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Army veteran, arrested at Kansas City protest, says police use of force uncalled for

By CORTLYNN STARK | The Kansas City Star | Published: June 13, 2020

KANSAS CITY (Tribune News Service) — If someone threw rocks at James Gillcrist and his fellow U.S. Army service members in Iraq 10 years ago, they would simply reposition.

Responding with force wasn't worth it.

The Rockhurst High School theology teacher, during the second night of protests May 30 in Kansas City at the Country Club Plaza, saw police use tear gas on peaceful protesters and called the police response undisciplined. He said he would have been court-martialed out of the Army if he responded the same way overseas.

During the several days of protests against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter in Kansas City, hundreds were arrested. Before deescalating their tactics, police used pepper spray and tear gas in the first few days. Protesters sustained bruises, one lost sight in one eye and another's leg was broken.

Protests across the country were sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Gillcrist's comments mirror those of other military veterans who have been critical of militarized police response at protests since Michael Brown's killing sparked protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

One international policing expert agreed that police responses across the country have not been in proportion with any threat protesters may have presented. Kansas City police said they are reviewing potential excessive force or civil rights violations.

Gillcrist and his wife, who live in Brookside, went to the Plaza on Saturday night May 30 to see what was going on. Sometime after 11 p.m., he was gathered – peacefully – with about 100 others at the intersection of Wyandotte Street and Ward Parkway.

A line of five to 10 officers stood on the street. The officers didn't have a "menacing posture," Gillcrist said, or have tear gas in their hands. Two camera crews were standing on the corner.

Later, a group of about 10 to 15 officers clad in riot gear walked down Wyandotte Street and joined the line. He saw four of them already had tear gas canisters in hand.

"It was a pretty repugnant display of force," Gillcrist said. "That's kind of what it looked to me, as just a show of force."

Gillcrist told the officers everyone there was peaceful and asked them to put the tear gas away. Three did. One didn't. He spent the next 10 minutes trying to get the officer to put it away.

"You know what right looks like," he said to the officers who had put the canisters away. But the officer who still held a canister in his hand didn't say anything.

Gillcrist tried to speak to the officer in charge of the second group who motioned him to come forward.

But when he did, four officers surrounded him and arrested him. When he felt the first officer put an hand on him, Gillcrist put his hands behind his back. After he was sitting on the curb, officers announced the assembly was unlawful.

Records show he was arrested for failing to comply with the lawful order of a police officer by refusing to remain on the sidewalk. A video of his arrest shows him standing on the sidewalk as he is arrested.

He called his wife, who was not arrested, around 5 the next morning, and she picked him up.

National unrest

Videos taken at protests across the country have shown police using tear gas, beating protesters with batons and shoving an older man to the ground.

Jason Fritz, a senior research analyst and Army veteran, said police should not have handled the protests like they did.

"It's horrifying," said Fritz, who works at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit public policy organization. "It's absolutely shocking the disregard police have had for citizens ... under no circumstances should police be treating people that way."

The protesters were not people who had acted violently toward police, Fritz said.

Fritz served three tours in Iraq. And while it's impossible to know exactly what would have happened had he, or Gillcrist, acted toward civilians overseas as police in America have toward the communities they serve, Fritz said acting in that manner would have violated the rules of engagement.

Gillcrist served in the Army in 2009 and 2010. Once, an Iraqi teen, through Gillcrist's translator, asked for his watch and then suggested he would cut off Gillcrist's hand. He and his battalion commander left the area.

If someone threw rocks at them, they wouldn't engage.

Sure, the rocks might bruise, Gillcrist said. But he had on body armor and a Kevlar helmet. The rocks weren't life-threatening.

Gillcrist said it seemed officers in Kansas City were eager to resort to force. During his tour in Iraq, he was taught to pick his battles. They were only allowed to respond with force to "positively identified threats to our life and limb," Gillcrist said.

To do otherwise, he said, would have violated the rules of engagement.

"Is this a battle worth fighting?" Gillcrist said he would ask. After he learned a friend of a friend lost sight in one eye after being shot with a "less lethal" round, he now asks: "Is this worth blinding our citizens?"

His time in Iraq taught him officers shouldn't be walking around with weapons already out. With a weapon in hand, it's easier for them to fire when startled.

He called the police response in protests "highly undisciplined."

"Had we done that in Iraq, against Iraqi civilians, we would have been court-martialed out of the Army," Gillcrist said.

Fritz said it's possible that, based on how police departments across the country reacted in the first days of protests, police felt defensive.

"I can imagine they would perceive it was a national uprising against them," Fritz said.

Six years ago, protests enveloped Ferguson after police shot and killed Brown. Then, Fritz said, many people could brush it off because it was happening in one place.

Now, he said, it's in practically every American city.

But for actual change to happen, Fritz said, police departments need to have conversations with the communities they are supposed to serve about policing. Because there are more than 18,000 police agencies, those conversations have to happen on a local level.

He has called for the demilitarization of police, control of police unions and the end of qualified immunity.

The first four days of protests in Kansas City saw tear gas, pepper spray and hundreds of arrests.

"All of the events that have taken place here as it pertains to use of force and potential excessive force or civil rights violations are reviewed both internally and externally by our partners," Kansas City police said in a statement.

On Saturday, May 30, police began using pepper spray to get people off the street shortly after 4 p.m. By 5:30, some officers could be seen putting on gas masks. Around 8 p.m., police used tear gas as protesters knelt in the street at J.C. Nichols Parkway and 47th Street, sending the crowd running away, coughing.

Police said water bottles were thrown at officers. That night, some businesses on the Country Club Plaza were looted and graffiti covered walls. Twenty officers were injured after they were hit by flying objects, police said, including two who were hospitalized: one with a lacerated liver and another with a head injury.

Tear gas was used again on Sunday and Monday. On Monday, it was used shortly after Mayor Quinton Lucas left the protest.

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith previously defended the department's use of tear gas. He also defended the officers who were seen pepper spraying a man in a viral video. Smith said he saw officers moving in to do an "extraction and arrest." Critics accused police of overreacting.

But over the next several days of protests, police stopped using tear gas and diminished their overall presence. They decided to do things differently.

On Tuesday, June 2, only a few officers could be seen near the park. Traffic was already blocked off. And when protesters eventually moved into the street that evening and chanted "hands up, don't shoot," police did not use tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Gillcrist, who returned to the Plaza on Tuesday despite one of his bond conditions being to not go back and dealing with severe tendonitis from his arrest, someone several rows back in the crowd threw a water bottle that landed near police.

When officers began reaching for additional equipment, he said people in the crowd yelled, "no." A group of protesters escorted the man who threw the bottle out of the crowd.

"The protesters want to be heard," Gillcrist said. "They want their grievances to be heard. So, the vast majority of protesters don't want those people there."

He left the Army as an infantry captain.

"This isn't the country that myself and (other) veterans fought for," Gillcrist said. "We made an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. And they're out here violating the constitutional rights of citizens.

"It makes you angry."

His attorney is working to get his misdemeanor charge dismissed.

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