Catch and release? TUSD disputes police statement on smoke bomber

A smoke bomb erupted shortly after the board vote to ax Mexican-American studies director Sean Arce

Catch and release? TUSD disputes police statement on smoke bomber

CREATED Apr 13, 2012 - UPDATED: Apr 13, 2012

Reporter:  Forrest Carr

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Did TUSD safety officers release a smoke bomb suspect in order to calm an angry crowd?  On Thursday a Tucson Police Department spokesman said "yes."  But now TUSD says flatly:  it did not happen that way. 

On Thursday TPD Lt. Fabian Pacheco told KGUN9 News that after a protester set off a smoke bomb in the Tucson Unified School District board room late Tuesday night, TUSD safety officers made a decision to let the bomber go.  Pacheco explained, "They knew who he was.  They had had him identified.  But in order to calm things down and defuse the situation, they released him."

That is not the way it went down, according to the latest statement from TUSD.   TUSD now says the crowd assaulted its officers and rescued the suspect.

TUSD did not return a phone call from KGUN9 News placed on Thursday.  But in an email sent to KGUN9 News Thursday night, TUSD spokeswoman Cara Rene called KGUN9's story "inaccurate."  She wrote,  "School Safety officers attempted to apprehend the offender but a crowd of about 50 people prevented that from happening through physical force ­ pushing and hitting the officers, and creating a human shield around the offender. The person was not under the control of the officers before leaving the scene."

Nor did Rene say that TUSD's officers had identified or recognized the suspect.  She wrote, "School Safety officers are working with Tucson Police to identify and prosecute the offender."

When reached by phone Friday afternoon, Lt. Pacheco checked with the detectives who are investigating the case, then called back with an update.   Pacheco confirmed that armed TUSD security officers struggled with the suspect outside the meeting room, and that protesters immediately surrounded them.   He said the officers felt overhwhelmed and reported that some protesters were grabbing at their guns.   Pacheco said that the TUSD officers let the suspect go because of the force of the crowd and also to defuse the situation.

But although Lt. Pacheco now acknowledges that the crowd was overwhelming, he expressed surprise at the notion that protesters physically forced the safety officers to abort the arrest.   "Grabbing an officer's gun or attempting to disarm an officer is a felony offense," Pacheco said.  But he pointed out that the TUSD safety officers "didn't say they wanted to press charges as victims of an assault."

Pacheco stood by his statement that TUSD safety officers had recognized the suspect from previous incidents, and said that was one reason they were willing to "cut their losses" and stand down.  He said the officers know the suspect on a first-name basis, and are working with TPD detectives to fill in the last name, track him down and prosecute him.

In Friday's conversation, Pacheco emphasized again that the security operation Tuesday night was entirely in the hands of TUSD safety officers.  He said TPD did not participate in any security decisions, never entered the meeting room, and was standing by at a location outside only as backup.

KGUN9 video taken that night shortly after the smoke bomb went off captured a large crowd of people gathered in a knot outside the building, chanting "Let him go!"    It now appears that this was the tail end of the struggle in question.

Whether or not TUSD deliberately acted to appease an angry crowd Tuesday night, the failure to arrest the suspected bomber did defuse a tense situation.  Protesters left peacefully shortly after the incident.  There were no reported injuries.

The smoke bombing incident did not appear to be the act of a lone offender.  After the smoke erupted, KGUN9 News video captured several protestors putting on masks.

On Wednesday TUSD did not return a phone call from KGUN9 News inquiring about the incident, but did release a statement from Superintendent John Pedicone saying that TUSD planned to pursue charges.  The statement made no mention of the fact that the crowd had physically intervened to rescue the smoke bomb suspect from safety officers.  But Pedicone called the actions of officers "appropriate" and said that they were now working to identify a suspect.

The protest was intended to derail a TUSD board proposal to ax its popular director of Mexican-American studies, Sean Arce.  The effort failed and the board voted 3-2 not to renew Arce's contract.  Pedicone explained that Arce had not been supportive of the new direction of the program, which the board suspended earlier this year under state pressure.

KGUN9 viewers have expressed outrage at the smoke bombing incident.  A summary of viewer comments can be found here.