“ZERO ARRESTS.” That, according to interim D.C. police chief Peter Newsham, was the goal of law enforcement agencies going into last week’s presidential inauguration. Preparing for the inevitable protests, officials had envisioned the use of citations to deal with infractions such as crowding or failure to obey a police order. Instead, more than 200 people were arrested on felony rioting charges, raising the question of whether police acted appropriately.
All the facts are not known, and so the final answer must await the outcome of court hearings for those charged as well as review of official after-action reports and a federal lawsuit brought against D.C. police and U.S. Park Police by some of the demonstrators. Any assessment, though, should not overlook that the number of people arrested was dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of people who came to the nation’s capital over two days and peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights without incident. That is a credit to the protesters and to police.
Nonetheless, legitimate concerns have been raised by free-speech advocates about Friday’s mass arrest of demonstrators in the city’s downtown and whether the tactics used were harsh and indiscriminate. Critics have likened the arrest of 230 protesters to the problematic sweep at Pershing Park in 2002 that ended up costing the city millions of dollars in settlement payments to people whose rights had been trampled.
Police counter that there are key differences between the two incidents, the foremost being the acts of violence that, according to Mr. Newsham, “forced our hand.” Store windows were smashed, fires set and vehicles damaged in a rampage that caused destruction estimated in excess of $100,000. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed Friday’s arrests, including studying videos from surveillance and police body cameras, and decided to proceed with felony charges under a city law that makes it unlawful for anyone to riot or incite or urge others to do so.
That there was a group intent on doing damage is undisputed. They came with hammers and crowbars and rocks. “I think there should have been more violence yesterday,” was the chilling confession of one arrested person to a Post reporter. Police needed to act, and the fact that six of them were injured, including some who were pelted with rocks and bricks, speaks to the difficulty of their jobs.
Could they, though, have been more strategic in identifying individual lawbreakers rather than corralling a whole group? Did their approach allow wrongdoers to escape while unnecessarily sweeping up those who were blameless, including journalists and legal observers? Was the use of force, including pepper spray, necessary? And is a charge punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000 appropriate, or simply a way to get leverage for plea bargains on lesser offenses?
These are some of the questions that must be addressed in the after-action reports of the agencies that were involved in Inauguration Day protests. It is important that the information collected be shared with the public and that there is an independent review by the D.C. Council.
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