Police Reaction to Occupy Demonstrations Spark Scrutiny of Tactics, Training

February 1, 2012

by Joseph Jerome

Last fall’s Occupy protests had the unintended consequence of drawing media attention to the increasing militarization of local police departments. But even as questions have been raised as to whether police departments, large and small, actually need tanks, a larger examination of some police decision-making at the top would likely be helpful. 

For the young, the poor, and people of color, individual encounters with police are becoming more and more uncomfortable and increasingly abusive despite historic lows in the incidence of crime In the wake of an AP investigation into the New York Police Department’s aggressive surveillance of Muslims, the takeaway is that if you are a young Muslim, “the government has you in its crosshairs,” writes Sahar Aziz, Associate Professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law and former Senior Policy Advisor at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Police decision-making, according to Norm Stamper, former head of the Seattle police, is the product of “archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets.” Stamper argues that the top brass treat their departments like unruly children rather than professionals charged with serving the public, explaining why police misconduct refuses to go away “no matter how many blue-ribbon panels are commissioned or how much training is provided.”

Leadership -- or lack thereof -- has long been identified as a primary challenge to maintaining police discipline. Stamper should know: he resigned in the aftermath of his violent response to World Trade Organization protests in 1999. 

Problems at the top, however, continue to plague the Seattle police. Last year, the Justice Department found that Seattle police regularly engage in rampant and excessive force, and warned that “proper leadership, training (including mentoring), and oversight” were “critical” in order to fix the department.  

While this is a start, a better solution may be to invite the community to provide assistance. Stamper’s proposal is more broad-based: 

Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city.

Similarly, Steven Greenhut, a journalist who has worked for the Pacific Research Institute, criticizes the lack of transparency coming from California police departments. “Law enforcement writes the rules of engagement, investigates its own officers, and has a well-oiled public relations machine that kicks in whenever something disturbing takes place,” he writes. “No one ever discusses police policy, which is an internal matter.” 

This police hierarchy -- and resulting lack of transparency -- were on full display recently when the NYPD came under fire for showing officers The Third Jihad,  an anti-Muslim propaganda film.  Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch defender of the NYPD, admitted that “[s]omebody exercised some terrible judgment.”  

But no one seems to know where that judgment came from. When The Village Voice first broke the story in January 2011, a police official suggested the any showing of the film was inadvertent and unapproved. 

“The department’s response was to deny it and to fight our request for information,” the Brennan Center told The New York Times. “It suggests a broader problem that they refuse to divulge this information much less to discuss it.  The training of the world’s largest city police force is an important question.”

Extensive reporting by The Village Voice in 2010 found that NYPD street cops are “under intense pressure to achieve seemingly contradictory goals set down by their superiors,” hurting innocent bystanders and ignoring actual victims of crime in the process.  It is not just the NYPD which suffers from such problems; last March, Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit criticized the “idiocy” of the Chicago Police Department, noting “considerable evidence of unprofessional behavior by police” during a 2003 antiwar protest.  

What makes the lack of public participation in police decision-making so worrisome is that it threatens to erode the decades of positive progress police departments have made since the 1970s in their relationships with the community. Combined with what some call obvious militarization of our police, this dynamic raises serious questions about how best cities will “keep the peace” in the future.