Police want to stay out of Occupy story

November 26, 2011

The videos have been viewed millions of times: protesters on a California campus sidewalk being pepper-sprayed by police as they sit motionless, onlookers chanting “the whole world is watching.”

Those images and sounds are now iconic symbols of the relationship between Occupy Wall Street-related protesters and those charged with protecting public safety around them, something law enforcement officials say they want to avoid.

“What keeps police chiefs up at night is that somehow the purpose of the movement will become about actions that the police have taken,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based law enforcement think tank.

Police relationships with Occupy prosteters were largely uncontroversial as the movement spread into U.S. cities this fall. In some places they have remained so, particularly where police have stayed mostly hands-off and protesters have limited their actions to camping and marches even when their numbers have grown.

But not everywhere. At the University of California at Davis, students called for Chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation after the Nov. 18 pepper-spray incident. And the D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund last month filed a class-action lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and the City of New York for allegedly escorting hundreds of demonstrators across the Brooklyn Bridge with the intention of arresting them.

The move, the lawsuit states, “was a calculated effort to sweep the streets of protestors and disrupt a growing protest movement in New York.”

“Police forces and local government authorities treat demonstration activity as if it’s presumptively criminal,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the partnership, which has won more than $20 million in protester judgments against the District government and is giving legal advice to Occupy groups.

Local police chiefs have turned to one another as the protests have evolved. About 40 police chiefs or deputies compared notes during two recent conference calls, according to the PERF, which organized the calls. District Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she could not recall whether she or someone else took part in the PERF calls.

The first call, on Oct. 11, came at the request of Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who was concerned about the growth of the Occupy protests near South Station, the city’s bus and train terminal. The chiefs spoke hours after Boston police arrested 140 protesters after they attempted to move into a larger area, Davis said.

“We wish that didn’t happen and we hope it doesn’t happen in the future,” Davis said of the arrests. “The more low-key you are in dealing with the demonstrations, the better off it is for the police, the demonstrators and the community,” Davis said.

After a second call on Nov. 4, PERF faced allegations that it was trying to coordinate a police crackdown on Occupy protesters. Wexler has denied the accusations, and PERF this week posted a statement calling accusations of collusion “not true.”

Police dealing with protesters aim to enforce laws with minimal force, said Ret. Col Andy Mazzara, director of the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies at Penn State University, which studies how the military and local law enforcement can use non-lethal options. The level of force the public will find acceptable “is always a consideration,” Mazzara said.

That is factored into both techniques and technology, Mazzara said. Police have adjusted tactics over time: They now rarely use dogs or water cannons to control crowds after they stoked public outrage during the civil rights era, he said, while horses remain effective because of their size and the fact that people respect them.

A bigger shift has come as Twitter and videos of police response, such as those created in California, have sparked debates over tactics, Mazzara said.

Cameras can also offer protection, said Nathan J. Lugo-Montanez, a senior consultant with New York City-based Deft Security Consultants, which has advised businesses in New York and New Jersey to capture Occupy protesters on video.

“When someone’s being recorded, they’re very much aware and they adjust their actions accordingly,” Lugo-Montanez said.

In the District, the Occupy D.C. group recently grew after marchers from New York arrived Tuesday. Police have worked with protesters at times, Metropolitan Police Department officers accompanying them on marches through the city, most notably last week when they took to the Key Bridge.

But Lanier also said her agency would “adjust tactics” after an incident earlier this month at the Washington Convention Center. Witnesses said some demonstrators trapped conservative activists inside the center and four protesters were hit by a vehicle.

“The Metropolitan Police Department supports an individual’s right to assemble and first seeks voluntary compliance with the law,” department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said. “However, if participants in a First Amendment assembly fail to comply with laws, MPD will take appropriate action.”

District Mayor Vincent C. Gray has supported Lanier. When 13 protesters were arrested downtown last week after they entered the abandoned Franklin School, Gray said law-breaking would not be tolerated.

Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.

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