Staying safe and ethical in 'Occupied' territories

As frost bites firmly into green grasses and cement sidewalks across the country, living safely in a tent city becomes more difficult — and dangerous

Back on September 17th when the so-called “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement began, New York City had Chamber of Commerce conditions, with temps in the mid-60s under partly sunny skies. By all accounts, this is utterly delightful camping weather. Well, the “Occupy” movement is well into its second month, and as frost bites firmly into green grasses and cement sidewalks across the country, living safely in a tent city becomes more difficult — and dangerous.

Nearly every “Occupy” encampment — and according to a variety of sources, there are upwards of 70 permanent/ongoing sites across our great nation — has independently indicated their intention to “stick it out” even through the most inclement conditions “Old Man Winter” can heap on them. In preparation for the coming winter, many protesters are seeking “advice” from military veterans, outdoorsmen/survivalists, as well as the homeless community and indigenous peoples. Still others have started “wish lists” on — seeking donations such as blankets, camp stoves, fire extinguishers, and Motorola two-way radios. Seriously. Check this out

We must prepare for the inevitable fact that there will almost certainly be an increasing number of calls for service within those camps. Already, there have been an increasing number of alleged sexual assaults and other serious crimes reported in recent weeks, necessitating crime fighters to apprehend offenders within camps we all know to be openly hostile toward law enforcement efforts to protect protesters from harm. Furthermore, there are many calls routed to Fire/EMS personnel — hypothermia, pneumonia, and gastro-intestinal maladies caused by poor food storage — and a variety of gnarly illnesses caused by living in close proximity to public urination and defecation.

The ‘Occupy’ movement encampment at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco is small and contained across the Embarcadero from the historic Ferry Building but it is also messy and chaotic — a potentially problematic place for first responders to provide law enforcement and life saving services.  (PoliceOne Image)
The ‘Occupy’ movement encampment at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco is small and contained across the Embarcadero from the historic Ferry Building but it is also messy and chaotic — a potentially problematic place for first responders to provide law enforcement and life saving services. (PoliceOne Image)

Make a Plan
Obviously, you have a plan for when a protest turns into a riot, such as what happened in Oakland Wednesday night. This column doesn't address anything involving your general standing orders for protests gone sideways into chaos. Here, we're talking about dealing with what appears to be an ordinary assembly.

First and foremost, have an idea about the access and egress routes in those little tent cities. The Occupy SF movement is based at Justin Herman Plaza, roughly a quarter mile from the front door of the PoliceOne offices, and in recent weeks I’ve made a point of taking a detour from my usual walk to the subway so I could understand firsthand the exact lay of the land. I can tell you that I have a really hard time seeing a wheeled gurney getting to certain parts of that mess. Further, if a crowd of hostile protesters folds in around your flanks and rear upon entering a space to extract someone in dire medical need, things could turn very ugly very quickly. Believe me, I walked the grounds of Occupy SF visualizing exactly this scenario, and my imagination went to one of those dark places...

Connect with your counterparts in the EMS and Fire disciplines now, before the issues arise, to create a plan of action for response. While firefighters and paramedics might be welcomed into these compounds with open arms, police officers — who might be first on the scene of a call, or who may have to escort the stretcher-bearers in and out of the melee — are inexplicably considered part of that “1%” targeted by the protesters. That opinion is goofy on many levels, but this is neither the time nor place for that conversation.

You undoubtedly have cross-disciplinary training and/or SOPs for responding to a mass-casualty incident. You have also worked with your public safety counterparts on myriad calls dealing with one or two simultaneous emergency medical situations (like the two protesters in Denver who were hospitalized with hypothermia during a storm that brought several inches of snow this week). But have you contemplated a 10X multiple of these “low-grade” deals all going down at the same time? It’s a real possibility we need to get our heads around, because should that scenario come to fruition and police officers are not previously prepared, we all know who the mainstream media is going to skewer.

The fact is, many of these people have never camped out in the snow, and they simply don’t know what they don’t know... and what they don’t know can hurt them.

Don’t Get Cute
During IACP 2011 in Chicago last week, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine (who just happens to be a Chief of Police), about our shared belief that the two elephants in the [squad] room on the Occupy movement are:

An ungodly sum of money being paid out in officer overtime
A cornucopia of Intel on every anarchist in a 100-mile radius

We shared a good laugh, and then turned serious. Don’t start gathering Intel on your Occupy protesters unless you have clear authorization to do so! In fact, if such orders are given to you, it may be a good idea to bear in mind that this type of activity didn’t work out too well for Maryland State Police.

For example, I heard a rumor that at least one agency someplace on the East Coast — for obvious reasons, I’m not going to go dropping names here — had used some sort of thermal imaging system to reveal the fact that many of the tents in that jurisdiction are actually empty at night (does that make it the ‘Unoccupied’ movement?). While it’s probably OK to do this, particularly if you’re trying to map out how you’d respond to a serious threat to public safety, it is also borderline enough that I would seek some clarification from your department’s legal team.

Justice Department Guidance
I recently picked up an interesting resource from the U.S. Department of Justice called The Role of Law Enforcement at First Amendment Events. “As part of their duty to uphold the United States Constitution, law enforcement officers have the responsibility to protect persons engaged in their right to peaceably assemble,” the document says.

The DOJ guidance goes on to say that officers shall not:

Engage in unauthorized enforcement activities, including unauthorized information collection
Document information on persons solely on the basis of: 
   • Ethnicity, national origin, or race
   • Religious, political, or social beliefs or associations
   • Sexual habits or orientation
   • Support for unpopular causes
Conduct investigative activity without direct supervisory authorization
Allow personal beliefs and opinions to interfere with their duties as a law enforcement officer
Express personal, political, or religious views during the assembly, while on duty
Infringe on any person’s right to peaceably assemble and associate with others

Remember, one of the most valuable freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution is the right of persons and groups to peaceably assemble. You’re there at those First Amendment events to protect life and property, ensure fair and impartial enforcement of laws, statutes, and ordinances, and enable those “unwashed masses” — and in the case of the “Occupy” movement, many of them truly are unwashed — to and collectively express, pursue, promote, and defend their common interests.

These protesters may not appreciate your efforts in this regard, but I and many millions of other Americans most certainly do.

Stay safe out there my friends.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Patrol Issues

Sponsored by

logo for print