Nashville police leaders say — in hindsight — that they should have had more officers on the street Saturday before violence and vandalism in downtown.
“We did not, obviously, anticipate the violence — the magnitude of the violence,” said Chief Steve Anderson.
The department had roughly doubled available staffing in advance. And officers took the rare step, at least in Nashville, of appearing in protective “tactical” gear, such as helmets and shields, Anderson said.
“We don’t hardly ever do that, but we felt it was important.”
The unrest followed a much larger peaceful rally, which drew several thousand to War Memorial Plaza.
When the crowd mobilized a march, it wove through downtown, first to a standoff and skirmish at the police department’s Central Precinct, and then to the city government’s most well-known building.
In a chaotic moment at about 7 p.m. Saturday, a small group of vandals were able to approach the downtown Metro Courthouse, which contains the mayor’s office and several government departments. They smashed ground-floor windows, painted exterior walls and ultimately lit fires in offices.
Some officers with bicycles — wearing neon vests and many in shorts — were present. There was a scuffle with demonstrators around 7:15 p.m., and officers used pepper spray before largely retreating toward Union Street.
Asked Monday about the sequence, Deputy Chief John Drake defended officers.
“I don’t feel that our response was slow,” Drake said.
“We had a group of police officers at the courthouse. We had a team in civil disturbance gear. Throughout the day, we had parts of the crowd that had been throwing objects at different officers, and so we wanted to get a team in their civil disturbance gear and they were in route when the fire started.”
Tear gas was also used to disperse the crowd across Public Square before firefighters were escorted to the building.
Metro police also used officers on horseback, earlier that day, to create a perimeter around the Central Precinct.
Cleanup crews worked on Sunday to clear interior offices that were damaged, including rooms used by top advisors to Nashville Mayor John Cooper.
Metro police, and fire department arson investigators, are continuing their pursuit of vandals and instigators.
Anderson says more than 90% of attendees on Saturday — but not all — were peaceful.
“We’ve received a significant number of tips from CrimeStoppers concerning persons who essentially betrayed the protesters who wanted to exercise their freedom to voice their concerns, and instead resorted to criminal acts,” Anderson said.
Police arrested 29 people over the weekend, including 25-year-old Wesley Somers, of Madison, who is charged with setting fire to City Hall.
Anderson says the department is working to identify additional suspects with the help other law enforcement agencies.