A protester shows effects of tear gas fired by La Mesa police.
A protester shows effects of tear gas fired by La Mesa police on May 30, 2020. Photo by Chris Stone

An Open Letter to the Mayor of La Mesa and Council Members

The recently released report on the shooting of Leslie Furcron on May 30 makes it clear that our community needs to see changes in police use of less lethal weapons.  The policy changes proposed by the La Mesa Police Department — increased training and the update of a PowerPoint presentation — will not address the larger issues. 

We encourage you to restrict law enforcement’s use of kinetic projectiles, chemical agents and tear gas with legislation at the city level that is similar to Lorena Gonzalez’s Assembly Bill 48.

Shooting of Leslie Furcron

The report clears Det. Eric Knudson for the grievous injuries he caused to Leslie Furcron. In clearing his actions, the report points out that Det. Knudson did not receive enough training on firing less lethal shotguns, had never before used the shotgun he was firing and had not received any training in shooting less lethal beanbag rounds beyond their effective range and had never trained on the weapon while wearing a gas mask. At the same time, the city’s attorney is arguing that neither the city nor Det. Knudson are liable for Ms. Furcron’s injuries because of Ms. Furcron’s unlawful conduct.

While we certainly do not want to see our city’s limited tax dollars lost on a lawsuit, we also believe that our community can never be made whole without the application of justice.  If the Det. Knudson is not liable for his actions because of a lack of training, then the liability falls to those responsible for his training — not to Ms. Furcron. 

Furthermore, the action taken by Ms. Furcron was throwing a can in the direction of sheriff’s deputies. According to the report, the can landed a third of the way toward the deputies. The deputies never came into danger. Certainly, the fact that other protesters were throwing rocks does explain Det. Knudson’s assumption that Ms. Furcron was throwing a rock. But justifying the partial blinding of someone based on an unlawful action that they didn’t commit simply doesn’t hold water.

In the report, the independent investigator, R.K. Miller, expresses concern that Det. Knudson may have fired a training round at Ms. Furcron. He explains that training rounds “are not intended for use against individuals.” Miller comes to the conclusion that Knudson most likely did not fire a training round, but was simply in danger of doing so based on the commingling of ammunition. 

Apparently, the investigator was not given full access to the evidence — or even the police department’s PowerPoint presentation on this incident. Numerous times throughout the report it is stated that Knudson fired a training round at Ms. Furcron.

Following an incident in which an officer injures someone with a firearm, the field supervisor is required to secure the firearm without unloading, reloading or examining it. This did not happen. The weapon, which was borrowed from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, was lost after the night of May 30.

There is a notion in the community that Ms. Furcron was hit during a chaotic situation with masses of people attacking the police.  While this certainly was the case earlier in the evening, the body worn camera video released by the La Mesa Police Department shows a small group of just over a dozen people standing at the edge of the parking lot when Ms. Furcron was fired upon.   

Throughout the report — and in public presentations — the La Mesa Police Department has taken pains to point out the language used by Ms. Furcron prior to Det. Knudson firing upon her. But the report also makes it clear that Det. Knudson had no contact with Ms. Furcron and therefore did not hear anything she said. And according to the police department’s own Use of Force Policy, “Facts unknown to an officer, no matter how compelling, cannot be considered in later determining whether the use of force was justified.”

The events of May 30 were undoubtedly extraordinary circumstances. And the officers were under extreme pressure, facing an angry crowd throwing water bottles and rocks for an extended period of time. However, these circumstances do not justify blaming a victim for injuries they suffered. And continuing with this approach will only deepen the wounds this community so desperately needs to heal.

Less Lethal Weapons

The report also raises a number of questions about the La Mesa Police Department’s use of less lethal weapons. In the report, two officers describe the discharge of 10 beanbag shotgun rounds in six separate incidents. It’s likely that there were other uses of less lethal shotguns because the Sheriff’s Department’s role is almost completely absent from this 323-page report. 

But of the shots described, nine missed completely and one hit a target deemed potentially lethal when using beanbag ammunition — the head. In other words, none of these shots hit their intended target and one caused a permanent injury that required surgery. Given that track record, we have to question the use of the less lethal shotgun, especially in protest situations.

The use of chemical weapons also seems questionable.  According to Det. Knudson, protesters did not start throwing rocks until AFTER gas was deployed. Prior to that, they were throwing water bottles. Certainly, we don’t condone throwing water bottles at police officers, but it’s clear that the gas escalated the situation and resulted in an increase of danger to police officers, rather than a decrease in danger.

In an interview, Det. Knudson states: “It seemed like every time after, uh, gas was deployed to push the crowd back that we would get the larger amount of those, uh, objects being thrown at us, rocks being thrown at our direction.” Again, rather than dispersing the crowd, the deployment of gas angered the crowd and resulted in increased danger to police officers. Furthermore, at least two officers were exposed to tear gas due to issues with their protective gear. 

On top of that, one officer described a fire that broke out immediately after the deployment of CS gas by the Sheriff’s Department. He stated: “It was unknown whether someone from the crowd of protesters started it, or if it was actually from one of the canisters thrown.” Tear gas canisters have been known to start fires.

According to the American Lung Association, tear gas can “cause chemical burns, allergic reactions and respiratory distress. People with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, have a higher risk of developing severe symptoms of their disease that could lead to respiratory failure.”

Why is our police department using a weapon that can cause serious injuries, hurt their own officers and start fires — especially when the deployment of that weapon results in the exact opposite effect of what is intended?

It’s Time for Change

It’s time for our community to demand a change to our police department’s use of less lethal weapons. 

Fortunately, there is already a bill written that addresses these issues at the state level: Lorena Gonzalez’s AB 48. The bill “would prohibit any law enforcement agency from using kinetic projectiles, chemical agents and tear gas to disperse any peaceful assembly, protest or demonstration.” 

It has not received a vote at the state level, so we would like to see a version of it implemented in our own city. This is our opportunity to make La Mesa a leader in the movement to make California a safer, more welcoming place for everyone. 

This letter was signed by members of La Mesa Activists for Good Governance: Matt Jenkins (president), Teri Andre, Demetrius Antuña, Nicole Chenelle, Manuel Gomez, Emily Green, Andy Trimlett, Melissa Walter and Sarah Young.