The LAPD operation to clear the park in City Hall was noteworthy for its change in style and was the correct conclusion to what has been a policing operation characterized by engagement and discretion by the police. Chief of Police Beck, Commander Smith, the LAPD in general, the protest organizers and most of the protestors are to be commended for the way in which they have all embraced a peaceful vision for Occupy LA. However, characterizations of this operation as revolutionary or standard setting must be reined in – the LAPD has embraced in this operation the fundamentals for effective crowd and protestor management, and hopefully others will learn from this operation that the unnecessary use of force and less lethal equipment is detrimental to a successful conclusion. By the same token, Occupy LA was a very friendly and amenable protest, and there have been some similarly great examples of policing lately, including in Portland. All of these examples must be examined closely by the departments that will host National Significant Security Events next year, extracting the lessons that will apply to certain sections of the protest community, and creating effective plans for the those truly violent demonstrators who were patently absent from Occupy LA.
Last night LAPD cleared the park in front of City Hall of Occupy LA protestors. Their plan and execution followed through on what has been a very sensible approach to protestor management characterized by engagement and de-escalation.
Chief Beck has been adamant that a far more friendly and cooperative relationship with the protestor s be the norm, and this has paid off. Both media reports and my own conversations with the protestors confirmed the almost collegiate atmosphere, one that took some protestors by surprise, accusing the protest leaders of collaboration with the authorities.
Those who follow my blog posts know that this is the approach I advocate and is the approach proven to work. The challenge for LAPD was going to be how the actual clearance operation went. Once the political decision was made to clear the park, an upsurge of support into the park was inevitable. By holding off the clearance operation until a weekday, the occupy protestors presence had returned to around the pre-clearance announcement levels. This may be attributed to the fact that some of the protestors that were able to be there over the weekend had to return to work on Monday.
The protestors knew the police were coming; the media knew from the early afternoon when a media pool was assembled, albeit in a way that seems to have drawn the ire of some members of the media who were excluded from the process, and this message was likely to have spread. If that didn’t tip the protestors off, the reporting of officers assembling at Dodgers Stadium certainly did. An important lesson that must be taken away from this is that there are members of the media who will be very willing to compromise the police plan if it suits their agenda; Commander Smith noted in the post operation interviews that a Tweet went out last night asking supporters to come and reinforce the protestors, the inevitable result of a leak or briefing. That doesn’t make briefing the media and protestors in an engagement-based policing operation wrong; it simply increases the pressure and creates another planning consideration.
For those unfamiliar with the location, the park is situated on a slight rise peaking at the center. It’s not even the size of a football field, with the long ends against City Hall on one side and the street between the park and the Police Department HQ on the other. The park’s long side is the short side of the block. All the streets are wide. The area is surrounded by buildings, except to the West where there’s another open space. City Hall is to the North, the HQ is to the South.
The deployment plan was very sensible. The police who came from Dodgers’ Stadium assembled at one end with an additional rush of police from City Hall. This maneuver sectioned out the protestors, denying them freedom of movement. Arrest teams then moved in and methodically managed each section in sequence. There was a notable and commendable absence of any form of gas and only sparing use of other less lethal equipment; an early report by FOX stated that the police ran out of the City Hall firing rubber bullets, but Commander Smith’s accounts of the uses of force contradicts these reports.
Once the police had arrested all those who were mobile, they then turned to the fixed emplacements, using a scissors lift to get those who were occupying trees. There were three uses of force, two minor uses with protestors who had been arrested and continued to struggle, and the use of bean bag rounds from a shotgun to condition a protestor in a tree. While the scissor lift was a great idea to prevent the protestors in the trees using poles to push down ladders, I’m looking forward to seeing video footage of the use of bean bag rounds to understand the rationale of an impact round on someone in a tree. The contrast would be with the Dale Farm clearance in the UK, where 20 protestors throwing objects from the top of the gate down onto policemen were cleared without a weapon fired – it’s certainly possible, but without video footage of the incident available yet and not having seen that incident in person, I’m unable to understand it at this time.
The Media Operations were tight, with those interviewed hitting all the right notes, and not commenting on things that they did not know. Many officers were in white suits – some reporting had this down as in response to the threat of urine and feces being thrown, but this is more likely to have been from the Health and Safety implications of reports of there being MRSA in the camp.
Other actions of note included the very sensible refrain from the officers, “If you want to get arrested stay on the street, if you don’t, please move to the sidewalk.” The department used buses to transport their officers rather than police cruisers, always far more sensible than fleets of cruisers open to attack by the more active protestors.
It is important to point out that while some of the media has portrayed Chief Beck as the sole agent for change, the men and women of the LAPD have driven a lot of the new approach from the bottom up over the past four years – something I’m sure the Chief would be the first to attest to. MacArthur Park, the policing of the May Day Parade that went horribly awry in 2007, sent shivers through the LAPD. The force understood that they had got it wrong, and they were determined to fix it. During the briefings we have done on this subject and a visit to their operations to provide an external perspective, what has always been clear, since 2008, was that everyone we spoke with understood the need for change. Chief Beck’s congratulations for his department’s performance should be both as a leader with an agenda for greater engagement, but also as the man who leads a department that understood the need to improve, and that has delivered on that need.
LAPD does not equip its officers with full protective equipment (“riot gear”). The full public order dress for the LAPD officer is a baton and a helmet with face shield. Because of the lack of protection for these officers compared to full protective equipment, protestor management by the LAPD and other departments with this equipment profile is significantly less tolerant of protestors throwing things at them than those with the equipment should be. While this didn’t become an issue at Occupy LA because of the de-escalated nature of the protestors and the engagement, there are lessons to be learned. Most significant of which is that a small investment in a full protective equipment capability and using the equipment effectively to support their de-escalation strategy would enable them to allow the use of other tactical options rather than going straight to less lethal weapons when objects are thrown. This will increase their options further in a manner that reduces the various risks to the protestors, officers and the department involved.
By contrast, Portland PD had a more confrontational element amongst their protestors’ Occupy movement. This is as much a result of demographics as anything else. The Portland Police had to use force but were likewise celebrated for the actions they took during the eviction of their Occupy camp – the use of batons in a discriminating, effective way, the insertion of mounted units and formations of officers was completely appropriate to the task at hand. This operation has likewise been celebrated for the restraint shown by the officers involved. Unfortunately the more recent incident in Portland of alleged indiscriminate use of pepper spray demonstrates that the inculcation of an improved protestor management and use of force doctrine takes time and must be all-encompassing, not just specific to one incident.
These are certainly the roots of a much more engagement heavy, discriminating in use of force approach to protestor and crowd management beginning to show fruit in the United States. This is certainly to be celebrated and emulated. Now that this more savvy policing movement is beginning, the protest movement, which analyzes, understands and learns exponentially faster than law enforcement tends to because they’re set up that way, will seek to understand what’s happening and create methodologies to exploit law enforcement tactics.
The NSSE cities for 2012 – Chicago, Tampa and Charlotte – have all begun their planning and preparation. There are straightforward, tried and tested many times over methodologies for managing the threats they’re facing; recent events in LA and Portland, New York and others provide some good signposts to managing those threats. However, trying to learn lessons from a national base that is only coming to realize that there are better ways of doing these operations is confusing when there are others who’ve learned those lessons over and over again. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, these cities will be determined to learn nothing from the past, and their city budgets will suffer the post-event legal costs as a result.