Occupy Q&A: Robert Klotz, former D.C. police official, talks protests, then and now

Robert W. Klotz spent 25 years policing protests in Washington — a city he calls the “demonstration capital of the world.” He was in charge of the special operations division of the D.C. police from 1977 until his retirement as deputy chief of police in 1980 and since then has continued to work as a consultant on police practice and crowd control. On Wednesday, one day after police in New York cleared Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, Klotz talked about the challenges of policing Occupy D.C. and speculated about what might lie ahead in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.

Excerpts follow:

Does Occupy D.C. remind you of any protest camps during your tenure?

Several come to mind, including the farmers who came to D.C. in 1979 to protest farm policy and camped out on the Mall for several months.

We knew they were coming; we’d had a series of meetings planning the routes they could take with their farm vehicles. But the morning they arrived, they basically disregarded all those agreements and tried to block off the major arteries in the city. We responded with some tear gas and made a few arrests.

But they made a tactical error later that day when they parked all their tractors on the Mall and went to the Capitol to rally. I came up with a plan, using garbage trucks, dump trucks, buses, tow trucks, police vans — anything I could beg, steal or borrow from city agencies — to create a barricade, bumper-to-bumper, north and south along Constitution and Independence avenues. When the farmers returned to their tractors, they found they were trapped on the Mall.

The farmers were just beginning to wear out their welcome when a big snowstorm hit, and they started to use their tractors to take doctors and nurses to the hospital. People came to really like the farmers after that. I thought we’d be saddled with them forever.

What eventually brought the protest to an end?

After a while they wanted to go home, back to their families.

Do you think there are similar negotiations happening now?

Unlike what’s going on now, with the farmers, they were all farmers. When you talked to the leaders, they got to their people and we were able to negotiate. The difference with the Occupiers is you don’t have a unified group to negotiate with.

It seems to me that this movement started out with a group that claims to represent 99 percent of the population, but they have a lot of different causes that they say they want something done about.

Then how do you figure out who you are dealing with and how to negotiate?

Police gather information about protesters and their plans any way they can. I’d be surprised if there weren’t plainclothes police walking through the park, maybe even sleeping there.

One of the big problems is when a group like that gets infiltrated. And we’ve seen that with anarchists — who dress in black, wear masks and come to create confrontation. They’ll get in with protesters who feel they have legitimate causes and then they go out on the street breaking glass, setting fires. They’ve gotten smart and will layer their clothing and pull the black stuff off. That creates an ID problem for the police.

You want to find out as much as you can. During the smoke-ins that used to happen every year in Lafayette Square, the protesters used to light up what looked like marijuana cigarettes but in fact were just tobacco. They did it to cause false arrests.

What different tactics do police use today?

They tend to be better equipped, with protective fireproof gear and better shields. They are also better identified, with number and names on their helmets or suits. The cameras all over the place help you go back and determine what actually happened. It’s all helpful and good for police accountability.

What did you think of Tuesday’s nighttime raid on Zuccotti Park — with klieg lights — as a tactic to clear an encampment?

I believe the justification was health reasons and sanitation. The protesters still have the right to demonstrate if they want to. The police had to make a few arrests — that’s normally what happens. The mayor didn’t deny them to right to come back during the day. It seemed like a balanced approach, handled with a minimum amount of force.

Do you envision the same kind of thing happening here in D.C.?

Chief [Cathy L.] Lanier says that the police may have to change tactics based on the confrontational actions some have now started to take. It seems to me the D.C. police have been bending quite a bit in allowing unscheduled marches and things of that nature. What you do if things start getting spontaneous is you try to manage it, let the protesters get to where they want to go as long as they are not unduly impeding traffic.

One thing that can be a problem in D.C. is that you have to coordinate between forces. McPherson Square is Park Police territory, as is the area in front of the District Building.

What other factors affect decision making?

The weather is often an ally for the police in these kinds of situations, in terms of dissuading people. We’ve had almost springlike weather recently. But when we start getting some biting cold nights, we’ll find out who’s really dedicated to protesting.

As long as the Occupy D.C. encampments remain peaceful, would you allow them to remain?

As I said, that’s a Park Police decision. And you have to look at it on a day-to-day perspective. Things can change very quickly.

It would seem to me that if the protesters are bringing in cold-weather equipment, then the question becomes, is the camp going to become a health hazard, a sanitation concern? You also need police available for other things going on in the city. So it’s always a matter of balancing priorities.

If people who work in the area become upset because they can’t get where they want to go, then that becomes a problem. I used to get grief from sightseeing companies when the farmers were on the Mall, because they couldn’t run their tours. They were losing money. So there are many considerations. And you have to be ready — like New York — to do something if the decision is made.

But if the camps are not really harming anything, you can probably leave them be. After all, the protesters are the ones that have got to sleep in the cold and the rain in their tents.

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