Phoenix Police Chief Jeri L. Williams said that most of the thousands who turned out for the rally and to protest it gathered peacefully, but she described a small fraction as breaking down fencing and throwing rocks, water bottles and gas at officers outside late Tuesday night.
“Officers were forced then at that time to really protect themselves, to protect the community, to protect property, and they did so successfully and professionally,” Williams, who last year was named chief of Arizona’s largest police department, said during a news briefing early Wednesday morning.
Videos from the scene showed gas filling the streets outside the convention center, as demonstrators faced officers clad in riot gear.
Williams said when demonstrators began “tear gassing officers,” police began to use pepper balls and gas to clear people out of the area, creating a chaotic scene that reverberated across social media and cable news. In a video recorded by a journalist with the Arizona Republic, demonstrators could be seen throwing what appeared to be a lit, smoking object at some of the officers.
Williams said she was told demonstrators threw their own gas at police, rather than throwing back canisters initially volleyed by officers.
“I wouldn’t call it chaos,” Williams said when a reporter described the situation that way. When the reporter reiterated that he would call it that, Williams replied: “Those are your words, I’m not going to use those words.”
Williams said she felt officers used an appropriate use of force, though she noted an after-action report would be conducted to review the police response.
“A very small number of people decided to engage in acts of assault on our police officers, including the gas that was mentioned, including rocks and bottles, and that is very very unfortunate,” Mayor Greg Stanton (D), who had called on Trump not to come after the unrest in Charlottesville, said during the same briefing.
Four people were arrested, Williams said: two for aggravated assault of a police officer, one person for criminal damage and another for “an unrelated warrant.” The only medical issues reported by police were two officers who were evaluated for heat exhaustion.
Stanton said that other than those officers, “thank God no one was hurt here tonight.”
Some of Trump’s rallies and events have been home to intense, sometimes violent clashes between his protesters and supporters. This history took on particular significance in the charged atmosphere after Charlottesville, which erupted in violence when white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched on the city and clashed with people demonstrating against them. Officials across the country have been acutely worried about whether their cities will become a flash point and see the next Charlottesville.
Overall, though, Williams said the event Tuesday in Phoenix was a success, noting that everyone who demonstrated as well as the members of law enforcement patrolling the area all went home safely.
“All in all, I am a proud representative not only of the Phoenix Police Department but law enforcement in general and the city of Phoenix,” she said. “Kudos to our community for really stepping up.”
Stanton said officials did not believe the people who hurled gas or bottles at officers were connected with activist groups that had organized demonstrations protesting Trump’s rally.
“We have no reason to believe anyone that engaged in an assault of a police officer were part of any of the organizations,” he said.
The scene was captured in a stark Arizona Republic front page: