POLITICS
12/11/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2014

D.C. Police Take A Progressive Approach To Protests. It Wasn't Always That Way.

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WASHINGTON -- As several dozen demonstrators began to march from the White House to Dupont Circle early Monday evening, squad cars from the Metropolitan Police Department were positioned at every major intersection leading to the well-known traffic circle. Officers on bikes were spread out throughout the neighborhood.

So when the demonstrators finally arrived at the traffic circle, having stopped to block traffic at several intersections along their route, the police were ready. The demonstrators were protesting the recent decisions by grand juries not to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As they blocked the flow of traffic around the circle, angry drivers honked.

Had this same scene played out in St. Louis County or many other places around the country, this likely would have been the point where officers in riot gear would have swarmed in and forcefully taken demonstrators into custody. Maybe police would have deployed tear gas in response to objects thrown from the crowd. Maybe a photographer would have been struck with a baton. But that's not what happened in D.C.

Instead, officers wearing their regular uniforms mostly kept their distance and observed the protests. As they have on many nights of demonstrations, protesters blocked off intersections, and the officers helped redirect traffic. Police officers occasionally spoke with protesters as they accompanied them around town. Handshakes were exchanged.

In the two weeks since a grand jury in St. Louis County decided not to indict Darren Wilson in Brown's death, a total of just 10 people in D.C. have been arrested in connection with or near the demonstrations, according to a police spokesman. Eight of those arrests took place after demonstrators shut down a major freeway last Sunday and refused several orders to disperse.

It's perhaps not surprising that law enforcement officials in the District of Columbia have a much more evolved approach to handling protests than other police departments around the country, given that there's almost always some sort of demonstration happening in the nation's capitol.

But the current approach that D.C. police take toward protests did not come about on its own. Instead, the more relaxed attitude is the result of investigations and litigation that came about after the Metropolitan Police Department employed a heavy-handed approach to various protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Reforms only came about after police in D.C. mishandled demonstrations and locked up protesters en mass, even rounding up people who had no involvement with the protests and were simply passing by on the street.

In addition to litigation filed against police on behalf of those who were wrongfully arrested, which resulted in millions of dollars in settlements, the D.C. Council investigated the approach the police took to protests, ultimately resulting in a 2005 law that banned the police from using certain techniques against demonstrators.

The D.C. Council report found that Charles Ramsey, who was then the police chief in D.C., misrepresented his role in overseeing mass arrests in 2002 in Pershing Park, which is located near the White House. Ramsey, who now serves as police commissioner in Philadelphia, was consulted by law enforcement officials in St. Louis County in the wake of their mishandling of protests back in August and was recently named as co-chair of President Barack Obama's new Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Former D.C. council member Kathy Patterson, who led the Judiciary Committee's investigation into protest policing, said the approach that police are taking toward recent demonstrations is in part the result of the investigation she oversaw a decade ago.

"The District has a lot of experience in handling demonstrations for a lot of reasons and for a lot of years, and I think the visibility of some of the things that took place here and the investigation we conducted some years ago, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that our department handles these things really well in comparison," Patterson, who will soon become D.C. Auditor, told The Huffington Post. "They have a lot more practice."

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which has litigated against the Metropolitan Police Department, said police don't deserve credit for changing their approach to protests on their own.

"To be very clear, it's not the largesse of the police; it's never the largesse of the police," she said. "They only do this when they're forced to do it."

But she said the litigation and investigations of protest policing in D.C. have resulted in the police department's current approach to recent demonstrations.

"Ten years ago, when you were out in the streets at demonstrations, you had a very significant likelihood of being subject to mass arrest, false arrest, brutality, disruptions, oppression of demonstrations," Verheyden-Hilliard said. “You are no longer seeing the police coming out in riot gear automatically, which gave the impression that engaging in First Amendment activity was presumptively criminal conduct, and really kind of sent a message like, 'If you want to come out into the street, well you’re coming out into the streets amongst police dressed up like Darth Vader and looking extremely violent and threatening.'"

Patterson said the goal of the 2005 law was to set up a system that would hold D.C. police accountable for their approach to demonstrations in the future.

"That was one of the elements of the legislation that we put in place, was trying to say that this wasn't just for today, we're going to put these policies and procedures into the law, and we're going to put in an oversight mechanism so that there is another part of the government that looks at MPD and looks at its handling of First Amendment demonstrations," Patterson said.

The approach that D.C. police have taken to the demonstrations has generally won praise, even from the protesters themselves. The police department has handled the demonstrations as a traffic issue, sending out regular updates through their Alert D.C. system to tell residents where protesters are, and advising residents to avoid certain areas and anticipate being delayed by several minutes if they travel by car.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been tense situations, especially after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who used what has been described as a chokehold on Garner last week.

Last week, when one man got out of his car to yell at the demonstrators, he was followed by a few of them as he walked back to his car. One man blocked the car’s path as the man tried to drive away, and an officer on a bike rolled up and yelled at the protester, telling him to get out of the street. The lone officer was soon confronted on the sidewalk by two young men who had their faces covered.

“We got a problem?” the officer asked, whipping out his baton. “Are you scared?” one of the men asked in reply. “I ain’t scared,” the officer replied. “You look it,” the young man replied. “Fuck the police!” another yelled. Three other officers soon arrived, and the first officer collapsed his stick. Everyone moved on.

At another point, several demonstrators surrounded a police car. “Hit the gas!” one demonstrator yelled. They taunted the officer in the vehicle, suggesting that he would see running over black men as an accomplishment. “You get four of us! Four! Four for one!” one said.

But overall, the relaxed approach to protest policing has paid off. Some drivers have been temporarily inconvenienced, and some have questioned why police weren't doing more to get demonstrators out of the street. (When one commuter on a bike asked a police officer why police were not arresting people for impeding traffic an an intersection near Dupont Circle, the cop responded that it wasn’t up to them.)

As a side-effect of the light-handing approach, D.C. demonstrations have gotten less national coverage than protests in other cities, where officers have used force or gotten into intense confrontations with demonstrators. Demonstrations in the District have mostly been relegated to B-roll on cable news, while local coverage tends to focus on the impact the demonstrations are having on traffic.

Verheyden-Hilliard said other police departments could learn from the approach that D.C. police have taken to demonstrations.

"If you can do this in Washington, D.C., then there's no excuse for this not to be done everywhere else in the country," Verheyden-Hilliard said.

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