Walla Walla Chief of Police questioned on actions during “Where’s Cathy?” protest

Walla Walla Chief of Police questioned on actions during “Where’s Cathy?” protest

Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber faced a lot of questions at Wednesday night’s meeting about how the department handled a protest last month.

Chief Bieber explained to council why there were no uniformed officers and why counter protesters on motorcycles weren’t cited for noise at the planned Town Hall rally.

A local Indivisible group planned the rally to voice their opinions on many issues on February 24. Organizers invited Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, but she declined the invite. Residents rallied on Main Street in front of the courthouse, then marched to Heritage Park.

The whole time, motorcyclists were following them, revving their engines to drown out the marchers.

Chief Bieber said now that he has received legal information from the city attorney, he realized disorderly conduct supersedes free speech and noise-related disruptions are not protected under the First Amendment.

“Based on this legal opinion, it appears as though we could have applied the disorderly conduct statute and required the motorcyclists to refrain from revving their engines,” said Bieber.

“When we arrived at Heritage Park, they were already there. They were lined up with their motorcycles and with their guns. Now we knew this, and it was terrifying,” said one of the attendees to the council. “We were being pursued by this group of people.”

The Walla Walla police department and Sheriff’s office were told a day before the rally that counter protesters planned to be there and make noise.

Bieber said officers did not have decimal meters to measure the amount of noise the bikes were making because they knew the levels would exceed the noise ordinance statue. He thought they would be protected by part of the statute that gives exemptions to sounds originating from officially sanctioned parades or public events.

Bieber told the council in hindsight, officers should’ve cited the motorcyclists for disorderly conduct instead.

He also decided not to have uniformed officers present. Instead there were two plain-clothed officers in the crowd.

“I have seen firsthand how uniformed presence at highly emotionally charged venues only serves to incite the situation as opposed to calming it,” said Bieber.

Attendees argued the Walla Walla Women’s March in January was a success with uniformed police presence.

“2,400 people marched here. Police were there. We felt very protected, very safe. We felt like an inclusive community. I don’t know why that experience would’ve led to this idea that a uniformed presence would be provocative,” said one of the rally attendees to the council.

During the rally, multiple attendees called 9-1-1, trying to get police to come handle the situation with the motorcyclists and a man who stole the organizer’s speech, ripped signs and refused to leave.

Dispatchers told callers an officer would meet with them, but they never did.

“I asked to talk to an officer. I identified myself, I told them I was holding my hand up. I did everything I could to identify myself and there was no response. There was just clearly a lack of police response,” said one of the attendees.

Chief Bieber said he takes responsibility for not providing a clear communication plan.

Rally organizer Sarah Koenigsberg told council she wants to move on, knowing police will protect protesters in the future. She said groups are already planning to counter protest more of her planned rallies.

“There is going to be trouble and we need to be on top of this. We need to be proactive,” said Koenigsberg.

The council voted 6-1 to have the city attorney review the city noise ordinance since there was a lot of confusion about when it can be applied. The city attorney will report back to council before making changes.