Orange County Coastal Enclave Becomes Ground Zero of Police Violence Controversy and Protests

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Elsa Hernandez, a 48-year-old San Clemente resident, said she had never been to a protest before. That changed on Sept. 24, when an Orange County Sheriff's deputy shot and killed a Black homeless man in her city.

In under 30 hours, San Clemente went from a quiet, wealthy coastal enclave to the epicenter of local anger, protests and confrontations in Orange County over police violence after an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy, tasked with homeless outreach, shot and killed a Black homeless man in the city. 

Early morning demonstrations and arrests on Thursday, Sept. 24 prompted some organizers to discourage further attendance at protests planned for the city later in the day, fearing clashes between protesters and counter protesters. 

That didn’t stop more than 50 people from gathering on that late afternoon and picking up signs to march from San Clemente City Hall to the Hotel Miramar — where a deputy on Wednesday, Sept. 23 shot 42-year-old Kurt Andras Reinhold twice, killing him.

Read: Deputy Shooting of Homeless Black Man Prompts Curfew, Puts New Scrutiny on Sheriff’s Role, Protesters on Edge

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Organizers rally outside the Hotel Miramar on Sept. 24.

The march began around 5:40 p.m., and ended at 7 p.m. A 9 p.m. “civil unrest” curfew was ordered by City Council members earlier in the day.

Throughout the march, passing cars, people walking out of bars, and even trucks hoisting American flags yelled things like “go home,” or “fuck you,” or chants like “all white lives matter.”

Some people out of passing cars told demonstrators to “get out of San Clemente.”

Yet when demonstrators reached their final destination, the Hotel Miramar where the parking lot entrance became a flowery memorial for Reinhold, there were also passing cars who honked their horns in support or gave thumbs up out their windows as they drove past.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Protestors kneel at the memorial of Kurt Reinhold in San Clemente on Sept. 24, 2020.

Conflicts between San Clemente’s image as a wealthy seaside town and the presence of homeless people or people of color were major themes demonstrators drew from when speaking to the crowd outside the Hotel Miramar. 

Some speakers pointed to an incident last year where San Clemente high school students hurled racist slurs like the N-word at a visiting high school team during a football game. 

Others invoked Reinhold’s name as a victim of what they said was the over-policing of homelessness in Orange County. 

That same year, San Clemente became the site of one of the largest public confrontations between residents and homeless advocates when Sheriff’s deputies cleared a North Beach homeless encampment. 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Organizers rally outside the Hotel Miramar on Sept. 24.

This week, many demonstrators like 48-year-old Elsa Hernandez, a San Clemente resident, said this was the first protest she’s ever attended. 

She said she knew Reinhold as someone who passed by her house often and was largely a benign presence in the city, adding the two homeless outreach Sheriff’s deputies on Wednesday “approached someone who was defenseless, almost like a child with no way to defend himself. This is extremely unfair.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Counter-protestors during the march portion of the protest on Sept. 24, 2020 in San Clemente.

Officials on Thursday insisted Reinhold tried to grab a deputy’s gun when the afternoon encounter outside San Clemente’s Hotel Miramar turned into an altercation. 

During a news conference that day, the department passed out a grainy image captured from surveillance video to reporters that Barnes said shows Reinhold reaching for the gun. 

Yet Reinhold’s killing has put new focus on Orange County’s role in race and police relations, coming at the same time that Kentucky grand jurors sparked nationwide unrest yet again by opting not to level direct charges on police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman and medical worker, in her own home.

The renewed scrutiny on the Sheriff’s Dept. also prompted Sheriff Don Barnes to express a need to reassess his department’s role in mental health and homeless outreach.

Barnes declined to describe any prior criminal history Reinhold may have had, when asked about it by a reporter during Thursday’s news conference, saying he didn’t want to paint a picture of Reinhold that could appear to be an attempt at justifying his deputy’s actions. 

He also voiced a need to properly fund agencies specifically devoted to those services, appearing to agree somewhat with some elements of the defunding of the police movement. 

But over the last decade, the Orange County Board of Supervisors shifted millions in public dollars away from public health agencies and services while doubling the sheriff’s spending budget.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office will conduct an investigation into the incident.

“I knew him (Reinhold),” Hernandez, the San Clemente resident at Thursday evening’s protest, said. “He passed by my house all the time and never once bothered us.”

This week, Reindhold’s memory and his untimely death prompted many residents in turn to hit the streets in San Clemente.