This month, Occupy Wall Street protesters were evicted by police from camps as far- flung as Washington D.C., New Orleans and San Francisco. In cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, protesters were removed last week with relatively little incident. But the scene has played out differently across the country.
“If I had to characterize the police response nationally, I'd say it's somewhat schizophrenic, uneven, chaotic,” said Shane Patrick, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street in New York.
At UC Davis, campus police used pepper spray to disperse students and at UC Berkeley, demonstrators were poked with billy clubs. In Oakland, police in riot gear used tear gas.
The violent incidents, videotaped and widely circulated on YouTube and other social media, have become the public image of how law enforcement authorities have dealt with the biggest popular protests in the U.S. since the 1990s. As of early December, there are Occupy-related efforts in more than 350 cities across the country.
Yet law enforcement experts say that tactics for policing protests have changed dramatically for the better, compared to the strategies used in the 1960s and 1970s, during the height of the anti-Vietnam War and the Civil Rights-era demonstrations.
“There is a world of difference,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has worked with the ACLU for many years.
“It's like night and day. In terms of police policy, command-and-control and accountability, (the 1960s) were the dark ages. There were almost no written policies or training on how to handle these kinds of situations.
“(That's) contrary to what a lot of my friends say who see police as an unchanging entity.”
(The ACLU did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
William J. Bratton, a former police chief of Los Angeles and a former police commissioner in Boston and New York City, characterized the shift in protest policing as a “sea change” in an interview with The Crime Report.
“The changes have been significant,” said Bratton, who is now the chairman of Kroll, a subsidiary of an international private security firm called Altegrity.
“The training of police officers is more significant than it was. One thing police seek to do now is to have more dialogue, a lot more engagement with people they are trying to deal with.”
According to Bratton, who has been hired by the University of California Regents to investigate the pepper spray incident at UC Davis, police have learned a lot from “the significant mistakes that were made in the '60s and '70s with the use of dogs and fire hoses—none of that is used any longer.”
Bratton declined to respond to questions related to the UC Davis inquiry.
Andy Fell, a UC Davis spokesperson, says that the university is “reserving comment until those reviews and investigations come back. The chancellor has made her views on the matter quite clear. She has said how saddened she is by this.”
Nevertheless, the University of Nebraska's Walker adds the Davis incident shows that improvements to policing still need to be made.
“We still have the problem of individuals who go rogue and do terrible things,” he says. “The pepper spray incident at UC Davis appears to fall in that category. And the one at UC Berkeley. Training can reduce this substantially, but there's always a likelihood that an officer or a couple of officers don't get training or it doesn't take.
“There have been incidents where individual officers lose control, but we haven't seen incidents where large numbers of officers have gone completely out of control.”
Part of the reason that police actions related to Occupy have been executed more peacefully in some cities than in others has partly to do with local conditions and political dynamics.
But it's also a reflection of America's system of decentralized policing where each of the approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the country has its own set of policies.
“One feature of our law enforcement system is we don't have an established set of national standards,” Walker says. “When the U.S. Supreme Court rules on something, it sets some standards in a few areas, but that doesn't cover 90 percent of what police do.”
Negotiating With Protesters
Despite the range of policing policies across the country, law enforcement experts say that trends in handling large protests have emerged in the past decade.
The most significant shift has been increased reliance on communication and negotiation with protesters—and sometimes over emails between police leadership and demonstrators.
Gathering intelligence using social media and undercover police have also become increasingly popular strategies.
“If you get in at the beginning and use intelligence to figure out who (the demonstrators) are, you will have a better response than if you wait until they throw things at you, or if you order them to move and you don't know who the leaders or spokespersons are,” says Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina who has researched high-risk policing activity for more than two decades.
“It's just good, intelligent policing.”
Law enforcement approaches to managing large-scale political protests began to change after the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
Dubbed the “Battle in Seattle” after to the controversial and violent confrontations between demonstrators and law enforcement, it led to the resignation of Seattle's police chief and the release of 150 arrested protesters for lack of probable cause.
“We had a lot of issues in Seattle,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “The police needed to engage with the crowd in a more effective way. They needed better preparation and training, and they did not engage with the crowd in a way that helped resolve tensions.
“In all fairness, up until Seattle, police hadn't seen that kind of demonstration since the Vietnam War protests. Seattle woke up police departments (to the fact) that we needed to revisit all of this.”
In June, PERF released a report on policing major events, including mass protests, which Wexler said details best practices culled from various police departments.
“There's a recognition that you need to engage with communities, build trust, to really make a difference and to prevent crime,” Wexler said.
“What we learned in the Seattle event was that you need to engage with protesters in advance and during the event and talk to them throughout it. If you don't have clear lines of communication and it's not clear what is expected on both sides, then you have a misunderstanding and then you can have really unfortunate results.”
In November, PERF coordinated two conference calls among police chiefs to discuss their experiences with Occupy. Although erroneous rumors circulated that the organization was trying to coordinate the police response, Wexler said that the organization was creating an opportunity for police chiefs to discuss best practices.
“This is what we have been doing for over 30 years—(providing) a forum for police chiefs to talk to each other,” explains Wexler. “We have an obligation to let people talk to each other, and if people can learn from the practices of others to prevent conflict, that's what we want.”
In the PERF document, Seattle's assistant police chief, Paul McDonagh, described changes to the department since the 1999 protests.
For example, the Seattle Police department now pre-trains the other law enforcement agencies that it calls on for assistance during major events. It also uses plainclothes officers to follow potential troublemakers during a protest, and avoids using “turtle shell” armor—protective gear that includes masks, helmets, and shields—unless necessary.
The use of riot gear, coupled with increased funding for military-grade police equipment following 9/11, has contributed to scrutiny and criticism of police tactics during the Occupy protests.
PERF's Wexler says police tend to have the best results when these tools are used thoughtfully.
“If demonstrators see the police for no apparent reason dressed in such a way that they seem to anticipate a problem, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told The Crime Report.
But the unique character of Occupy—where camping has been a primary form of protest, and where leadership and demands are decentralized and localized—means that history can't serve as an exact guide for today's law enforcement authorities.
“The problem with the current Wall Street initiative is that they celebrate the fact that they don't have leaders, and leaders are not seeking to come to the forefront like they did in the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests,” Kroll's Bratton said.
“So who do you negotiate and talk with? There are divergent groups with divergent interests, and that makes it difficult for police to deal with these demonstrations. What is important is that the intelligence gathering developed by police is used to talk a confrontation down, rather than using force in a routine situation.”
And while the police raids on Occupy encampments across the county have created opportunities for conflicts between law enforcement and protesters, authorities have largely offered advanced notice of police action in a way that had previously been unheard of.
“Before, protesters would not get that advanced notice,” says Bennett Gershman, a constitutional law professor at Pace Law School in New York who has also prosecuted protesters for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.
“Even that is a civilizing use of power. The police have learned to behave with more restraint even though many demonstrators don't think so. In part it has to do with the issues. The War in Vietnam was so bitter and corrosive, and the racism at the center of the civil rights movement—these were really burning, corrosive, incendiary issues. “
Gershman continued: “Today, it's not like that. We're talking about the state of the economy and the plight of people without homes and who have lost their jobs. That goes a long way toward ameliorating the conflict and promoting some kind of cooperative effect.”
Not everyone agrees that law enforcement have treated Occupy demonstrators well.
In New York City and Berkeley, protesters have already sued local police for unnecessary use of force.
The Berkeley suit, filed November 29 by 24 protesters, alleges that the University of California Police Department, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, and the Oakland Police Department “used shocking, unconscionable violence: peaceful protesters were forcefully jabbed in their chests, stomachs, and groins, clubbed in the face, yanked by their hair, and beaten while lying on the ground.”
Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, told The Crime Report that “Sheriff Gregory Ahern has steadfastly said that our department has done nothing wrong.”
Neither the Oakland City Attorney's Office, which is representing Oakland police, nor the UC Berkeley Police Department responded to requests for comment.
Lawyers for the Berkeley demonstrators dispute the idea that all police departments have improved their protest policing tactics in recent decades.
“It appears to the plaintiffs and to those at UC Davis and UC Berkeley that not much has changed,” Ronald Cruz, an attorney representing the Berkeley students, says of policing tactics.
“The underlying approach has not changed, which has been to quell certain free speech that challenges the status quo. The use of dogs and fire hoses—they're not used and clearly that's a decision that was probably based on public relations.”
Cruz adds: “No police force wants to be associated with what happened in Birmingham in the 1960s. But police have explored and looked for other ways, such as flash bombs and pepper spray, to terrorize people.”
Patrick, the OWS organizer from New York, also questions the motivations behind new approaches to policing protests.
“There have been different tactics used in different cities, and it has more to do with the optics of the media than with any kind of new compassionate era of policing,” Patrick says. “Whatever change there has been may be based on political calculations and media awareness from what happened in decades previous.”
He said that protesters are aware the police interaction is inevitable when engaging in non-violent civil disobedience and he'd like to see the police “be proportional” in their use of force.
“This isn't some kind of urban terrorist phenomenon,” Patrick says of Occupy. “This is construction workers, laid-off teachers and college students exercising their Constitutional rights and protesting income inequality.”
Bernice Yeung is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She welcomes comments from readers.