Reno police: Downtown destruction on Saturday was caused by organized out-of-staters

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Downtown took center stage as violence erupted at the initially peaceful protest in Reno on Saturday, with news cameras trained on the tear gas-clouded clash between protestors and police there. A badly damaged city hall loomed as the backdrop.

But behind the scenes, police said they had to scramble to protect multiple locations and close off key entry points to the city to guard against what they described as an organized attack by a group bent on destruction after peaceful demonstrators went home.

Hundreds of people filled downtown Reno to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who succumbed in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes. The police officer was charged with murder. The death sparked protests, both peaceful and not, across the country.

Smaller organized group caused destruction, police say

But as the peaceful demonstrators began to depart, a different group took over.

“We saw them peel off when the peaceful protest ended,” Acting City Manager Jason Soto said. “This was a group that all they wanted to do was create destruction.”

As many as 1,200 protestors began to flow in three different directions: city hall, police headquarters and the Wells Avenue area, Soto said.

“They had organization more sophisticated than I have seen for quite some time,” Soto said.

The Wells Avenue group ended up scattering as police shut down streets, funneling them into downtown. The police headquarters was defaced with graffiti. City hall had its windows and doors smashed and its council chambers torn apart.

But intelligence from undercover officers working the crowd indicated as many as 20 different locations could be in danger of similar treatment, Soto said.

“We had about 20 different locations that we had to protect and hold, which caused a large separation of our force,” Soto said.

Undercover Reno officers working the crowd surveilled violent demonstrators

That intelligence also indicated that more protesters were coming from out of state, prompting Reno police, with help from neighboring police forces and the Nevada National Guard, to begin closing entry points to the city.

“A task that would seem as simple as blocking off entry points in to the city of Reno were very difficult,” Soto said. “A lot of these demonstrators, I believe were from out of this area. We had to shut down our freeways. Shut down every exit into the city of Reno. That is logistically challenging, but we did it and we did it safely.”

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Initial arrest statistics released by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office indicated 20 of the 23 people arrested during the demonstrations were from Reno or Sparks. But Acting Police Chief Tom Robinson said Sunday afternoon that authorities have been unable to verify a local address for 12 of those arrested.

“Twelve of those individuals claimed to be local, however, did not have any documentation proving that,” he said. “So we’re still trying to determine exactly where they live.”

Undercover officers working the crowd also surveilled demonstrators who gathered in certain parking lots, getting out of vehicles with California license plates, Robinson said.

Police are poring over video of the destruction at city hall and police headquarters on East Second Street, identifying suspects and planning arrests.

“It’s a police station,” Robinson said. “There’s surveillance everywhere. We’ve got tons of cameras. So we’re coming for ya. You know who you are and we will too.”

Those videos also showed, however, that a fair number of the destructive protesters do live in Reno.

“I saw them and recognized them on the video,” Soto said.

Most of destruction happened downtown, north end of Midtown

Despite the intel that protesters had multiple targets, the only clash to result in police firing tear gas and rubber bullets occurred downtown and on the north end of Midtown, Robinson said.

That’s where most of the destruction also occurred.

City hall was badly damaged. As police pushed them south, protesters aimed rocks and other projectiles and other government buildings. The Washoe District Court House sustained multiple broken windows. The federal building at Liberty and Virginia streets had most of its front windows and doors smashed.

Businesses up and down the corridor also were attacked.

Volunteers came out in droves to clean up the mess after the protesters cleared the area.

Police did not begin making arrests immediately, even as they fired tear gas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets into the crowd.

“Our goal was to protect life and that’s exactly what we did,” Soto said.

He said no officers were injured and said community members suffered only “minor scrapes and bruises.”

REMSA paramedics reported eight calls for medical assistance during the demonstration, including from a woman who was struck in the head by a rock. Three people were taken to the hospital. Spokeswoman Alexia Bratiotis Jobson described mostly minor injuries, but also some traumatic and assault injuries.

“REMSA stood up additional resources, including two ambulance strike teams strategically located around the downtown area, as well as additional medical dispatchers so that there would not be any interruption to REMSA’s regular coverage,” Jobson said.

Anjeanette Damon is the government watchdog reporter for the RGJ. You can reach her at adamon@rgj.com or follow her on Twitter @AnjeanetteDamon. If you care about shining a bright light on decisions made by your elected officials, please consider subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.

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