By Bobbie Stein and Rachel Lederman, San Francisco Chronicle
When Oakland police brass meet this week to review what went wrong after the July 8 Johannes Mehserle verdict, they should not overlook their own crowd control policy. Had the department followed this policy, it could have minimized property damage and also avoided police-inflicted injuries and wrongful arrests of demonstrators.
In 2005, Oakland agreed to implement reforms as a result of lawsuits arising from an April 2003 anti-war demonstration at the Port of Oakland where 58 people were injured with wooden bullets and shot-filled bean bags. Until then, Oakland police had no uniform protocol for handling crowds. The National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union worked with the department to craft a new policy that gives the police a comprehensive framework to protect life and property, while upholding freedom of speech.
Under the policy, police are trained to recognize that while some individuals may engage in destruction of property under cover of a crowd, many others do not. Police are supposed to minimize any risk that force and arrests will be directed at innocent people. On July 8, however, force and arrests seem to have been directed almost exclusively at lawful demonstrators, rather than looters.
By all accounts, that demonstration was quite peaceful for several hours. At 7:30 p.m., just as demonstrators were beginning to drift off, the police lined up across Broadway and began aggressively pushing the demonstrators north. It was at this point that the property damage began, yet the enforcement action continued to focus on the demonstrators who were not engaged in property damage. Many who had started to leave were blocked by the police or chose not to leave because of the alarming sudden massing of police. Such provocation and prolongation is exactly what the crowd control policy instructs the police to avoid. Eyewitness accounts reveal that when several people spoke out against the heavy-handed police tactics, officers used batons. Officers were seen striking 69-year-old Susan Harman in the head. She was taken to jail along with a local attorney, a school board member, a legal observer and others who had done nothing wrong. Although the policy, and the law, require that persons arrested for minor offenses be released with a citation, 68 arrestees spent the night and most of the next day in holding cells so crowded that some could not even sit down.
The police department policy is clear that verbal criticism or abuse of officers is not grounds for arrest or use of force. Officers are not allowed to use batons to push and jab people in order to get a crowd to move. Nor is it ever permissible to strike people in the head, except in a situation where deadly force would be warranted. And while police may use force to defend themselves against an individual, it is both illegal and a violation of department policy to use force indiscriminately against a crowd. It was not only “glitches” that hurt the police protest response. The Oakland Police Department failed to follow its own protocol.
Bobbie Stein and Rachel Lederman are National Lawyers Guild attorneys who serve on the guild’s Demonstrations Committee. They were part of the team that created the new Oakland Police Department Crowd Control Policy.