17 arrested; officers say huge mob got violent, owner

MODESSTO -- Police said a crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 people turned violent in downtown Modesto on Sunday night, attacking police dogs and robbing pedestrians.

But a nightclub owner said the crowd consisted of fewer than 100 young people and that police overreacted.

The police version:

A crowd gathered Sunday evening in and around Club Velocity, a club for 18- to 20-year-olds within the Palladium nightclub on 10th Street. A Bay Area rap group performed to a capacity crowd of about 300.

About 10:30 p.m., the overflow crowd outside became aggressive. Police who were patrolling downtown and officers called in for backup were outnumbered.

Officers ordered the group to leave, but the crowd advanced. Police used stun guns and pepper spray to protect themselves.

"Some officers were surrounded by hundreds during one fight but were able to force their way out of the crowd before being overrun," Lt. Adam McGill said.

About 70 officers responded to disperse the group, which had a "mob mentality," Sgt. Craig Gundlach said. "It was scary. Officers had crowds kicking and attacking police dogs. It was ridiculous."

Less than half of those officers were Modesto police. Dozens of officers and deputies from Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties also responded, Gundlach said.

Seventeen people were arrested. Charges included robbery, obstructing a police officer, unlawful assembly and failing to disperse.

"There was the potential last night to see injuries and violence like Modesto has not seen in a long time," Gundlach said.

This is not the first time officers have been attacked downtown, police said. Four officers were attacked, with two injured, on consecutive weekends in late November and early December. The violence prompted Chief Roy Wasden to meet with business owners and air his concerns.

Rudy Baca, who owns the Palladium Night Club on 10th Street and Modesto's Sports Bar and Grill on J Street, disputed the police account from Sunday night.

According to Baca, "50 to 60" young people were gathered in nearby 10th Street Plaza when police swarmed the area.

"There was not 2,000 kids outside, I guarantee that," he said. "You know what I did see? 2,000 cops. There were some kids in the plaza. Who cares? That's what the plaza is for. ... Was it necessary to have 50 million cops out there? I thought it was outrageous."

Baca said there were no fights or problems inside any of his clubs all night.

No police officers were injured. Gundlach said some people in the crowd were bitten by dogs or had Tasers used on them and that police fired pepper spray into the crowd, but nobody was seriously injured.

While police and Baca disagree on Sunday night's events, they agree they must work together to create a safe downtown.

"I work so hard to work with these people, and they work very hard with me," Baca said. "What happened last night was an exception. It was a holiday. Don't let them blame it on me. We had the dance permit, we let them know everything we were doing. They were not prepared."

Gundlach said Sunday night had nothing to do with preparedness. "There is no way to prepare for that; you cannot handle a mob of 1,500 to 2,000 people," he said.

He added that there is "no battle" between the Police Department and nightclubs, but downtown business owners are largely responsible for the clientele they attract.

"It's the business owners who shape the face of the downtown entertainment district, (and) it's up to them the kind of crowds they want to attract," Gundlach said. "Forward progress is being made, but there's still more that needs to be done. That's obvious. Last night was a good indicator that we are not where we should be downtown."