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November 23, 2011

Fixating on the Cost of Policing Occupy Protests

Posted in: Occupy

Taxpayer money funds police patrol of bull statue (photo: David Shankbone)

The excessive and gratuitous use of police at Occupy protests, especially in New York and other large cities, has led a number of people to wonder how cities are paying for the police to patrol demonstrations and encampments. Now, with a report from AP circulating, those who despise the Occupy movement or have grown impatient with it have ammunition to lash out even more.

According to AP, the movement has cost “local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtime and other municipal services.” AP finds the “heaviest financial burden has fallen upon law enforcement agencies tasked with monitoring marches and evicting protesters from outdoor camps. And the steepest costs by far piled up in New York City and Oakland, Calif., where police clashed with protesters on several occasions.”

The findings, AP concludes, are “more or less in line with the cost of policing major public events and emergencies.” Nonetheless, AP adds, “the price of the protests” is drawing the “ire” of taxpayers in cities. The report notes, “Cash-strapped police departments have cut overtime budgets, travel and training to respond to the recession. Nonetheless, city officials say they have no choice but to bring in extra officers or hold officers past their shifts to handle gatherings and marches in a way that protects free speech rights and public safety. In some cities, officials say the spending is eating into their overtime budgets and leaving less money for other public services.”

AP goes on to mention how money has been saved by cities. For example, in Des Moines, the parks department has saved money because Occupy Des Moines takes their garbage out and, when the first snow fell in Iowa, they shoveled the sidewalk. Protesters agreed to pay the “full cost of their electricity usage.” But the AP report follows that up with an example that suggests many of the occupations are not “good neighbors” at all.

The impetus of the report is that police resources are being strained by the continued assembling of citizens all over the country. In some cases, police forces are considering cutting back internally to absorb the costs. All this exercising of First Amendment rights is costing Americans because of “public safety” concerns and the need to “protect free speech rights.”

Attaching a dollar amount to the movement at a time when cities and states all over the country are facing debt can only turn Americans against the Occupy movement if Americans do not understand why so much taxpayer money is being expended. That may be of great help to a number of cities, which understand there is wide support for the camp so they have to watch how they contain and crack down on occupiers.

All of this raises a series of questions: Why should the New York Police Department (NYPD) be used to fortify Wall Street so casino capitalists who collapsed the economy in 2008 do not have to face protesting Americans? Why should the NYPD be used to mass a squadron of officers and police vehicles around any demonstration, which inevitably creates a crowd control issue that turns into a situation where NYPD officers beat or shove protesters and arrest those who do not budge when mistreated?

Why should taxpayers subsidize a massive police operation to evict peaceful protesters from a park when they have been there for nearly two months and have earned much support from New York City residents? Why should taxpayers have to foot the tab for police officers who improperly and coldly use pepper spray on protesters? Why should they have to pay for officers who fire off flash bang grenades in the midst of peaceful assemblies? Why should they have to pay for officers who slink back to avoid being spotted when they fire off a tear gas canister right at the head of an Iraq War veteran, who then goes to the hospital with a brain injury?

Why should they foot the bill for the pepper-spraying of an 84-year old woman, who becomes so disoriented from the spray that she has to be saved by an Iraq War veteran nearby who keeps her from falling over and being trampled? Why should taxpayers support the use of funds to violate freedom of the press by arresting journalists at demonstrations? Why should taxpayers pay for police officers that are going to brutalize pregnant women and give them a miscarriage? Why should taxpayers pay for police who stand around and seize and destroy property from citizens who are demonstrating, like books, tents, insulating materials, a food cart or even a truck?

Both city and state police in Albany have been reluctant to spend unnecessary amounts of resources on peaceful protesting. Albany police leaders, according to the Albany Times Union, were willing to hold off making arrests for the “low-level offense of trespassing, in part because of concern it could incite a riot or draw thousands of protesters in a backlash that could endanger police and the public.”

“We don’t have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble,” the official said. “The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor.”

A city police source said his department also was reluctant to damage what he considers to be good community relations that have taken years to rebuild. In addition, the crowd included elderly people and many others who brought their children with them.

“There was a lot of discussion about how it would look if we started pulling people away from their kids and arresting them … and then what do we do with the children?” one officer said.

The Portland Police, which have been forceful in handling Occupy protests, have figured out there is a better way. The Oregonian reports the police “will be limiting police presence at Occupy Portland rallies.” Portland Police Chief Mike Reese said in a statement, “Officers will first ask protesters if they need police escort. If they don’t, they’ll be asked to self-police, and officers will respond only if there are complaints.”

It is true that there have been reports of incidents of crime at encampments. But consider the following: the NYPD was telling drunks to “take it to Zuccotti” or likely dropping off criminals at Zuccotti Park. Is this something taxpayers wish to be paying for? New York’s finest standing around and not arresting these people, which Bloomberg and others would characterize as “safety concerns”?

After visiting multiple occupations, I think any police force that finds is is not responsible for lawlessness or violent behavior in camps is grossly appalling. No camps oppose police arresting individuals whose crimes are making it difficult for them to occupy.

If the camps are expected to abide by city codes, ordinances and laws, then they most certainly deserve the protection of the police. Additionally, police should be working with organizers to police the area. Each camp has a security or safety team and can tell officers about what happens on a daily basis and who needs to be watched closely to prevent conflicts from escalating sharply.

No doubt, city leaders and state leaders will seize upon this report to justify the shut down of more camps in the country. They will promote this notion that the movement has made its point and been out for two months now and now it is time to pack up and go home (of course, many have no homes to go to; the camps are their home).

The First Amendment does not have an expiration date. It does not cease to protect citizens who dissent against their government because millions of dollars are spent. If cities or states cannot afford policing, that should not be blamed on Occupy protesters. It should be blamed on city and state governments for choosing to sign off on the asymmetric and expensive deployment of police for use in military-style operations to crackdown on the movement. It should be blamed on cities and states that refuse to respect and trust their own citizens and pay officers to babysit camps that are fully capable of calling police, firefighters or emergency medical services if they need assistance.


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