR Group’s review. No other law enforcement agencies involved in the confrontation will be compelled to participate in the review.
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