The sun had just dropped over downtown Tampa late Sunday when several pops broke through the shouts of protesters.
Those gathered in the name of decrying police violence against black people scampered over the grass into Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. A Tampa officer paced Ashley Drive in front of colleagues in riot helmets, holding an orange long gun pointed at the ground in front of the crowd.
The weapon was “less lethal,” as described by police. It could fire “projectiles” — bean-bag rounds or pepper capsules — at speeds more than double what people drive along the interstate. A shot to the leg can be debilitating; fired higher, it can be deadly.
A football field or so away from the officers, blood dripped from the back of a white man’s head, soaking his shirt. He was a former Marine, he said, and he’d been hit.
As has often been the case in Tampa Bay over the last week, it was unclear exactly what touched off this burst of violence last weekend. About 10 minutes before, protesters had thrown at least one bottle and kicked an unmarked police vehicle, then settled into a line, mostly on the sidewalk, shouting for justice and cursing law enforcement. A citywide curfew was already underway.
After the gunfire, demonstrators who had been driven away walked back, defiant and angry. When a group of officers approached later to offer medical assistance for the bleeding man, one had a black and orange gun slung over his shoulder.
“You get away!” a woman yelled. “You just shot him with that!”
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said his officers have tried to avoid using riot gear at every march but need to respond when people throw bottles or rocks.
“We now know that these crowds are anti-police, and they’re willing to hurt the cops,” he said. “Things turn very quickly.”
These scenes have played out all over after police in Minneapolis killed a black man named George Floyd late last month. Law enforcement officers nationwide have used tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds to control protests they say have devolved into riots.
Many protesters say the police are responding to complaints about excessive force by using more force.
Guidelines in Tampa Bay urge de-escalating and only turning to weapons as a last resort, an approach supported by decades of research that shows how aggressive policing can inflame conflict. Multiple demonstrations here have nevertheless ended abruptly in loud, chaotic moments in the dark.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said some protesters simply hate law enforcement and have thrown fireworks and ground-up glass, leaving officers with no choice.
“How does it end?” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing back on it and trying to get them to comply.”
Yassar Nejjary, 22, a protestor from St. Petersburg, said the police seem to ratchet up their use of force at night.
“They’re probably thinking, ‘They’re growing in numbers, this is a threat to us,’” he said. “So they’re going to respond by thinking of ways they can handle a potential threat, when there’s no threat. We’re peaceful protesters. We’re doing literally no rioting, no looting, we haven’t touched a single business, we’re just walking down the street.”
Floyd’s killing has charged up a movement that seeks to dismantle decades of racial oppression and police brutality.
Some Tampa Bay sheriffs and police chiefs quickly condemned the officer who pressed his knee into the 46-year-old Floyd’s neck, keeping it there as the man cried “I can’t breathe” and begged for his mother. But those disavowals did not soothe mounting frustration here.
The clashes have left at least one official, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, rethinking his approach. Not long after officers again tossed smoke bombs toward a crowd outside headquarters, he said, he sat in a room with advisers, wondering:
“What are we doing?”
Tactics in Tampa Bay
St. Petersburg and Tampa police have clear guidelines for managing what they call civil disturbances and disorder, which direct officers to use force only when absolutely necessary.
Commanders determine on sight whether a group is peaceful or intent on breaking the law. Certain officers are trained for managing crowds.
In St. Petersburg, officers are directed to “restore order with a minimum of harm to citizens, property, law enforcement officers, and to those participating in the disturbance.”
Tampa rules lay out a step-by-step process: negotiations, a show of force, an ultimatum to leave the area or be arrested, “tactical use of crowd control formations,” use of chemical agents and finally use of “specialty munitions.” Dugan said the so-called less lethal bullets should not be aimed at the head, but sometimes, people move into the line of fire.
Police in St. Petersburg can use chemicals after declaring an unlawful assembly, which involves “three or more persons meeting together to commit a breach of the peace or to do any other unlawful act.” Bean bag rounds should be fired only by trained officers and with another person providing cover with a real gun, following “a verbal announcement.”
The Pinellas Sheriff’s Office outlines less lethal options in its use of force policy, including a semi-automatic “pepperball launcher” (the plastic pellets contain powder similar to pepper spray) and a lead shot-filled bean bag in a cartridge fired by a shotgun. Tampa police use the same style of ammunition.
The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office did not provide policies by the time this story was published. Sheriff Chad Chronister was not available for an interview. His deputies deflected bottles and rocks last weekend at University Mall when people broke into businesses along Fowler Avenue and burned a Champs Sports store.
A statement from the sheriff shared by a spokeswoman did not address training or specific agency policies. It said arrests happen when “criminal activity starts” and “human life is of course always our first priority.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s basic recruit curriculum includes a handful of pages on controlling a gathering with lines such as: “A show of force or presence in numbers can be extremely persuasive in calming a crowd.”
Michael DiBuono, who leads police academy programs at St. Petersburg College, said advanced training is decided by individual departments.
In practice, these strategies shift according to the commanders’ judgment and what’s happening on the ground. Over the weekend, police have said, more than 70 people were arrested and 23 businesses looted in Tampa. The fire at the Champs store sent up plumes of dark smoke, swallowing the corner of a strip mall while ash dropped onto Fowler Avenue.
Some law enforcement leaders saw the destruction and chaos in the university area last weekend as a turning point.
In St. Petersburg, police stepped up their tactics on last Sunday, despite a peaceful demonstration on the day before.
“We saw what’s happening around the Tampa Bay area,” St. Petersburg Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam said.
That afternoon, officers and deputies in Tampa used smoke or gas and less lethal bullets on a crowd trying to reach a highway ramp. Charelaine Vega, 23, of Tampa, who carried a sign denouncing people who burned businesses near University Mall, ran from the sound of shots being fired. She wondered why the police were using guns.
“I haven’t seen anyone be violent at all,” she said. She described only one man, who was white, who she thought had pushed the limit by repeatedly refusing commands.
Sunday night into the next morning, tension rose in St. Petersburg after Holloway, who tried to speak to protesters, waved them off when they asked him to take a knee. Within minutes, someone threw an object at the department’s new police station, on the corner of First Avenue N and 13th Street. Police said protesters also threw objects at them.
With that provocation, officers stormed out of their headquarters in riot gear, while dozens of Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicles rolled up First Avenue N. Authorities deployed flash-bang grenades, devices that create a loud boom and emit a bright flash of light. They also used blue foam-tipped bullets that look and feel like hard Nerf darts to encourage demonstrators to disperse.
This action-reaction dynamic continued to spiral. Monday, after cars drove around barricades and gathered in front of the St. Petersburg police station, officers declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and gave protesters a warning to leave. About a minute later, they tossed more flash bangs.
That night, the agency arrested a trio of people who it said had equipment in their car to make a Molotov cocktail.
On Saturday, Holloway and other St. Petersburg officers arrived at City Hall to march with protesters. They left before the march, though, because some protesters disagreed with their participation.
Once a model
Eight years ago, Tampa was hailed in law enforcement circles for its handling of a very different set of protests. Current Mayor Jane Castor and Dugan were the masterminds. She was the police chief and he one of her top leaders.
They expected a flood of out-of-town demonstrators bent on causing mayhem during the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Tampa police deployed officers en masse to tamp down disturbances before they grew out of control; they did not turn to shooting guns and deploying gas or smoke.
There are key differences between then and now. Before the convention, police had months to prepare, $50 million for a surplus of officers from all over Florida and a downtown so heavily reinforced with concrete barriers and fencing that it was easier to contain unrest.
The department also devised a training program dubbed “Don’t Be That Guy” and encouraged officers to keep their cool. The city handed out water and worked with protest leaders to facilitate marches — something the chief says they are still trying but finding difficult when pop-up protests have no easily identifiable leader.
Castor would later praise Dugan for setting the tone in 2012.
"We took our day-to-day policing philosophy into the RNC, that you treat everyone with dignity and respect," she said.
Dugan this week said there was no time to conduct “Don’t Be That Guy” training before the latest round of unrest. A spokeswoman for Castor did not respond to questions about the convention.
An evolving landscape
For decades, strategies for policing protests have oscillated between calm negotiation and something more like what President Donald Trump and his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, have recommended: dominating space and intimidating with force.
The latter, policing experts say, is not a good approach.
“When police are viewed as exerting their authority in an oppressive way, conflict becomes more likely,” notes a lengthy guide on “Policing Protests” published in January by two Arizona State University criminology researchers.
In Fort Lauderdale, police fractured a woman’s eye socket by shooting her in the face with a foam bullet, at close range, as she staggered away from gas or smoke. Videos from New York, Washington, Minneapolis and elsewhere show chemicals and batons used on protesters who reporters say were only yelling or standing there.
Marchers here have sometimes been shepherded down busy streets by officers in what’s called “soft gear,” meaning a regular uniform without shields or other heavy equipment. They have also been hemmed by lines of officers wearing riot helmets and batons, carrying long guns, grasping cans of mace, with bundles of zip ties that can be used as handcuffs dangling from their vests.
The standard advice, according Edward Maguire, one of the authors of “Policing Protests,” is for officers to not “become the object of the protest.” That’s not possible now.
Demonstrators across Tampa Bay are directing anger at the officers standing before them, chanting, “No justice, no peace!” and at the same time “F--- the police.” Officers in lines here have rarely engaged, instead standing rigid with flat faces. Tampa police protocol encourages such a response.
Anquennette Shuler, 28, of Lutz, saw a row of Tampa officers at a protest on Busch Boulevard late Saturday, May 30.
“Just like they’re numb, I don’t feel any connection,” she said. “I feel like they’re more protective of themselves than they are of the people.”
Shuler, who that night wore a face mask emblazoned with the words “Can’t Breathe,” said across various demonstrations she has seen police use pepper spray on people she considered peaceful.
“The aggression, this is what caused the riots and this is what caused the protests right now,” she said. “They still don’t get it.”
But she also recalled some people throwing rocks and starting fires and said those who “are just hateful” should be arrested.
When officers say they use force because a crowd is unruly, people should “take a healthy dose of skepticism to law enforcement accounts," said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.
“The inescapable fact here is the police are the ones who possess most of the power,” he said.
Dugan, the Tampa chief, said protesters in nighttime standoffs are not really interested in talking. “They just want to scream at the cops and be on YouTube or Instagram or Twitter,” he said. “It wasn’t right to call Vietnam veterans murderers, and it’s not right to call the cops murderers.”
In the middle of the night in Tampa early Wednesday, officers with bicycles, less lethal guns and gas or smoke converged on marchers. They forced people to the ground, later saying demonstrators had thrown bricks and bottles, and arrested more than 60.
“Our strong presence seems to be the only thing that keeps them in line once it gets it dark,” Dugan said. He knows peaceful people might get caught in the fray, he said, but officers use recorded announcements to warn all demonstrators to leave.
Earlier that day in St. Petersburg, Holloway and Mayor Rick Kriseman took a knee with protesters. That night ended with police once again using explosives to clear the intersection in front of their headquarters, saying a demonstrator was hurling fireworks. Officers gave little warning before tossing smoke bombs.
Holloway said he felt the need to reflect. He thought of how officers had stayed inside the station over the weekend, emerging only when things got tense, with helmets or shields.
“I blame myself,” he said. “Maybe I should have stepped out there and said, ‘Hey, I’m here.’”
Times staff writers Jay Cridlin, Josh Fiallo, Charlie Frago, Divya Kumar, Emily L. Mahoney, Ileana Najarro and Luis Santana contributed to this report.