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Occupy protests put spotlight on police tactics

A post-9/11 climate has led some departments to respond more forcefully to Occupy protests in Northern California than they might have before, observers say.

November 24, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Larry Gordon and Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • Occupy Oakland protesters stand atop a railroad scaffold at the Port of Oakland.
Occupy Oakland protesters stand atop a railroad scaffold at the Port of… (Noah Berger / Associated…)

Reporting from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York -- Police efforts to break up Occupy encampments in Northern California and elsewhere have led to investigations, apologies and lawsuits. And now the soul-searching: Why did some officers use what is being described as excessive force, wielding batons and pepper spray, against apparently peaceful protesters?

The tough response to the 2-month-old movement of civil disobedience — particularly in Oakland and on campuses in Berkeley and Davis — is an outgrowth, some say, of factors that include the spontaneous nature of the Occupy protests and two post-9/11 trends: a heightened police sensitivity to threats and a more militaristic approach to police work.

"I think we're talking about a long-term trend accelerated in the post-9/11 era," said George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After the attacks, "the federal government began to provide military technology to police agencies, a very clear upping of the stakes."

FULL COVERAGE: 'Occupy' protests

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who presided over the chaotic and violent response to the World Trade Organization protests in his city in 1999, faults what he calls the militarization of police forces across America in the last 10 years for the heavy-handed crackdowns on Occupy protesters.

"Everyday policing is characterized by a SWAT mentality, every other 911 call a military mission," Stamper wrote recently in The Nation. "What emerges is a picture of a vital public-safety institution perpetually at war with its own people."

Others see the very nature of the movement — leaderless and spontaneous — as stymieing police departments that have been well-trained in responding to more traditional forms of protest, particularly in New York City, the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street.

Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in police policy, said New York cops are well-trained to handle planned occurrences but have struggled with "the unique challenge of a rapidly evolving situation."

With Occupy Wall Street, "you don't know if half the group is going to Wall Street or the other half goes to Times Square," said Shane, who is a retired Newark, N.J., police captain. "That's part of the tactics covered under riot control. You have to have a cadre of people ready to move rapidly."

The most vilified police responses to Occupy protests all happened in Northern California, a region with a long history of civic demonstrations and law enforcement agencies accustomed to civil disobedience.

Two of those were on University of California campuses — Friday's pepper-spraying of seated students at UC Davis and the wielding of batons against protesters, including former poet laureate Robert Haas, at UC Berkeley on Nov. 9.

UC President Mark G. Yudof this week launched an investigation into the Davis incident, which will be headed by former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, and a review of police policies in handling student protests at all 10 UC campuses.

The varied responses to Occupy encampments have highlighted vastly different policing practices across the country — and even within the UC system.

Although all UC police departments' 300 or so sworn officers operate under an 86-page, systemwide guideline, officials at each campus have wide discretion, particularly in adapting use-of-force policies. For example, said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein, departments at UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz and UCLA do not use Tasers, but other departments do.

"UCSF has a six-level continuum" in addressing protesters, Klein said. Level 1 involves "mere presence, show and look mean," she explained. "Six is deadly force. Pepper spray and batons are Level 5.

"Again, it's not a stair-step, where each must be applied before you go to the next…. Escalation is based on sound judgment."

At UC Berkeley, Police Chief Mitch Celaya has not authorized the use of large pepper spray canisters like the ones used against students at Davis, said Capt. Margo Bennett. "It is just something we would rather not use on our campus."

Although officers carry small canisters on their utility belts, Bennett said, it is "not intended for primary use in dispersing crowds."

The incident at Berkeley is under review, Bennett said, declining to discuss specifics. But officers used their batons because "the crowd behavior at that moment was not a simple peaceful linking of arms. It was active resistance, where the crowd was pushing against police and acting in a non-peaceful manner."

On Tuesday, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued an audio apology to the Berkeley community, extending his "sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again."

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