Occupy Wall Street violence yields 5 important lessons for law enforcement
“The Protester” may be TIME magazine’s “2011 Person of the Year,” but in many police departments throughout the U.S., Occupy Wall Street activists continue to stir interest in 2012.
From last year’s pepper-spraying of students in Davis, Calif., and the near-fatal injury of a Marine veteran in Oakland, to a more recent slew of skirmishes between Occupiers and police, law enforcement professionals are examining the issues.
University of Phoenix Sacramento Valley Campus chair Steven Campas says he uses the lessons learned from these events in courses he teaches for the Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security. He adds that he’s hopeful police chiefs nationwide are spreading the word to their staffs about best practices for policing in a hostile environment.
“The protesters are not the enemy,” says Campas, who served 29 years on the Sacramento Police Department. “They’re U.S. citizens, protected by the same laws as everyone else. Police chiefs across the country are struggling with how to uphold their Constitutional rights while supporting the rights of everyone else at the same time.”
The passion for the Occupy movement may have chilled over the winter, but police departments need to be prepared for more activity this spring, Campas notes, offering these suggestions:
1. Help protest organizers establish clear expectations.
While Occupy is a leaderless movement, every protest requires a permit, Campas points out. “Law enforcement should meet with the individuals filing permits to determine the safest route or location, the duration and the intent of the protest — which is generally to get arrested and have media coverage of those arrests.
“Aside from making those arrests, the police department shouldn’t become part of the news story.”
2. Evaluate the threat to public safety.
“Sure, there may be ordinances against blocking sidewalks or camping on public grounds, but the police need to determine what’s the safe compromise — and when does it become a threat? They need to let the protesters know that they’ll not interfere with their activities, unless they perceive a threat,” explains Campas.
3. Establish “command and control” protocols.
By having clear guidelines, effective policies and direct command and control, disorder and disruption to everyday life can be minimized, Campas says. Police units should coordinate command hierarchy and decision-making processes, to ensure everyone is on the same page.
4. Serve as liaison between city leadership and activists.
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck is a good example of an officer who has interacted with protesters almost on a daily basis, says Campas. Taking a page from the practice of “community policing,” Chief Beck views Occupy as its own community, and interacts with protesters as if he were the neighborhood beat cop.
“The responsibility of the police department is to demonstrate that they’re there for everyone’s safety,” he says, regardless of which side of the barricade someone is standing.
5. Ensure that those on the front lines are properly trained.
Some departments might have teams that are highly trained in crisis management and intervention, people for whom crowd control is second nature. “But the rank-and-file need training, too,” Campas observes. “People say it’s expensive. But training only costs thousands; litigation can cost millions.”