“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.”