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New Police Tactics Urged in Oakland

The department faces renewed criticism for use of force against groups of people.

June 08, 2003|Chris O'Connell | Special to The Times

OAKLAND — The Oakland Police Department -- already under intense scrutiny for firing nonlethal weapons at protesters during an antiwar demonstration -- has drawn another round of criticism for firing "stinger grenades" at revelers attending a holiday fair.

The most recent incident came Memorial Day, just as the Oakland city attorney was preparing to name three members to a panel responsible for investigating a Port of Oakland protest that ended in violence.

The Memorial Day incident has added momentum to arguments here that the Police Department should reevaluate its crowd-control tactics.

Dawn Phillips, executive director of People United for a Better Oakland, questioned the department's use of force in both situations.

"I think the question is, could the crowd have been dispersed in a way that didn't require such a substantial use of force?" said Phillips, whose organization helps Oakland residents report police abuse. "It's difficult to determine that when it's not clear what the department's policies are."

Although the Memorial Day Carijama Oakland Carnival was peaceful, police spokeswoman Danielle Ashford said trouble began as guests dispersed.

There was a fight in which two women were stabbed and reports of a man with a gun, Ashford said. Some people tossed bottles at officers who were trying to move back the crowd.

The commander on the scene warned the group several times to move on before officers tossed the grenades, which spray rubber pellets when they explode, Ashford said. No one was injured or arrested.

"They were partially blocking the emergency entrance to a hospital and would not move," she said.

It was the third year in a row that Oakland officers have used force to disperse crowds at the festival, which is a celebration of African culture.

Council member Jane Brunner said the use-of-force panel, which may add a few members, is expected to provide much-needed advice on what actions the department should take in situations like the port protest and the holiday festival.

The panelists are Brian Jordan, assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C.; Dale Minami, a lawyer with extensive civil rights experience; and LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, a retired judge.

The panel will interview demonstrators, police officers, longshoremen and other witnesses who were at the April 7 antiwar protest along the waterfront. Also, several videotapes shot by television news crews will be reviewed to see if police were provoked before they fired wooden dowels, beanbag rounds, rubber pellets and stinger grenades, said city attorney spokeswoman Karen Boyd.

The choice of Cordell raised some eyebrows when it was revealed that she was appointed a municipal judge in 1982 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown, now mayor of Oakland, has consistently defended the actions of the Police Department, which says the port protesters hurled rocks and bottles at officers. Demonstrators denied attacking the police.

Police officials have said they have videotapes that show protesters throwing objects at officers. But after releasing several photos and videos, police spokeswoman Ashford acknowledged that the images do not "necessarily" show such attacks. The Times reviewed the tapes and compact discs of the protest and saw no instances of demonstrators throwing objects.

Further pressure for an investigation was applied by four members of Congress from the Bay Area, who called on Gov. Gray Davis to investigate the role that a state antiterrorism agency may have played in triggering police actions at the Port of Oakland.

The California Anti-Terrorism Center sent out a bulletin warning of potential traffic problems and possible acts of violence by a small group of protesters at the April 7 antiwar demonstration.

In a letter to Davis, the four representatives wrote: "We are disturbed by reports that lines between political protest and terrorism appear to have been blurred, if not erased, by the California Anti-Terrorism Center."

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