Santa Fe Police officials say they made the right call by pulling back as protesters tore down the obelisk at the center of the Plaza on Monday.
That's the message Police Chief Andrew Padilla delivered during a pre-scripted Tuesday afternoon video presentation streamed on the city's Youtube page. A heavier-handed police response, Padilla said, could have incited violence.
Instead, the on-duty commander ordered officers to stand down following a scuffle with protesters that ended with two arrests after, according to police, protesters tackled two officers to the ground.
"I stand by that commander's decision and it is the right decision," Padilla said, adding that the department was following policies that value "preservation of life over property."
"Had there been a threat to somebody's life in or around the obelisk and the Plaza, officers would have re-engaged," said Padilla.
It was the clearest signal to date that City Hall and the police department have chosen a wholly different route when it comes to dealing with protest against historical and current racist oppression in the city and nationwide.
The hands-off approach marks an about face, for example, from SFPD's decision to post snipers on the roofs of downtown buildings ahead of planned protests against the Entrada in 2017, a now-ended celebration of the colonial takeover of the city that was for years a central part of Fiestas.
And what SFPD is calling its softer touch comes amid a summer of high-pitched clashes around the nation between police and people demonstrating in the streets for racial equality in policing and beyond in the criminal justice system on the heels of multiple Black people dying violent deaths at the hands of officers.
Padilla said the department decided to place six personnel at the Plaza ahead of time based on prior experiences.
"We didn't go in there heavy handed or with a large array of weapons or less-lethal weapons and deploy tear gas and disrupt the local shops or disrupt the dining areas of the Plaza Cafe or anything else down there," Padilla said.
"We could be talking about a different story right now, we could be talking about, 'Why did the Santa Fe Police emergency response team and Santa Fe SWAT team go in there so heavy handed and use excessive force, why did they outnumber the [protesters], or the cries and concerts we have heard over the many years, why are there officers or snipers or marksmen on top of the roofs around the Plaza?'" Padillla said. "We would have had those concerns, but we have taken a step back and allowed people to demonstrate and get their voices out there as we have done all summer long."
Moving past the police response, Padilla asked the public to help identify individuals involved in the destruction of the obelisk from video footage posted to various social media platforms and from local news coverage.
He said the FBI is aiding local law enforcement in the investigation and will step in if the department needs "help rounding people up as we identify them."
So far, the department has made two arrests.
SFPD arrested Sean Sunderland, 24, and Dylan Wrobel, 27, on Monday for their alleged involvement in the incidents leading up to the takedown of the obelisk.
At an emergency City Council meeting Monday evening, Mayor Alan Webber claimed protesters had attacked and injured officers, leading to the arrests.
Neither of the court-filed criminal complaints laying out the allegations against Sunderland and Wrobel offer any details about what kind of injuries officers may have sustained or whether injuries occurred. SFR asked for specifics at Tuesday's update but Padilla said only that two officers were "tackled, punched and shoved."
Webber also said at the emergency meeting that protesters tore down metal barricades around the monument and threw pieces at city workers before attacking police officers on the scene.
On Tuesday, Webber clarified that his earlier understanding of events was inaccurate—video footage from a mobile police camera trailer shows protesters dismantling the barricades but does not show them throwing the segments at anyone, Webber said. Police have not yet released that video footage to the public and have also not provided arrest reports or lapel cam video as requested by SFR.
In the criminal complaint listing charges against Wrobel—trespassing and resisting, evading or obstructing an officer, both misdemeanors, and battery on a police officer, a felony—Officer Manuel Romero writes that he was sent to the Plaza around noon, just before protesters began to take down the metal barriers set up around the obelisk and "throw them about."
Romero told the construction crew working on the plywood barrier around the obelisk to leave, he writes in the complaint, at which point he says the protesters began to "surround officers." He says the officers issued multiple warnings to the protesters advising them that they were trespassing.
The battery charge against Wrobel is based on Romero's statement that Wrobel "touched or applied force in a manner that physically injured, jeopardized the safety of or challenged the authority" of officer Javier Vigil, who then chased Wrobel as he attempted to flee the scene.
Wrobel was booked into the Santa Fe Adult Detention Center on Monday. He was released after an initial court appearance—at which he did not enter a plea—Monday on a $2,500 appearance bond, court records show.
Sunderland, writes Romero, was also behaving in an aggressive manner toward Vigil.
"While I was trying to disperse protesters I observed individuals surround officer J. Vigil," Romero states. He says Vigil "appeared to be struggling to detain Mr. Wrobels while other individuals surrounded him and began to pull at him. One individual, Sean Sunderland, appeared to be trying to take Officer Vigil to the ground."
Romero writes that he pepper sprayed protesters and eventually was able to tackle them to the ground with the help of other officers.
In the criminal complaint against Sunderland, Officer Jesse Campbell offers a similar description of the events. Campbell says "officers attempted to peacefully keep protesters from the area but were swarmed and attacked."
According to Campbell, Sunderland jumped on Vigil's back to try to prevent the officer from arresting Wrobel.
Sunderland is charged with criminal trespass, and resisting evading or obstructing an officer. He is not accused of assault or battery on an officer.
Both men were taken to Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center hospital for treatment for pepper spray exposure before they were booked into the jail.
Webber and Padilla did not answer questions during Tuesday's video presentation about the discrepancy between the charges against the two men or give other updates on their cases.
At a video first appearance Tuesday afternoon before Santa Fe Magistrate Judge Donita Sena, Sunderland pleaded not guilty to the pair of misdemeanor charges he's facing. Sena set a $2,500 unsecured bond for Sunderland and ordered him released from the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center—where he's been held since around 5 pm Monday.
Sunderland's attorney, Kitrin Fischer, told Sena she had not had a chance to speak with her client yet. But Sunderland told the judge during the hearing that he understood the charges and the penalties they carry—364 days in jail apiece.
SFR contributing editor Jeff Proctor contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the conditions of Wrobel’s release from jail.