“Who Are You Protecting?” Police, Crime, and the Occupy movement

Police at an Occupy Wall Street protest in Times Square

When I was in New York City in October, I went to see a major Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. What left the biggest impression on me wasn’t the protestors, it was the sheer size of the police presence. The number of police officers, riot cops, patrol cars, arrest vans, and even horses saturating the streets near Time Square was incredible given the overwhelmingly nonviolent behavior I saw from the crowd, who responded to the intense policing with chants of “Who are you protecting?”. (Of course, one could argue the nonviolence of the protestors was a result of the intense police presence and that violence and mayhem would have broken out without it, though I don’t personally find this argument very convincing.) Seeing row after row of officers in riot gear got me thinking: Who’s watching the rest of the city, with all these cops out monitoring the protests?

Washington, DC, has started asking this question too, as the local police union is claiming that since Occupy protests started there at the beginning of October crime is up 10% compared to the same period last year. According to union Chairman Kristopher Baumann, it’s not the protestors who are responsible for the increase in crime but the redistribution of already tight police resources from neighborhood patrols to protest details. Now correlation is not causation – there could be many other reasons why crime has increased in DC recently. But the police union’s assertion that officers are regularly diverted from routine patrols to monitor the protests should at least be cause for concern.

Paddywagons at Occupy Boston

DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier called the union’s claims, “ludicrous,” asserting that the policing of Occupy, like all protests in the city, is handled by special operations officers and doesn’t pull cops off neighborhood patrol. Lanier denied there has been an increase in crime, though she didn’t specifically address the statistics cited by the police union. Their statistics show that total crime between October 1 and December 15 was up 10% and violent crime was up 13% compared to the same period in 2010. Digging into the details, however, shows that some types of crime (robbery, theft) were up while others (most notably homicide and sex crimes) were down. Unfortunately the DC crime mapping site, the source for local crime statistics in summary form, is offline due to a realignment of police district boundaries, so I couldn’t check on the union’s or Chief Lanier’s claims.

There have been several media stories about the growing cost of the Occupy movement to local government – pegged at $1.6 million in DC – as well as some coverage of the potential impact on crime. While some place blame on the protestors, others question  government decisions about how to police the protests. The Occupy movement doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, though its tactics may change now that encampments in many cities have been dispersed. Local police departments are going to have to make some strategic decisions about how to use their limited resources to respond to ongoing protests. People have a right to gather and protest and the police have a duty to monitor these protests to ensure safety and public order. The important question from a public policy perspective is what level of police force is necessary for the task? And what competing priorities are overlooked if the police respond overzealously?

Image Credit: Flickr users tensafefrogs and weeklydig, under a Creative Commons license.

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