The Fresno Police Department is investigating whether one of its officers is affiliated with a hate group connected to the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
The investigation follows allegations that the officer participated, while off-duty, in a counter-protest against groups opposing the sale of the Tower Theatre on Sunday.
At times, the competing demonstrations led to heated words between various groups. While there was plenty of shouting and at least one instance of a foot being run over by a scooter, there was no other physical altercations. Police on hand were able to maintain order.
Social Media Users Analyzed Video
Social media users analyzed video of the Tower demonstrations posted by conservative activist Eddie Block and identified a man seen with Block in the video as being an off-duty Fresno police officer. They say the man has been seen in images from a demonstration in Sacramento wearing Proud Boys attire.
Block has been investigated by the FBI over his possible role in the Capitol riot over congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s election.
“Upon learning of the images, Chief of Police Paco Balderrama initiated an Internal Affairs investigation into the allegations and is taking appropriate actions,” a news statement Sunday afternoon from the police department said.
The officer in question has been placed on administrative leave and his police powers temporarily suspended, Mayor Jerry Dyer confirmed on Monday.
“I can tell you that the photographs and the video that I saw is, in fact, a Fresno police officer,” Dyer said.
The name of the officer under investigation has not been released by the city. However, a source who would confirm on background tells GV Wire℠ his name is Rick Fitzgerald.
GV Wire℠ was on the scene of the protests Sunday. The man in question stood across the street from the protesting, in front of the theater itself. He was not observed engaging in any activity.
In another video, Eddie Block identifies the man who was photographed wearing Proud Boy colors back in November, as Officer Rick Fitzgerald of Fresno PD pic.twitter.com/G81SSoh8eN
— Borwin (@Borwin10) March 14, 2021
He was seen on Sunday wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with the logo of a Fresno-based group called “Sons of ’76.”
“We are a group of men who believe in uplifting and defending this brotherhood as well as our families, communities and nation. If you’re tired of seeing our freedoms stripped away one by one, and have an eye on community service, please feel free to reach out,” a website for the group says.
Dyer Also Concerned
Mayor Jerry Dyer released a statement on Twitter, expressing his concern that “a Fresno Police Officer being portrayed as an affiliate of the hate group known as the ‘Proud Boys.”
“These images are extremely disturbing and are being taken very seriously. As the Mayor of this city, I will not tolerate any City of Fresno employee belonging to organizations that promote views of supremacy, racism, or criminal conduct,” Dyer wrote.
Dyer said he became aware of the allegations through social media.
Both Dyer and Balderrama said they will fully investigate the allegations. An internal affairs investigation has started. Dyer said the independent police auditor will also monitor the investigation.
“What we have at this point in time are social media photographs on social media as well as video. And we do not know the level of involvement at this point. And that’s the purpose of the investigation, which will be done very thoroughly and very quickly,” Dyer said.
Dyer said an officer affiliating with groups like the Proud Boys could be problematic for carrying out police duties, and testifying to crimes in court.
“Any allegations of actions unbecoming of a police officer or the affiliation with any alleged criminal or hate group will always be investigated and addressed. Fair and impartial policing are extremely important in our society. There is no place in our police ranks for any biased, racists, or anti-Semitic views,” Balderrama said.
On Monday, the Fresno Police Officers Association issued a news release supporting Balderrama’s actions.
“The FPOA fully supports the Chief in his decision to initiate a thorough and objective investigation into this matter,” the release said. “The investigation should be based on facts and evidence, free of political influences, purposed for discovering the validity to the allegations at hand.
The union also said it “echoes the sentiments of Mayor Dyer, recognizing that racism, discrimination, and criminal conduct among our ranks is absolutely intolerable.
“The FPOA respects the constitutional rights of all persons and opposes any group or individual that would use violence or other illegal means to suppress the rights of others,” the statement said.
Councilmembers Call for Investigation
Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria say they want a independent investigation. They say they support Balderrama’s internal affairs inquiry, but are concerned that state law would prevent findings from being made public.
They are requesting advice from the city attorney on how to proceed.
“We have an obligation to ensure the officers we send (students, families and school leaders) represent the best and most competent, not members of dangerous hate groups,” Arias said.
Soria said she has received several messages from concerned members of the community. Her district includes the Tower Theatre.
“They need to be assured our city has a department that will protect and respect them regardless of who they are,” Soria said.
Sunday Protest Heated
Protesters wanting to preserve the status of the Tower Theatre have been meeting Sunday mornings for the past two months. While the events have been mostly peaceful, Sunday saw members of the Brown Berets— a fatigue-clad pro-Latino group — and men wearing Proud Boys clothing present.
Opponents of the Tower Theatre sale and others jousted verbally as police stood by to keep the peace. At one point, a police sergeant ordered protesters to no longer block access to a sidewalk.