Shifts In Police Tactics To Handle Crowds

Occupy Wall Street protests around the country have raised questions about the role of the police. Norm Stamper, Seattle's former police chief, Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey and Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale talk about the evolution of crowd control tactics.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Occupy protests in dozens of cities across the country pose new challenges for police. In some places, what some describe as paramilitary tactics have been criticized as excessive and counterproductive. In other places, police get complaints for being ineffectual.

In most places, things have gone pretty well, but the iconic images of the past few months include tear gas in the streets of Oakland, riot shields and batons in Zuccotti Park, and a can of pepper spray discharged into the faces of peaceful protestors on the campus at U.C. Davis.

Police tactics for crowd control have undergone several waves of change in recent decades, from the era of huge civil rights and anti-war protests to the Battle in Seattle. Now some wonder if it's time for training and tactics to change once again.

We'd like to hear from police officers about changes in crowd control. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan after a NATO attack over the weekend killed two dozen Pakistani troops. But first, police and protestors. The city of Philadelphia imposed a deadline for the Occupy Philly protestors to leave an encampment in Dilworth Plaza. Two days later, dozens of protestors remain.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey joins us from his office in Philadelphia. Nice to have you back on the program.

CHARLES RAMSEY: It's good to be back, thank you.

CONAN: And why are they still there?

RAMSEY: Well, about two-thirds of the protestors have left voluntarily. There was a small group that said that they were not going to leave. And at some point in time we'll have to remove them. In our situation, we do have construction that is scheduled to begin shortly on what we call Dilworth Plaza, which is just outside of our City Hall. And that's the reason for the relocation.

CONAN: And there's a new spot that's been set up nearby.

RAMSEY: There is a spot across the street. However, we will not allow them to pitch tents and actually stay on-premise, but the mayor has given them opportunities to have this new location in order to be able to engage in their free speech activities.

CONAN: And they - some at least will see that as an attempt to quash the protest, occupy being the operative word here.

RAMSEY: Well, I mean, people have a right to express themselves and so forth. I don't know if that extends to being able to sleep overnight outside. We had a lot of issues with sanitation. People were urinating, defecating, all kinds of issues that we had when they were allowed to pitch tents and stay for an extended period of time.

And there were also a couple of assaults that took place as well. So it's a difficult thing to take care.

CONAN: Well, are you negotiating with the protestors?

RAMSEY: There have been a lot of conversations between the city and the protestors, and again, the majority of protestors have been very, very good to work with, and they understand the issue, and they have agreed to voluntarily leave. It's just a very small group that is insistent upon trying to stay at Dilworth, even though they're actually standing in the way of about 800 construction jobs that will take place as soon as the work begins.

CONAN: Have - you mentioned some of the sanitation problems. In other places, people have complained about disruptions, noise, that sort of thing. Has that been a problem in Philadelphia?

RAMSEY: Yeah, the other night they were beating drums and so forth throughout the night. We do have residences that are not too far away. You know, prior to the eviction notice, you know, we had some issues but not a whole lot. Recently that has picked up, yes.

CONAN: And I wonder: Did this come as a surprise to you?

RAMSEY: Not really. I mean, you know, the longer these things go on, a lot of times different groups will at various times become part of the movement. Again, most people are very reasonable and they demonstrate very peacefully. But on occasion you will get some people who have a slightly different agenda and will do things contrary to what's being asked.

CONAN: And in the end, if they insist on being arrested, you will oblige them?

RAMSEY: Well, we will, but again, we want to avoid that, and we've made 62 arrests thus far. It's been very peaceful. We've not had any problems at all. We don't anticipate having any in the future. We'd rather not arrest people, but you know, part of a protest movement in the minds of some people, it comes down to making a statement, and that includes being arrested.

And again, we want to make sure that we do everything we can to avoid it, but if we do make an arrest, to make sure that we do so without having to resort to any force and just get the job done.

CONAN: This is not over yet, but have you drawn any lessons to be learned from this experience?

RAMSEY: Well, I think the lesson is that there needs to be continual training of our police officers. We start each roll call with a reading of the First Amendment so that officers are constantly being reminded that people have a right to protest, they have a right to assemble, and we're not here to interfere with that.

But we do have to maintain the peace and order. This project in Philadelphia's been on the drawing board for about three years. When we gave them the first permit to use Dilworth Plaza, they were told at that time it was only until construction beings, and construction will be beginning soon. And most people have abided by that agreement.

CONAN: When you say training for the officers, in what way has it changed?

RAMSEY: Well, you know, when I first started my police career, the Vietnam War was still going on and the protests associated with the Vietnam War. Certainly a lot has changed over those years. Police officers got civil disturbance training occasionally. For the last 20 years or so, we haven't had very much of that. So some of that really had not been taking place as regularly as it had been at one point in time.

But starting with Seattle in 1999, when we started to see different protests develop, and of course I was chief in D.C. for quite a while with the IMF World Bank, we had to start training once again different, you know, crowd control formations and techniques and things of that nature.

But certainly being mindful of that balancing act between actually helping to safeguard people's constitutional right to protest, but at the same time allowing businesses as usual to go on as close to normal as possible.

CONAN: Equipment has changed a lot too. It's gotten a lot better.

RAMSEY: Well, equipment's gotten better. It's changed like everything else, technology. But again, it just comes down to trying to have open lines of communication and getting people to, you know, agree to certain conditions, if you will. They have a right to protest, but other people have a right to go about their daily lives. You can't just sit in the middle of a street and block traffic for long periods of time, things of that nature.

And just trying to be able to negotiate and work with the different groups, and I think we've done a pretty good job of that.

CONAN: Chief Ramsey, thanks very much for your time today, good luck.

RAMSEY: Thank you. Charles Ramsey is commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and joined us from his office there. Alex Vitale joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. He's been tracking shifts in police tactics over the years, and nice to have you back on the program.

ALEX VITALE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Chief Ramsey was talking about Seattle 12 years ago as a turning point in police tactics. Would you agree with him?

VITALE: Yes, absolutely. Seattle is a turning point both for the tactics of the protestors and for the tactics of the police. For the first time in many years, police were really confronted with a large number of well-organized people engaging in direct-action tactics. And by that I mean, you know, a defiance of the law intended to actually disrupt the meetings, which they were successful in doing.

And the police hadn't really faced that kind of challenge in quite a long while, and at times in Seattle they were at a loss, and the message to other departments around the country was we better have a plan to deal with this kind of protest in the future.

CONAN: Well, the former chief of police in Seattle will join us in a few minutes. But the reaction in many departments was to - well, some call it the paramilitary approach.

VITALE: Absolutely. I think that some departments reacted with real fear to what had happened and fell back on, you know, their basic orientation, which is, you know, we need tools for control, and I think moved away from what some of Chief Ramsey talked about, which was the need to open up lines of communication, which is something that I think has been lacking at times in the last couple of months.

CONAN: Were you surprised to hear him say that they begin each shift with a reading of the First Amendment?

VITALE: I was surprised about that, but you know, I think while, you know, training is a good thing, I don't think what we're seeing here is a real problem of training because these decisions about whether or not to evict these encampments and the kinds of tactics to use in evicting them are not being made by individual officers who are at roll calls.

These are decisions being made by local mayors and police chiefs, and you know, what we've seen in New York is some of the acts of violence that have specifically been committed by very high-ranking supervisors.

CONAN: So you're talking about the pepper spray incident?

VITALE: Well, there was the pepper spray incident. There was another supervisor who punched a young man in the face. There was another incident of a supervisor sort of wildly swinging his baton, injured some reporters and others. So it's more than one incident, but all the incidents of serious accusations of violence here in New York have been committed by high-ranking supervisors.

CONAN: And the tactics include a massive show of force, serried ranks of officers in blue with riot shields and visors and batons and all kinds of - and protective padding too, and all kinds of non-lethal uses - equipment like, well, rubber bullets and gas and beanbags, that sort of thing.

VITALE: Well, we don't actually use the word non-lethal. We use the word less lethal, because in fact deaths do occur in the use of these materials from time to time. And it's true that I think departments have become much more reliant on this technology in part because of resources coming from the federal government and kind of a diversion of some resources that were associated with the war on terror and the buildup of these SWAT teams, which have become so omnipresent even in small-town police departments.

And so this weaponry was intended often for purposes very different than what they're being used for.

CONAN: Horses also very prominent in New York, too. They're very effective at crowd control.

VITALE: Well, in fact, in New York there's not much use of this less lethal weaponry. They tend to rely on their very large numbers of officers and supplemented by some motor scooters and some mounted officers. But in some ways their ability to marshal such large numbers of officers has reduced the need for these less-lethal weaponry that has been a source of a lot of this conflict.

You know, if you can put enough officers out on the street to take out an encampment or something like that, you may actually reduce the chances of confrontation.

CONAN: I'm glad you reminded me on less lethal. I think there's somebody still in intensive care in Oakland after getting hit by a police projectile. We want to hear from police officers about changes in crowd control, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about police and protestors and changing tactics of crowd control, from the largely peaceful crowds of the civil rights movement in the '60s and '70s to smaller, more confrontational groups, now the challenges presented by the Occupy protests in cities around the country.

The Battle in Seattle in 1999 proved to be one of the major turning points in police crowd control tactics. Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on a downtown intersection in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference. City police turned to more forceful tactics. The chief of police at the time will join us in just a moment.

We'd like to hear from other police officers about changes in crowd control. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Alex Vitale. He's studied many shifts in police tactics over the recent decades as an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. He also wrote the book "City of Disorder." We have Tom on the line. Tom's calling us from Philadelphia.

TOM: Yeah, yeah, there was an issue in - well, early on, what we went to, like, with the Bicentennial, is we would just organize, you know, like violent attacks - well not really violent attacks, but we were told that (unintelligible)...

CONAN: I'm sorry, Tom, are you okay?

TOM: Yeah, yeah, that the issues - well, we were told by the FBI that the protestors were going to come with guns, and we were really concerned about that and prepared for quite some time. It turned out that in '76, it ended up being a peaceful demonstration. So we didn't really have to do anything.

But then in - you know, it was just a matter of standing around, and the protests just drifted off, fortunately. But, you know, we were really concerned about armed conflict at the time. And then in the '90s, we turned to a different tactic.

We started to get a lot more informants and infiltrators into the organizations, and then we knew what really was going on. And that's been really, really successful as a tactic, to infiltrate. And you can see how successful that was in places like, you know, the Republican National Conventions in both New York City and Minneapolis, where we even got people to - you know, we were able to encourage people to do things like, you know, do acts of violence, which then would make it possible for us to come in and sweep the streets and bring in large amounts of SWAT team tactical police. It was really effective.

CONAN: Alex Vitale, it's not just in Philadelphia, and he mentioned those conventions, some - essentially preemptive actions.

VITALE: Well, preemption has become the name of the game, having intelligence and preemption. I mean, I think we - there are obviously some significant questions that have to be asked about some of these preemptive tactics, the use of informants and agents, provocateurs, which has been documented fairly well in some instances.

But I think part of the bigger problem on police intelligence is that is often inaccurate, that sometimes the police think that they're going to be dealing with violent demonstrators when they're really going to be dealing with disruptive demonstrators.

And that's I think been one of the key dilemmas during this whole Occupation movement, is that there's been a kind of confusion of defiance with a real threat to public safety. And the fact that people don't want permits and are really trying to push the limits of the First Amendment does not make them a kind of violent threat, and yet many of the police tactics really could only be justified in the presence of significant violence.

CONAN: Norm Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department during the Battle in Seattle in 1999. He later wrote a book titled "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing," and joins us now from his home in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Nice to have you with us today.

NORM STAMPER: It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And in a recent piece in The Nation, you wrote about the decision to use tear gas in 1999. You wrote: The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. The chief in me should have forbidden the indiscriminate use of tear gas to accomplish it, no matter how many warnings we barked through the bullhorn. What was the rationale for the cop in you?

STAMPER: Well, the rationale was we needed that intersection. It was a key, very strategic location, very close to the major venue of the World Trade Organization conference. But they had literally blocked off an entire intersection, through which police cars or aid cars or fire engines would - could not go.

And so the cop in me is thinking if somebody needs us, we've got to be able to get there as quickly as possible. And the chief in me once again should have taken the position that this was bound to escalate tensions and, in fact, usher in levels of violence and property destruction much greater than I think otherwise would have been the case.

CONAN: So you feel that your tactics, in fact, made a difficult situation worse?

STAMPER: Worst decision of my 34-year career, and I'm absolutely convinced that it made the situation much, much worse for everyone, including my own cops.

CONAN: And there were, though, people who went there to disrupt the meeting.

STAMPER: Indeed. And every time there's any kind of mass movement, political movement, there will be certain numbers of people who are there expressly for the purposes of disruption, if not destruction.

CONAN: You also talked a lot in your article about police culture and how police can see the protests, protestors as the enemy.

STAMPER: Well, and I think that's often the case. We dress as if the protestors are the enemy. We are equipped with tools and weaponry that suggest that the protestors are an enemy and that our mission is a military one. And it's very important, obviously, that your police officers be made as safe as they can in terms of their training, their equipment and so forth.

But it's also vitally important to remember that they are dealing with fellow Americans and, particularly in the case of the Occupy movement, you know, I don't know any police officer who's part of the one percent. These are issues that are vital to the entire country, and certainly to the middle class and those who have been marginalized, especially by poverty or by discrimination.

And I think police officers, on one level, really get that. But they find themselves lined up as the enemy.

CONAN: How do you account for the very different kinds of situations we've seen? Obviously, there's history in Oakland. This goes back. But other places, people have gotten along quite well.

STAMPER: Well, it's like when you need trust, it's too late to build it. If there is a tense relationship already existing between the community and the police department, that's simply going to make life that much more difficult for all stakeholders.

But it's also true that some agencies seem to have learned from our unfortunate experience in Seattle, and others have not. The use of the pepper spray at U.C. Davis was probably the most egregious I've seen. And I've seen a lot of police misconduct over the course of my 34 years.

But in that particular case, that's somebody who didn't read the playbook. That's somebody who did not realize what the effect of his actions would be.

CONAN: That, though, was a lieutenant, not, you know, a lower-ranking officer.

STAMPER: Well, I think Professor Vitale has said just that, that it was a so-called white shirt in New York who used pepper spray. It was a lieutenant at the UC Davis campus. And when you have people in leadership positions who are not exercising self-discipline and restraint, it's reasonable to expect their followers to do likewise.

CONAN: And what do you make of the tactics that we were discussing earlier: infiltration, intelligence, well, even some cases, evidence that prompting incidents that are arrestable so that groups can be broken up in advance?

STAMPER: Well, I know you don't check IDs when people call. But here's what I was hearing as that gentleman was speaking: He is himself an agent provocateur. He is asserting something that may or may not be true. If it is true, then shame on my institution.

We put to rest through very rigorous intelligence ordinances back in the '60s, to a small degree, and certainly in the '70s, the tactic of infiltrating activists, political activists, civil rights, anti-war, those involving campus unrest, in favor of a more open and more direct approach, negotiating with demonstration leaders to the extent that such leaders are identifiable and generally working to collaborate on both the tactics and the policing of those tactics, to the extent that that's possible.

And, of course, what can completely ruin that strategy is sending an undercover cop into a, you know, a nucleus of protestors and then, in some cases, engaging themselves in very provocative behavior.

CONAN: Alex Vitale, that may - our caller may or may not have been who he said he was, but nevertheless, I think some incidents of that are pretty clearly documented. And indeed, it is standard tactic some places for undercover cops to identify individuals who they think might be problems and snatch squads to go in and get them.

VITALE: Well, that's absolutely true. And I - and also, since 9/11, there has been some rolling back of these intelligence guidelines. The New York City police, in particular, went to court to ask to be let out of their past agreements limiting their surveillance and infiltration of groups. Now, they claim this was primarily to go after terrorism suspects, but we now know that this has included enhanced surveillance of some political operations. So I don't think that's, you know, the core issue of what's going on here, but I do think it is a cause for concern.

CONAN: We've got a number of calls about the Marine veteran injured in the standoff between police and Occupy protesters in Oakland last month. Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull. He's now out of the hospital, spoke with USA Today. He told that paper he considers himself lucky, though he's frustrated he still has trouble speaking. So thanks for the update on that.

Our guests are Norm Stamper, former chief of police of the Seattle Police Department for six years, author of "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing," also wrote a piece recently for The Nation, "Paramilitary Policing from Seattle to Occupy Wall Street." It's in this month's issue. Alex Vitale is also with us, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, author of "City of Disorder." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. Let's go next to David. David's on the line with us from Cincinnati.

DAVID: Yeah. Hi. How are you guys doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

DAVID: Good. I'm a photo journalist here in Cincinnati. I've been covering Occupy here since, you know, they have their first march and did their occupation, which has indeed been cleared out of the park in which it was originally in. So they are sort of operating from that park, but they're not really - there's no tents there anymore. Since then, police department has never once used any excessive force during this. They've never once put on riot gear, no pepper spray, no baton-wielding and peacefully have managed to make arrests, clear the park.

I don't know what the issue is in these other places. I think they need to sort of, perhaps, look to our city or perhaps other cities who are doing similar things and realize that it's a lot about communication. There's good communication between the movement and the police department here. Obviously, protesters want to be arrested, because it's part of their political statement. It gets court cases, which create precedents. This is part of what they're doing, and the police seem to understand it's part of what they're doing. So there's - they've been working with each other in order not to create any kind of situations, because once police force gets pushed on these protesters, it only gets a push back, and that creates bad situations. So...

CONAN: I understand that. And, Alex Vitale, are we exaggerating the - because of these very visible incidents and, you know, tear gas in the streets makes for great TV footage. Obviously, violence is something you need to cover. But are there more situations like Cincinnati, as David's describing, or more UC Davises?

VITALE: Well, there is definitely a mix of both. You've got to keep in mind, this occupation movement is happening in literally hundreds of cities, to various degrees, across the country, including, you know, little small towns in Michigan and places like that. And a lot of these towns and cities have managed to work out some kind of accommodation, you know. Recently, in Albany, the local authorities refuse to carry out an eviction because they said, look, this is going to destroy our relationship with the demonstrators. We're just going to have four times as many people out here the next day, and they're going to be angry. And we will have undermined any kind of positive working relationship. So there are examples out there of some pretty forward-thinking policing going on, but, of course, that's not going to make headlines.

CONAN: Norm Stamper, I wanted to ask you: As - you know, are patience and communication, are these lessons being communicated, do you think, or those other more paramilitary lessons, the forceful lessons?

STAMPER: Well, I think the more paramilitary message is the one that seems to be prevailing today. As Alex has pointed out, there are those departments - Cincinnati is clearly one - and cities in which the tensions have not been allowed to escalate through what I would just call maturity, self-control, personal discipline and very, very good communication. I think there is a tendency - and I've seen in evolving over the course of the drug war, for example, and think about that language. You don't fight a war without propaganda. The people on the receiving end of that law enforcement campaign against illicit drug use, for example, and sales has helped to create a mentality that is very unhealthy for the country, very unhealthy for the community-police relationship.

And actually, it helps to compromise public health and safety. Add to the mix the intensification of Homeland Security efforts that, as Alex has accurately pointed out, has led to the creation of SWAT units - used principally for drug raids these days - all the way across the country, including some of the very smallest departments.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but what do you think the lessons drawn from the Occupy protest is going to be? Is it going to change tactics again?

STAMPER: I hope it does. I hope that there is a conscious policy decision made that chemical agents will not be used - whether it's tear gas or pepper spray - against nonviolent, nonthreatening demonstrators. That is precisely what we did in Seattle, and it was a huge mistake.

CONAN: Norm Stamper, thanks very much for your time.

STAMPER: Thank you.

CONAN: Norm Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department during the battle in Seattle in 1999. His book is called "Breaking Rank." You could find a link to his piece "Paramilitary Policing from Seattle to Occupy Wall Street" on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Alex Vitale, thanks very much for your time today, too.

VITALE: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, author of "City of Disorder," and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Up next: the fallout for relations between United States and Pakistan after the deadliest friendly-fire incident with that country since the war in Afghanistan began. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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