Oakland Police officers after firing tear gas into a crowd of protesters on 7th St. May 29, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

An effort in early June to stop police officers from using tear gas against protesters in Oakland was strongly opposed by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, according to records disclosed today by the city

The tear gas ban was proposed on June 3 by Oakland city councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas, Rebecca Kaplan, and Sheng Thao, following several nights of protests against police brutality, looting and widespread downtown property damage, and crackdowns by police.

The councilmembers wrote in a public letter that the use of tear gas during the coronavirus pandemic would put “countless people at risk” of health complications. They also noted that tear gas has been banned for use by the U.S. military in war. The following week, nearly 1,300 health professionals from across the country urged law enforcement officials to stop using “tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19.”

After the councilmembers made their announcement, Sergeant Michael Norton of the Alameda County sheriff’s office sent a letter, on behalf of the sheriff, to Oakland interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer. The letter noted that between May 29 and June 1, the sheriff’s office had helped coordinate the deployment of hundreds of officers from other police departments into Oakland to help the Oakland Police Department “bring order back” to the city. 

Norton wrote that some sheriffs’ deputies had objects thrown at them in that time, including Molotov cocktails, and that one deputy experienced second-degree burns. He also wrote that “protestors and/or looters” shot at police.

Norton warned Manheimer that if Oakland attempted to stop sheriff’s deputies from using tear gas and other “crowd management tools,” the sheriff would no longer provide “mutual aid” to Oakland, and the sheriff would also inform other law enforcement agencies from across the state about the city’s new policy. Mutual aid is a system through which various law enforcement agencies share personnel with one another during major emergencies.

Asked about the letter, Norton told The Oaklandside he cannot speak to media per sheriff’s office policy, and said he would forward our request to the office’s press liaison. We will update this story if we hear back.

A copy of the sheriff’s letter was made public today by the city in a court filing responding to a lawsuit alleging that OPD violated the civil rights of protesters by using tear gas and other less-lethal weapons like rubber bullets between May 29 and June 1, and allowing other police departments to use them as well.

The Oaklandside tried to obtain a copy of the sheriff’s letter on June 4 by filing a public records request with the city, but the city ignored the request. We also asked for the letter from the police department’s public information officers on June 16, but they did not provide it.

Nine days after the sheriff’s letter was sent to interim police chief Manheimer, Donald O’Keefe, the United States Marshal for the Northern District of California, sent an email to a group of Alameda County police chiefs supporting Sheriff Ahern’s position.

“I rarely comment on state and local policy matters as a federal law enforcement officer with this association, even though I have over 30 years of city and county law enforcement experience,” O’Keefe wrote. “However, I feel compelled to comment here. I totally support Sheriff Ahern’s position on the use of chemical agents/tear gas.”

O’Keefe warned that if the Oakland city councilmembers’ proposed tear gas ban was adopted, he would recommend closing the federal courthouse at 1301 Clay Street, where two federal protective officers were shot on May 29.  One of the officers, Patrick Underwood, died. The suspect, Steven Carrillo, is a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and believed to be an adherent of far-right, anti-government ideology.

O’Keefe explained that he felt it was necessary to allow police to use chemical weapons in part because protests and rioting were disrupting the FBI’s effort to process the crime scene.

O’Keefe did not respond to a request for comment. The Oaklandside also shared copies of both the sheriff’s letter and O’Keefe’s email with each member of the Oakland City Council and asked for comment, but none responded.

The letters from these two powerful law enforcement leaders may have had an impact. What began as a proposal to ban tear gas outright turned into a recommendation. On June 16, the Oakland City Council approved a resolution “urging” the police not to use tear gas against protestors, but not stopping them from doing so.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.