There's been a collective beating of chests over the pepper spraying of Occupy protesters in several cities. Last week, Mayor Mike McGinn apologized to "those engaged in peaceful protests." University of California administrators placed a campus police chief and two officers on administrative leave.
Seattle police have said that the pepper spraying here happened after officers were assaulted by protesters. Just how serious those assaults were remains unclear. The one example police have cited is a 17-year-old who swung a stick at an officer--and missed.
Still, assuming officers were really threatened, how are police supposed to handle the situation? SW asked former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who recently wrote an article for The Nation deploring the "paramilitary" response of police forces to the Occupy protests, and who says he learned his lesson after he led the crackdown on WTO protestors. His response:
Forgo the pepper spray wherever possible; make selective arrests, targeting, for example, the assault suspects; put off clearing a street or intersection if cars can be directed around it. All of this, of course, requires sufficient numbers of officers to make it work. Those arrests, by the way, do not have to be made in the moment unless the assaultive behavior continues. With good post-event investigation, the use of still photos, videos, social media in general, they can be made the next day or the next week or month.
That might be a plausible alternative--assuming protesters let police make targeted arrests. But officers can't decide on that strategy on their own. On KUOW last week, Seattle Police Officers' Guild President Rich O'Neill said that officers can take whatever tack their leaders want them to. What they need, he said, is "clear direction."
Point well taken. Don't just apologize, Mayor. If you don't like pepper spraying, confer with your police chief, John Diaz, and line up a reasonable approach that protects free speech and officers. Otherwise, it seems like you're just getting political cover while officers get all the blame.