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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This fall, American police were confronted with something they hadn't seen in 40 years: prolonged, simultaneous political protests across the country. In most cities, police showed restraint. But there have been exceptions, sometimes involving copious amounts of pepper spray. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, those flashpoints have become a cause for concern.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Chuck Wexler runs the Police Executive Research Forum. It's a private think tank. It puts out reports and hold conferences. And a couple of months ago, it held two conference calls for police departments to compare notes on the Occupy protests. Because of those calls, Wexler soon found himself being accused of being the mastermind of a nationwide crackdown.

CHUCK WEXLER: I don't know where that comes from.

KASTE: Blogs and indie news sites speculated that Wexler was delivering marching orders to the local police chiefs. The very notion makes Wexler sigh.

WEXLER: Look, you can't tell, you know, Mayor Menino in Boston what to do or Mayor Bloomberg. Policing is a very decentralized thing.

KASTE: Wexler points out that each city had a different dynamic with the local Occupy protest, and he says it's absurd to try to find evidence of a national crackdown. If anything, he says, there was a national trend toward police restraint.

WEXLER: I think it's a sign of the times that the police are much more patient and willing to wait another day and maintain, you know, good communications with the leaders.

KASTE: Communication, Wexler says, was the key to peaceful interactions between police and Occupy in places like Boston and Los Angeles. LAPD public information officer, Andrew Smith, describes what he calls a working relationship with the people camped outside City Hall.

ANDREW SMITH: I would walk through there on a daily basis, sometimes two or three times, get to know people, and then they'd let us know, hey, we're planning a protest, and we're planning on having people be arrested, and we'd facilitate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KASTE: Police departments also learned to monitor the Internet. Take the example of this recent Occupy march to the Port of Seattle. As the crowd grew, it was being organized by a protestor with a bullhorn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mic check.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Mic check.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the yellow zone.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: This is the yellow zone.

KASTE: The bullhorn guy was establishing color-coded zones: a green zone for protestors who wanted to stay safe, yellow for those wanting to live a little more on the edge, and a red zone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The red zone is down there, probably a higher risk of arrest.

KASTE: As they organized themselves, they were also live-streaming on the Internet with iPads, and the audience included the Seattle police.

LIEUTENANT ERIC BARDEN: We heard that probably the exact same time that you did.

KASTE: Lieutenant Eric Barden runs the department's criminal intelligence section downtown.

BARDEN: And that's information that we pass on to the operational folks. So the people that are down in the street, the incident commanders and the field commanders that are responsible for deployment for personnel at the event, they aren't everywhere at once.

KASTE: Police departments across the country say Occupy's live streams, Twitter feeds and other open Internet chatter have been a big help in judging ahead of time the size of a demonstration and whether it might become confrontational.

Daniel Ojalvo, a volunteer with Occupy in Seattle, says this sort of police monitoring doesn't bother him.

DANIEL OJALVO: I think that's a good thing. We're non-violent. We don't have anything to hide.

KASTE: But Ojalvo rejects the notion that police departments have tried to communicate with Occupy. And as far as he's concerned, the police have actually shown very little restraint.

OJALVO: We've uh been noticing a lot of violence against protestors engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, and even protestors who are just exercising their First Amendment right.

KASTE: In Seattle, the poster child for police violence is Dorli Rainey, a diminutive 84-year-old who was marching with Occupy in November.

DORLI RAINEY: The pepper spray started coming indiscriminately. It was a big flow like a fountain, and I got it full face.

KASTE: News photos captured the cops applying geysers of pepper spray, as well as Rainey's stricken face, dripping with the foaming liquid.

RAINEY: The pain is excruciating.

KASTE: Seattle, New York, University of California, Davis, the pepper spray incidents are now notorious. But are they the exception, or the rule? Lorie Fridell is an associate professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida, and she studies the use of force by police.

LORIE FRIDELL: We actually found that four in 10 agencies around the country authorized the use of pepper spray or other types of chemical weapons against passive resistors.

KASTE: Passive, meaning people who go limp but don't fight or evade officers in any way.

FRIDELL: Now, what's important to point out is that that means six in 10 agencies have decided that using that type of force is inappropriate. I'll point out that only one in five agencies would allow for Taser use in a passive resistance situation.

KASTE: So there's no national standard. Each department has its own rules. But what concerns Fridell is that the rules themselves are coming under attack. In the last few years, she says, there's been a movement away from something called use of force continuums, basically formulas that instruct cops to start with a minimal amount of force and then work their way up the ladder.

She says continuums have reduced overall police violence in recent decades, but now, many police unions and trainers call the rules too restrictive. So in many cases, not only is there no national policy on things like when to use pepper spray, in many departments, that policy is often left to the judgment of individual officers. Martin Kaste, NPR news, Seattle.

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