Oakland Cops Defend Use of Force
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday 8 April 2003
But protesters, criminologist contend officers overreacted
Oakland's police chief defended his officers' firing of nonlethal projectiles during Monday's protest at the Port of Oakland, while protesters and an expert in police use-of-force policies said officers acted too aggressively.
Officers fired wooden dowels, bean bags, concussion grenades and "sting grenades" -- rubber pellets accompanied by tear gas -- at protesters after they refused to leave an entrance to the docks, threw metal bolts at police and climbed onto trucks, police said.
The police tactics were in marked contrast to those used by San Francisco police during war protests last month in San Francisco, when officers surrounded groups of demonstrators and used batons to push people but did not fire nonlethal weapons.
Oakland police Chief Richard Word said Monday that if officers "had simply waited it out and facilitated protesters, there could have been thousands, not hundreds, out there, and we would have been overwhelmed."
Word noted that San Francisco police have "superiority in numbers," with about 2,300 officers, three times the size of the Oakland force.
But an expert in use-of-force policies said Monday that the less-than- lethal weapons should be used as a last resort in the face of impending violence by demonstrators, such as arson, the use of Molotov cocktails or flipping cars over.
"Unless there's some intelligence that there's going to be a civil disturbance, why would you (use the weapons)? What threat is there?" said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist.
Referring to injured protesters, Alpert said, "Why would they let them fire weapons that are going to cause injury? What if you hit someone in the eye or hit someone in the groin? It can be very painful."
In an interview, Word acknowledged it was "unfortunate" that some people were hurt. "That's certainly not something we wanted to do," he said.
But a small minority of demonstrators were intent on "direct action" -- rather than simple civil disobedience, the chief said.
Police were also worried that the more aggressive protesters "might embolden the others," which would have been exacerbated if the crowd was allowed to grow.
"You have to respond to that," Word said.
The chief noted that thousands of people protested in Oakland on Saturday without any problems. He said his department was criticized for not doing enough during the post-Super Bowl mayhem. Now, police are being accused of having gone too far, he said.
Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said police acted appropriately in dealing with protesters who wanted to "occupy and take over the port and shut it down. The city is not going to let that happen.
"Oakland is second-to-none in its support of peaceful assembly and protest, " said Brown, referring to the peaceful protest Saturday.
Police said they moved in at the request of shipping company officials who wanted the protesters removed from private property.
When the protesters refused numerous verbal orders by police to disperse, Oakland police Capt. Rod Yee authorized the use of less-than-lethal force, said Officer Danielle Ashford, Oakland police spokeswoman.
Had the protesters not engaged in their "aggressive stance" toward officers, police would not have fired the projectiles, Ashford said.
Officers were responsible for monitoring an "orderly demonstration," ensuring that trucks could get in and out of the port and that port employees could get to work, she said.
Police Lt. Paul Figueroa, Word's chief of staff, said officers are trained to fire wooden dowels at the ground. But it's possible that protesters were hit by dowels that ricocheted and struck them in the torso, police said. Bean bags are routinely shot at people's torsos.
But some protesters, displaying welts from being struck, said police had no reason to fire on them.
"It's shocking that police put the interests of a corporation ahead of our own constitutional rights," said Patrick Reinsborough of Direct Action to Stop the War, which coordinated Monday's protest. "That's shameful."
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