Are you ready for your YouTube moment? Some law enforcement agencies are and some are not.
The various "Occupy" demonstrations and college campus protests in recent months, beginning with "Occupy Wall Street" and spreading across the nation, present law enforcement with new challenges. The "Occupy" groups are typically made up of a hodge-podge of people and causes with no defined leadership. This makes it hard for law enforcement and other local authorities to communicate with them.
In many cases the "Occupy" protestors illegally parlay their First Amendment rights of speech and peaceful assembly into literally taking over public areas for weeks and months, erecting tent cities. At first many civic leaders embrace the "Occupy" protestors. Weeks later, a backlash occurs as crime increases and businesses lose money in the areas around the camps. Many of the same politicians who supported them once then decide that enough is enough.
Guess who the elected officials or campus officials send in to take down the tent cities and "evict" the protestors. (Do you have a mirror handy?)
All of the police actions involving "Occupy" encampments and other recent protests have been documented by huge numbers of amateur videos, as just about everyone in these camps has a cell phone capable of capturing video. The camps are also popular with the media, and you can expect a local TV crew to video any action you take in the area.
There probably isn't one best way for you to handle crowd control operations involving the "Occupy" movement. Each situation is different.
Just be aware that anything you do involving the "Occupy" protests is going to be second-guessed. Some of the tactics used by certain agencies to clear "Occupy" camps and other protestors have been controversial.
At the University of California at Davis, public outrage was provoked by a YouTube video featuring officers pepper-spraying demonstrators who were passively sitting on the ground. Conflicting accounts of the incident are under investigation.
At U.C. Berkeley, officers used batons on protestors who were actively resisting but not attacking; the officers were not equipped with pepper spray for crowd control. The Oakland police have also contended with significant riotous behavior, and a variety of weapons and tactics were deployed.
The LAPD took a different approach toward "Occupy." For weeks police communicated with the protestors while devising a unique plan, intentionally different from the usual skirmish line "move 'em out" tactics. A couple of nights after the mayor ordered the tent city to be taken down and the protestors taken out, after midnight on Nov. 30, more than 1,000 officers swiftly descended on the large group from unexpected locations. The result was that the "Occupy LA" protestors were dispersed without significant use of force, even though nearly 300 were arrested.
With the "Occupy" movement active in almost every major city, the economic turmoil of the last few years, and the coming presidential elections, it's likely that you will soon be called upon to interact with protestors.
So it's time to brush up on your agency's policies, training, equipment, and tactics for dealing with crowd control and civil disobedience.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Training Key No. 588, "Mass Demonstrations and Civil Disturbances" provides strategies for modern management of these events.
The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) advises that critical planning issues and processes must be addressed prior to an event; "what if?" and "worst case" scenarios and plans for mid-course corrections must be included in the planning and training processes; there is a balance to be struck between First Amendment rights and the interventions required to protect public safety and property; and, recognizing the serious potential risk to officers' safety, policies must be in place to guide officers on the degree of force that may be used in response to perceived risks. ("Police Management of Mass Demonstrations" and other PERF publications may be obtained online or by calling 888-202-4563.)
Take a look at your use-of-force policy. Is it up to date? Does it conform to the law of the land?
The United States Supreme Court ruled way back in 1989 that certain criteria are relevant to analyzing whether a use of force is legitimate. These criteria include: What is the seriousness of the crime? What is the threat to officers and other people? Is the person resisting or attempting to escape? See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). And several federal appellate courts have ruled that warnings must be given before force is used, if feasible.
We all know that use of force, including in crowd control situations, often puts officers between a rock and a hard spot. The public is very fickle about the subject. They generally support action, until we take it.
The Los Angeles Times (on Nov. 22) editorialized, "Generally, police agencies use pepper spray to subdue violent suspects or break up aggressive crowds, not to gain compliance from peaceful, non-threatening people. There isn't a hard-and-fast line on its use, nor should there be. Police need some leeway in their choice of nonlethal tactics. But pepper spray is a form of police force; it should be used with restraint, especially against those who pose no threat to officers or others."
But in a Nov. 28 letter to the editor, a Times reader focused on the situation at U.C. Davis and wrote, "The alternative to pepper spray was allowing the protesters to stay in violation of the law (unacceptable) or using physical force. I'm sure pictures of protesters writhing on the ground, having their arms twisted to force compliance, maybe resulting in some sprains or broken bones, would have resulted in just as much outcry as using pepper spray (probably more)."
Your own YouTube moment waits. Are you ready?
Greg Meyer is a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain. He is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board.