In just seconds, a July 4 gathering of people who wanted Spokane to better “police the police” turned into a boisterous confrontation that resulted in more than a dozen arrests in Riverfront Park.
A demonstration – arguably obnoxious with mostly young protesters waving signs and sitting on an American flag, but also arguably protected by the First Amendment – became a near riot.
Exactly how many seconds can’t be positively determined, but recently released video shot by a joint law enforcement intelligence unit suggests it could be as few as four.
That’s the length of time on the jumpy, sometimes out-of-focus video showing Officer Jay Kernkamp and demonstrator Zach St. John confronting each other in the midst of a group of protesters and onlookers. That brief segment, contained on the Criminal Intelligence Unit video, does nothing to bolster the Spokane Police Department’s version of the event. Kernkamp and St. John have told very different – and in some cases irreconcilable – versions of their encounter.
Kernkamp said St. John approached him, grabbed his left arm, demanded his badge number and accused the officer of pushing him off his seat. He said he warned St. John not to touch him and to back away but the protester came at him aggressively, grabbed his left shoulder and demanded his badge number.
The officer said he told the protester his badge number and told him to back away, but St. John wouldn’t, so he pushed St. John away again. According to Kernkamp, the protester yelled profanities at him, charged him again, and with his right hand grabbed Kernkamp’s throat and squeezed, causing the officer to cough, take a deep breath “to clear my air way and to regain my breathing pattern.”
He pushed St. John away again “to regain my sense of direction and to catch my breath. I again feared that if he continued to choke me, I would lose consciousness.” At this point, Kernkamp said in his report, St. John tried to walk away after he told the protester to come to him, so he placed him “in left arm control and attempted to guide him to ground,” but St. John “started to spin out of” the arm hold. At that point, a nearby officer arrived to help take St. John to the ground.
In an interview the day after the demonstration, St. John said he had been sitting on a bucket on the flag and was pushed off. He assumed it was one of the police officers. “I jumped up and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ Bam, I was on the ground.” St. John said he never choked the officer.
A segment of video that includes the confrontation starts with about 30 seconds of scanning the crowd standing around or sitting on the flag where St. John said he was sitting. As the camera pans across that crowd, Kernkamp’s face appears to the left of the frame and St. John’s face comes up in front of the officer’s. The camera is too far back to record what’s said – St. John backs away or is pushed, then Kernkamp and another officer take him to the ground. What’s captured on the video takes less than four seconds.
Because the camera is moving, some things that either the officer or the protester described could have happened outside the frame. But the crowd doesn’t seem to focus on anything unusual before the confrontation shows up on the video, and CIU detectives do not seem to notice the altercation until St. John was being taken to the ground.
Kernkamp’s description was the basis for St. John being charged with criminal assault, but the two versions were never tested against each other in court. Facing the prospect of a felony conviction, St. John accepted a plea bargain late last year to a misdemeanor charge of riot. He didn’t plead guilty but entered what’s known as an Alford plea, an admission that if the state presented the evidence it had he could have been found guilty.
But neither St. John nor prosecutors had the video of the demonstration shot by CIU detectives. In a string of occurrences that police have described as miscommunication between divisions, the CIU videotapes were not part of cases being prepared by county or city prosecutors, mainly from work done by the crowd control unit to which Kernkamp belonged and a detective from the Major Crimes Unit. It only surfaced this month as another protester, Michael Lyons, was about to face trial on misdemeanor trespass and failure to disperse charges.
Charges against Lyons were dropped by the city, which insisted its case was strong but it “no longer makes sense to try the patience of the court for misdemeanor charges.”
St. John, who received no jail time or fine and is on probation, is considering whether to try to withdraw his plea based on the CIU video.
Although the video was not available when St. John entered his plea, police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said any discrepancy between the two versions “has already been vetted,” and she considers it settled. “The avenue for further review is in the courts,” Kirkpatrick said.
Three detectives, two from the city and one from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, filmed portions of events July 4 from the time protesters arrived in the park, but spent much of their time panning the crowd. Before St. John’s arrest, protesters are seen waving signs with slogans such as “Police the police” and “Those in power must be targeted.” Some mill about near a stage or sit on a large flag used as a picnic blanket.
Detectives were working with the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, gathering “intelligence” on an organizer of the protest, hoping to videotape his actions and get footage of his associates.
“We knew he espoused a Black Bloc methodology of hijacking legal protests and making them illegal,” said Norm Brown, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and supervisor of the task force.
JTTF was not interested in a peaceful demonstration calling for more controls on police, Brown added: “Those types of activities are cherished American traditions.”
The protester in JTTF’s sights was Travis Riehl, a member of a group of self-described anarchists who go by the name Alternative Solutions and Possibilities.
Riehl, 23 at the time, had been charged in federal court two months before the July 4 demonstration with vandalizing a pair of military recruiting stations in Spokane in 2005. He had pleaded not guilty and was free on his own recognizance while awaiting trial, but JTTF still considered it an ongoing case, Brown said. Riehl eventually pleaded guilty to one of the counts in March in exchange for the other being dropped, but the case won’t be closed until he’s sentenced next month, the FBI agent said.
ASAP was one of the organizers of the protest, and some of the literature distributed had links to anarchist Web sites. But other participants included longtime civil liberties activists in the Spokane community and at least one Gonzaga University professor.
Riehl was not arrested for anything connected to the July 4 protest, and it wasn’t any strategy on the part of the protesters that precipitated the arrests but the confrontation between Kernkamp and St. John, a musician and restaurant worker who said he wasn’t a member of ASAP.
Much of the video is blurry, but the segment that captures St. John’s arrest begins when one detective reminds another to remove the lens cap. As St. John is wrestled to the ground, the camera moves and briefly points at the grass.
One detective who shot video for CIU said he was using an unfamiliar camera from another department.
“Based upon the quality of the videotape, maybe we should add camcorder training to our curriculum,” JTTF’s Brown said.