Updated: Jun 4, 2020
By Joe Johnson
Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Cleveland Spruill on Thursday defended his officers’ use of tear gas and “sponge rounds” to disperse people who lingered downtown Sunday night after most of the “March for a World Without Cops” protesters had gone home.
He made the comments during a live “Community Conversation” broadcast that featured Spruill, Mayor Kelly Girtz, county Manager Blaine Williams and Assistant Manager Deborah Lonon discussing how the county and police department handled the protest that involved an estimated 3,000 people at its height.
The protest was one of hundreds across the country in the aftermath of police in Minneapolis killing an unarmed black man, George Floyd, who was asphyxiated by officers who kneeled on him, one on Floyd’s neck.
The protest was peaceful, until just after midnight Monday, when police tossed tear gas canisters at a group of 100-200 people that remained downtown, in violation of a 9 p.m. curfew that was not announced by the county until about 9:45 p.m.
Tensions were heightened by the arrival of Georgia State Patrol and National Guard personnel at around midnight.
Spruill explained that when he determined his department was ill-equipped to deal with widespread violence, should it break out, he asked the Georgia Emergency Management Agency for mutual aid, and that it was GEMA that chose to send the Guard and GSP.
Spruill said that when he became police chief in February 2019, he inherited a department that hadn’t adequately equipped or trained officers for large public disobedience events.
However, the use of chemical agents and rubber bullets and bean bag guns were among the less-lethal weapons that police can use at their discretion when threatened with violence.
He said that officers were in a “defensive mode” when they fired sponge rounds at individuals who picked up tear gas cannisters and threw them back at officers.
A sponge grenade is a riot control weapon, intended to be non-lethal, which is fired from a 40 mm grenade launcher to cause confusion, or otherwise temporarily disable its target.
A man repletely lost an eye when shot with a sponge round during a George Floyd protest in Dallas.
A 22-year-old Athens man told Classic City News he was struck by a sponge round as he tried protecting protesters by using a leaf blower to push away tear gas cannisters.
Grayson Pynn said getting struck by the sponge round was very painful and "the breath had been completely knocked out of me.”
It caused a large bruise on his torso that still hurt as of Thursday, he said.
The police chief said a large show of force was made based on intelligence from the FBI, GBI, and plainclothes officers mingling in the crowd that outside agitators called “Boogaloos” had infiltrated the protest with the intent to incite violence.
The chief’s comments prompted critical remarks from people who were watching the broadcast on YouTube and other platforms.
“So the guys with the tear gas didn't have to shoot, but they did, and there’s no set guidelines for when they should use it or not. Great, just great,” one viewer commented.
Other viewers used more caustic language in criticizing the police actions.
“Lie, lie, lie, GBI/FBI said so, lie, lie, my officers aren’t trained, lie, lie, I am incapable of doing my job,” someone else commented.
Spruill acknowledged that some things could have been done differently, and that his department will be reviewing its performance and what changes were needed..
“Any time you have a rapidly developing situation there are going to be mistakes, so we will review to see what we could do better moving forward,” Spruill said.
Athens-Clarke County residents will have an opportunity to see if police learned anything on Saturday, when protesters again converge on downtown for a “Justice for Black Lives” march and rally.