A tempest developed in the conservative blogosphere over the weekend, with the D.C. police at the center of the storm.
The controversy surrounds a May 16 protest organized by liberal group National People's Action and the Service Employees International Union. Hundreds of protesters targeted two homes in Chevy Chase, Md. -- one belonging to a Bank of America attorney, the other to a J.P. Morgan Chase lobbyist -- for raucous rallies decrying Wall Street's efforts to influence bank-reform legislation.
The protests had already garnered much attention from conservative activists upset that liberal activists would target bank employees at their homes. Then Big Journalism, a Web site started by digital media mogul Andrew Breitbart, published an item on Friday claiming that D.C. police officers had "escorted" the protesters to the residences. The item was picked up by influential bloggers, and yesterday, the Washington Examiner published an editorial titled "No more police escorts for union thugs."
Assistant Chief Patrick Burke, who oversees homeland security and special operations for the city's Metropolitan Police Department, denies that the protesters were ever "escorted." Rather, he said, standard procedure is for police to monitor mass protests both to keep protesters safe and prevent any mischief.
"Essentially we'll shadow you, make sure nobody's being hit by cars, that you're complying with traffic laws as much as possible," Burke said Tuesday. "We did not have knowledge of what their addresses were going to be or even that they were going to leave Washington, D.C."
Marcus Mrowka, an SEIU spokesperson, confirms that the organizers didn't notify police ahead of time.
About a dozen uniformed officers, Burke said, were tasked with keeping an eye on the rally, but none crossed the Maryland line. One plainclothes detective, he said, inadvertently crossed the unmarked border while on Beach Drive, but radioed Montgomery County police as soon as she realized where she was -- on Leland Street, about three blocks from the District.
Cpl. Dan Friz, a spokesperson for the Montgomery County police, provided a reporter with entries from his department's computer dispatch system. A dispatcher received an initial call from a neighbor shortly after 4 p.m. Less than 10 minutes later, a report indicated that D.C. police were "on scene advising very large crowd." Another message citing D.C. police referred to protesters massing on Leland Street.
Friz, who wasn't on the scene that day, said he inferred from the dispatch language that there were multiple D.C. police units on the scene but could not verify how many. Three people present at the rally, including Mrowka, said they saw no D.C. police on the scene in Chevy Chase.
There was nothing improper in the way that District police handled the situation, Friz said Tuesday. "It wasn't like the D.C. cops were running lights and [blaring] sirens," he said. "Do we do motorcade escorts all the time? Absolutely. But I don't think that was the case here." And D.C. police are under no obligation, he said, to notify his department if officers are merely observing a crowd.
The accounts from Burke and Friz are seconded by D.C. police union chief Kristopher Baumann -- known for bulldogging the MPD brass on any questionable use of police resources. He said Tuesday that he had made his own inquiries within the department and didn't find anything inappropriate. Baumann said he had reviewed video posted at Big Journalism and at other sites and was unable to find any police presence at all.
Burke saw some irony in the to-do: "It's funny, because typically I'm getting a lot of grief from the other side of this -- the unions and the protesters saying we're overzealous against them."