OAKLAND, Calif. - EDITOR'S NOTE: An hour after publishing this story, the Oakland police media department sent KTVU an email stating that the tear gas reports had been completed and "discipline had been administered." KTVU still does not know the contents of these reports or the nature of the discipline. The media department said the police chief will hold a news conference this week to explain more.
Tosh Sears doesn’t usually go to protests.
But after witnessing the police killing of George Floyd one year ago in Minneapolis, he couldn’t sit idly by.
On June 1, 2020, he joined the thousands of demonstrators in a youth march from Oakland Technical High School to the city’s downtown.
But what began as an upbeat atmosphere soon turned ugly when police – claiming the group had turned violent – deployed teargas and projectiles near the department’s headquarters.
"It just went crazy," Sears said in a recent interview with KTVU. "I felt like I was in a war zone or something."
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 1: Protesters run away as police shoot tear gas and flash grenades to disperse the crowd on Broadway near the Oakland Police Department during the fourth day of protests over George Floyd's death by the Minneapolis police in Oaklan
The teargassing is now at the center of a festering controversy over the crowd control tactics that are strongly limited by the department’s own use-of-force policy. And the department’s year-long silence about whether officers acted appropriately has struck at the core of what so many were protesting: The need for more police accountability.
Oakland police officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Tosh Sears was injured after getting tear gassed at an Oakland youth rally in honor of George Floyd on June 1, 2020.
The Oakland Police Department has been going through one of the longest and most contentious reform processes in the nation – including adopting stricter use-of-force policies.
The department has been under the supervision of a federally appointed monitor since 2003, following the notorious Riders case, in which citizens reported being beaten and framed by multiple police officers.
But activists and many reform advocates have been skeptical about the department’s progress. They say the lack of transparency around issues like last summer's protest proves it.
"We continue to get lip service about reforms," said Bay Area activist Cat Brooks, whose teen daughter was at the march. "I want to see the new chief, LeRonne Armstrong, who keeps saying this is a new day inside OPD actually make it a new day in OPD."
Armstrong – who was then deputy chief – initially defended the use-of-force a day after the march, saying that people in the crowd were preparing Molotov cocktails and throwing rocks and bottles at police.
He added that there were no young people or elderly in the crowd.
But the department has never provided evidence to back up its claims.
And a review of multiple videos, along with interviews with participants by KTVU, never revealed anyone preparing Molotov cocktails.
What’s more, multiple people in the crowd were high school kids who were part of the youth march.
"It was almost like a festival," Sears recalled about the initial atmosphere of the march. "Everybody was getting along. The children were out there with signs. It was just a good thing."
As the crowd began to wind down that evening at Frank Ogawa Plaza – around the time the city imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, following destructive protests the night before – some in the crowd marched down Broadway toward the police station.
When the marchers reached 8th Street, some ran past a barricade of officers in riot gear.
Body-worn camera video from one officer provides a snap-shot of the moment before police launched the gas.
"Just took our first bottle," the officer says. He later adds, "No kids, no elderly in the crowd."
Moments later, what appears to be a plastic water bottle strikes an officer before smoke and flash-bangs explode in the crowd.
"It was like it turned into a shootout or something. It was horrific," said Sears, who was struck by a projectile in the chaos.
He’s since filed a lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which was assisting.
In an interview with KTVU after he was sworn in as the new chief, Armstrong said June 1, 2020, incident was being reviewed by an outside investigator.
"When that investigation is cleared, I’ll be transparent about it and share it with the public," he said in February, estimating it would be ready in 30 to 90 days.
That was almost four months ago.
The Oakland Police Department still has not released the report.
And that has infuriated those who have been waiting for the department's self-assessment on the officers' actions, let alone an apology, if it was decided that they overreacted that night.
"It’s clear there were no Molotov cocktails on June 1. They’ve offered absolutely nothing to back that up," said civil rights attorney Rachel Lederman, who represents Sears and other co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "It’s clear that there was an overreaction based on the topic of people coming out against racist police violence."
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky