Protests break out after police officer drives into crowd

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An incident in which a police officer drove his car into a crowd this weekend has revived demonstrations and calls for police restructuring in Tacoma, Washington, where local activists say they remain frustrated after a black man died in police custody in March.

Small protests in the industrial city, about 34 miles south of Seattle, flared on Saturday and Sunday nights after a police officer was recorded driving his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians.

Police said the incident occurred as they were responding to 911 calls regarding a large crowd of people who were illegally blocking an intersection in downtown Tacoma to watch car enthusiasts perform what is popularly known as a “sideshow” where people do automotive stunts.

As officers tried to clear the intersection, one of the police vehicles was surrounded by people in the crowd, who then “hit the body of the police vehicle and its windows”, police said in a statement. “The officer, fearing for his safety, tried to back up, but was unable to do so because of the crowd.” Then, in an event captured on cellphone videos, the officer drove the car forward into the crowd, appearing to run over at least one person.

Police said at least two people were injured in the incident and taken to hospitals, where one remained Monday night. A spokesman for the Pierce County Force Investigation Team (PCFIT), which is investigating the incident, said on Monday that the person’s condition is unknown but that the injuries were not believed to be life-threatening.

The police officer driving the vehicle, identified only as a 58-year-old man who has served in the department for nearly 30 years, was placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation by PCFIT, which is made up of area law enforcement officers and investigates fatal uses of force by police.

Accounts and videos of the incident inflamed tension in the community, where activists said they have been on edge for months, waiting to see whether the state attorney general will bring charges against four Tacoma police officers in the March killing of Manuel Ellis, 33.

“People are kind of in the business of keeping an eye on cops these days in Tacoma,” said Jamika Scott, a co-organiser of the Tacoma Action Collective, an organisation focused on racial equity and social justice. “So there was this kind of organic, emotional response and people were like, we’re going to go down to [the intersection], we’re going to see what’s going on,” she said.

Videos of Mr Ellis’s 3 March encounter with police, brought to light months after his death, raised questions about the validity of previous claims by the Tacoma Police Department that Mr Ellis had attacked a police car. The videos show Mr Ellis being punched, tackled and placed in a chokehold by police officers, one of whom also appears to place a knee on Mr Ellis’s neck. The Pierce County medical examiner ruled the killing a homicide.

Activists have waited months since the conclusion of a Washington State Patrol investigation to learn whether any of the officers involved in Mr Ellis’s death will be charged, further degrading their expectations of justice, they said.

Protests in Tacoma over the summer were largely overshadowed by larger national demonstrations over the similar, but more widely publicised, death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Activists said the imagery of a police vehicle striking civilians on Saturday night quickly stoked the tensions.

“Tacoma police has a history of brutality,” said Rebecca Parson, another community activist, who said after watching the videos that the police officer who drove into the crowd on Saturday did so maliciously, rather than back up or drive around the group.

Videos of the incident appear to show the police vehicle largely surrounded. Police and at least one witness who spoke to a local newspaper said people were pounding on the car, trying to smash the windows.

“Everyone is a little on edge because last year they killed Manuel Ellis,” said Ms Scott, who arrived at the scene along with other activists a few hours after the incident occurred. Ms Scott said she and a fellow activist were arrested Saturday night after police decided that the demonstrators needed to move further down the street from the police perimeter. A police spokeswoman, Wendy Haddow, confirmed that two people were arrested on Saturday after police ordered them to disperse.

More protesters, whom activists said were spurred by social media posts from Seattle, took to the streets of Tacoma on Sunday night, some of them setting fires and breaking windows.

Pictures and videos appearing on social and local media showed a makeshift barricade on fire and crowds of protesters, including one holding a sign that said “CONVICT KILLER COPS”, and another who appeared to be shining a laser at police at eye level.

The demonstrators also rattled the fence and pounded on drums outside the county jail, chanting “Free them all”, according to one video.

Ms Haddow said that the demonstrators set a few small fires and smashed some windows but that there were no known injuries. She said earlier on Sunday, before the incident, police arrested a man and a woman for attempting to access the roof of a private building, wearing “riot gear”.

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