Police chief, mayor defend decision to stand down during rally

"The choice to not incite more violence was the correct one," said Santa Fe's mayor after crowds toppled a war monument during an Indigenous People's Day rally

By Robert Nott and Dillon Mullan
The Santa Fe New Mexican

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber and Police Chief Andrew Padilla on Tuesday defended a commander's decision to have officers vacate the downtown Plaza during a Monday afternoon rally as protesters swarmed around the obelisk — a war monument that has stood at the site for more than 150 years — and eventually brought it down.

While officers made two arrests at the scene during a scuffle with protesters earlier Monday, they left the Plaza before the obelisk was toppled. Some city councilors and community people have criticized the lack of police presence during a volatile situation.

This still from bodycam video shows a crowd surrounding a war monument in Santa Fe during an Indigenous People's Day demonstration on October 12, 2020.
This still from bodycam video shows a crowd surrounding a war monument in Santa Fe during an Indigenous People's Day demonstration on October 12, 2020. (Photo/Santa Fe Police Department)

"We made the decision to stand down," Padilla said during a news conference broadcast live on YouTube.

If officers had remained at the scene, he said, the situation could have escalated to greater violence.

Dylan Wrobel, 27 was arrested on a felony charge of battery on a peace officer and a misdemeanor count of resisting an officer, a criminal complaint says, while Sean Sunderland, 24 was charged with two misdemeanors: resisting an officer and criminal trespass.

Webber praised the department's handling of the demonstration. "The choice to not incite more violence was the correct one," he said.

The city was unaware the peaceful demonstration by Native American activists and supporters in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day would turn disruptive and that some demonstrators were "well prepared and well rehearsed with equipment and material to tear down the obelisk," the mayor added.

Tuesday's news conference was the first time Padilla spoke publicly about the protest, the two arrests and the overall police response to the event.

Webber issued statements Monday on the issue but declined to answer questions from the media. His reasoning, he said on YouTube, was that he and Padilla were busy gathering material to be "as informed as possible" before releasing information to the public.

After officers arrested Wrobel and Sunderland, Padilla said, a commanding officer made the call to pull police out of the Plaza area.

"Those officers were tackled, punched, shoved. Those officers defended themselves," Padilla said.

No officers sustained serious injuries, he said.

"It was preservation of life over property. I stand by that commander's decision," the chief said. He did not name the commander. "It was the right decision. Had there been a threat to someone's life around the obelisk, the officers would have reengaged. The monument, yes, it's historical, but it's an object."

There could be more arrests stemming from the Indigenous Peoples Day rally.

Padilla said Santa Fe police — with help from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, New Mexico State Police and the FBI — are continuing to investigate the rally and collecting information about protesters who might have been involved in criminal activity.

Sunderland and Wrobel, meanwhile, were arraigned Tuesday before Santa Fe County Magistrate Donita Sena. Both were released from jail on $2,500 bonds.

According to a criminal complaint, Officer Javier Vigil was attempting to arrest Wrobel when Sunderland jumped on Wrobel's back. Another officer used pepper spray on the two men, who were taken to Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center for treatment and then booked at the Santa Fe County jail.

The criminal complaint against Wrobel says he had pushed Vigil in the chest.

Wrobel said in an interview with The New Mexican on Monday, as he was being loaded in a police vehicle, that Vigil was the aggressor.

"[Officer Vigil] attacked me," Wrobel said. "He came into my face and tried to throw a punch. And he threw me on the ground."

Webber said Monday's event created a sense of urgency for city leaders to convene a task force to examine the role of monuments and statues in the community. The City Council is scheduled to consider a resolution initiating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — an initiative Webber announced ahead of a Native-led protest in June over the obelisk.

During an emergency meeting Monday night about the protest, Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler said the launch of the commission is "overdue — much too long overdue."

The mayor also said in June he would remove the obelisk. The idea faced fierce pushback from local Hispanic residents and others in the community.

Long a Plaza centerpiece, the obelisk was erected in 1868 in honor of Civil War Union soldiers. But it has drawn criticism from Native Americans over a plaque bearing the words "savage Indians" that pays tribute to soldiers who killed Native people in military campaigns.

Webber ended the news conference with a plea for people "from all sides to stop the fighting now."

"There's more than enough pain for everyone," he said, referring to historical divides.

"We have the opportunity to heal these wounds … to lead a community dialogue that moves beyond the acts of violence from the past of the 1600s, from the past of yesterday," Webber said.

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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