Karlene McRae holds her son, Moses, 14, and husband, Kamau, during the Black Lives Matter protest June 7 in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Augusta police Chief Jared Mills says some of his officers were “overwhelmed” earlier this month by the larger-than-expected crowd at a Black Lives Matter protest, and this contributed to 15 vehicles being towed from a private parking lot.

“At times, the number of participants overwhelmed our officers directing traffic as people arrived at the event,” Mills wrote in a report released Tuesday by the Augusta Police Department. “With better planning and communication, I believe we can learn from this event and improve.”

But what does that mean for the Police Department’s handling of a protest for which it had time to prepare?

“What I mean by ‘overwhelmed’ is, at times, there were many vehicles coming in the direction along with pedestrians walking, with both (drivers of) vehicles and pedestrians asking the officer questions,” Mills said. “There were also a few larger groups walking from Hallowell in that area, as well.”

That situation led to 15 vehicles being towed from the parking lot near Meineke Car Care Center at 268 State St.

That prompted a social media controversy, which led to the Augusta Police Department’s internal investigation into the matter.

The report noted city police were not behind the vehicles being towed, but noted the department could have done a better job.

The Police Department had more than a week to prepare for the event, Mills said.

“The deputy chief was in regular communications with the two ladies who were the event organizers,” Mills said, adding that Police Department officials had telephone and face-to-face contact with them.

Yasmine Wadleigh and Jordan Snell were the organizers who worked with police in advance. Snell was unable to talk at length, but said communication with Augusta police was good. Wadleigh could not be reached Thursday for comment.

People chant during the Black Lives Matter protest June 7 in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Organizer Patrick Webber of Monmouth, who said he did not have direct communication with Augusta police before the event, said he appreciated police were focused on keeping people safe.

“We tried to make sure we raised any concerns about any possible violence and threats that were received,” Webber said. “We notified them to make sure anything that was a threat was taken care of. We really wanted to express that the protest and protesters had no interest in violence of any kind.

“One of the biggest parts of our communication was that everything would be safe, and we wanted to make clear the difference between protesters and those that were there to cause ill will.”

While city police worked to maintain peace and safety, Webber said, it also felt like officers were trying to keep the protest from becoming too large or loud.

“Personally, I did think the way things were set up made it difficult for our protest to be seen and heard,” he said. “We had tried to set up a route that would be a march, and not just a loop to be hidden away from the city.

“Part of a protest is to create obstructions, and it definitely felt like we were sort of held back from doing that in some ways.”

Webber said he had been at a march in Portland and, despite a larger turnout, protesters there were able to march in the streets.

“They (in Portland) were walking through the streets and were safe,” he said.

While the Facebook post for the June 7 gathering showed more than 2,000 people were expected to attend, a little more than 1,000 turned out for the protest.

When local police were estimating how many people might turn out for the Augusta protest, Mills said, officials were watching what was happening in other Maine municipalities.

“That was the million-dollar question,” Mills said. “We were keeping abreast with similar events around the state to try and gauge how many people were coming. The numbers were well below the 2,000 that were interested until the last few days.”

Mills said that at past protests, the number of people who actually turned out was “almost never” the amount expected based on social media.

“There was also a similar event in Waterville at almost the same time,” he said , “so it was very difficult to determine how many would actually participate in Augusta as opposed to Waterville.”

What the department can do to avoid a similar situation in the future, Mills said, was laid out in the report issued this week.

“Either one or a combination of all of those remedies should stop this from happening in the future at that location,” Mills said Thursday.

Among the important decisions, he said, is making sure the right number of officers is assigned to such events.

“We really had a difficult time anticipating the numbers,” Mills said. “We partnered with the State Police, Kennebec County Sheriff and Capital Police to have assistance nearby in case something went wrong during the event.

“Their resources, coupled with our staff, allowed us to significantly enhance our numbers, but I do not have an exact number.”

Mills said officers from other departments were on standby, while “some were actually within the city.”

Mills said he did not know what it cost his department to cover the June 7 protest in Augusta because he was not sure how many officers had been assigned to the event.

“I do not have an exact cost of the protest, because I do not know how much the other department’s spent on their staff hours,” he said. “And several of our staff members were already working that day, providing assistance with the event along with handling calls within other parts of the city that were not connected to the event.

“We did pay extra officers overtime who were assigned to the event, which cost into the thousands, but, again, we also had to service the rest of our city at the same time with some of the same officers.”

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