Center for Strategic Communication

Perception is reality.

All sorts of media outlets are going into a low hover today over PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum, a think-tank that serves police chiefs of major cities in the US and apparently Canada.  (See here, here, and here for examples.)  It seems that PERF has, gasp, been in conference calls with police chiefs over how to handle the Occupy protests.  In the media, this has turned into PERF “coordinating” crackdowns across the country.

This meme that PERF is coordinating violent crackdowns is a big win in the information sphere for Occupy.  However, it seems to be only tenuously related to the truth.

The Occupy meme has it, of course, that the advice PERF is giving to police departments around the country is to be more violent and more aggressive.  After all, many senior leaders of PERF were police chiefs in cities where mass arrests took place during various demonstrations.  And there seems to be documentary evidence, too, right out of PERF’s own writings.  One Occupy website reported that a PERF document “encourages the use of undercover officers and snatch squads to ‘grab the bad guys and remove them from the crowd.’”  [That hyperlink may not work for a while.  Anonymous has taken down the PERF website.]

This is mendacious, at best.  The broader context has the Seattle Police Chief talking about how his department has learned from its screwups during the Battle of Seattle in 1999.  Note especially how he ends his remarks:

One more thing we can utilize is a program called “Anti-Violence Teams.” This is a two-part option. We can assign plainclothes officers into the crowd to follow troublemakers. These plainclothes officers are supported by the uniformed personnel assigned to the event. Plainclothes people identify the people engaged in illegal activity or displaying a weapon, and the commander can deploy their uniformed personnel to go in and grab the bad guys and remove them from the crowd. It’s a targeted approach to address those who are violating the law or endangering the public, protesters or police. While not always used, this option provides another tool to on-site commanders to address troublemakers without trying to stop a peaceful protest or demonstration.

In fact, the PERF report in question is suffused with an ethos that would probably make law-and-order types from the chattering classes think the police had succumbed to political correctness.  Much of what PERF does a military analyst would recognize  as “adaptation,” the process of figuring out  new solutions after something goes wrong in a conflict.  Herewith some excerpts that give a better sense of the document:

  • We started developing what we call our “meet and greet” strategy. Instead of using riot officers in Darth Vader outfits, we aim to be totally engaged with the crowd. We were out there high-fiving, shaking hands, asking people how they’re doing, and telling the crowd that “We are here to keep you safe.” We have found that this creates a psychological bonding with the crowd that pays real dividends.
  • It’s worth remembering that most protesters are peaceful; only a very small number are criminals and  agitators who smash windows, vandalize the corporate buildings, and so on. Our goal was to communicate this message to the bulk of the protesters:  “We’re your friends. We are here to protect your right to protest. We will stand in harm’s way to protect your right to protest.”
  • If someone is not infringing on the good times of  another person, then we don’t take the heavyhanded approach and enforce minor infractions. If people get into a scuffle, we try to break it up and separate them. During Mardi Gras, arrests are a last resort for us.
  • One problem in dealing with black bloc protesters is that they infiltrate the crowd in street clothing, get to the center of the larger crowd, and then put on black clothing and masks. You’ve got a large group that’s going down the street and a smaller group dressed in black within that larger group. You know what they are going to try to do at some point; they haven’t done it yet but they are going to do it. How do you go into that crowd now and extract that group preventatively without agitating the rest of the crowd and provoking a larger fight? You can’t forget about the other people who are there. There are tens of thousands of people coming just to protest and march legitimately, and you have to look after their rights.
  • When dealing with law-breaking protesters, don’t forget that thousands of nonviolent protesters are merely exercising their First Amendment rights. So the police must differentiate the lawbreaking protesters from those who are peaceful.
  • We’ve got to get over this fear of videotaping our own people.
  • This protest group sat down in the middle of the intersection at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and the motormen were all ready to jump up and start arresting them.  But instead, we just pulled away and diverted traffic around them. After a while, the group got tired and left. It wasn’t a big deal. So if you don’t have to arrest, don’t do it. It will save you a lot of problems. We don’t need to go after every single person who acts aggressively towards a police officer unless there’s a danger of an officer getting hurt.
  • Admit your mistakes openly.
  • Make sure you have competent leaders in the field to prevent officers from overreacting.
  • Think carefully before you make arrests. Arrests can take valuable resources away from the event and later can result in years of litigation.

Another PERF document on handling mass demonstrations includes such thuggish passages in its section on the use of force as:

  • The police should seek to facilitate any lawful and legitimate aims of groups who are present—especially when conflict breaks out. The aim should be to permit the pursuit of lawful actions while dealing with groups acting illegally.
  • Officers must be mindful that a crowd can consist of a variety of persons, present for a range of reasons. When violence starts, there is the risk of dealing with all those present as if they are hostile protestors.  However, especially in such situations, it is crucial to treat people with respect and win them to law enforcement’s side, not the side of those already promoting conflict. It may be necessary to facilitate the desires of the many, such as the wish to peacefully protest, so that the demonstrators may assist the police with their overall intention, which is to prevent disorder.
  • We have seen from police after-action reports and third-party reviews of police practices that the mass detention of protestors not actively engaged in violence can create significant problems for law enforcement agencies (New York Civil Liberties Union 2004).  Mass arrests during demonstrations in Washington, D.C., New York City and other major locales have been criticized. In some cases, the protest activity, while unlawful, was not necessarily violent. Complaints included that law-abiding protestors and passersby were rounded up and detained along with violators in overly broad sweeps. The negative impact of these media images damages the public perception of the police operation, as it draws into question the reasonableness and proportionality of the police response. Subsequent litigation has proven to be particularly costly. In most instances only a tiny number of those arrested actually appear in court and most of those are charged with offenses that would not normally attract an arrest or detention.
  • The Boston Police Department conducted a critical review of its training and use of less-lethal weapons after police fired a plastic, pepper-spray filled projectile that killed a young woman in 2005. The FN303 firing device is often used because it was designed to avoid causing bodily injury.  However, instructions indicate that it should not be aimed above the waist. The young woman who was killed was unintentionally struck in the eye. Police professionals should not necessarily abandon the use of this type of device, but should be aware of incidents such as this and provide proper training in order to avoid similar tragedies.

As one reads these documents, it’s interesting to note how often the problems and screwups in the past that PERF seeks to correct stem from the application of force (too much force, or force applied too broadly, or force poorly applied by ill-trained officers).

Based on all this, my guess would be–and it’s just a guess because I have no more direct data than do the reporters and Occupy publicists who are pushing this story– that what PERF is telling police chiefs is “you are screwing up.”  Pepper-spraying kids who are sitting on the ground may serve the police department’s short term interest, but won’t serve it well over any longer time frame.

PERF is in a position much like that of the COIN advocates in the US military.  They are saying that the police need to win hearts and minds, they need to have good contacts in the community, they should show restraint even in the face of provocation, they should target the use of their full power as precisely as possible, etc.

Ironically, by delegitimizing PERF and perhaps by chilling police chiefs from talking with it, the Occupy folks may well be setting the stage for more police violence and overreactions.  Of course, this would serve Occupy well.  A good round of police atrocities could be what really kicks their movement into overdrive.

Do I really think that Occupy is purposely trying to sideline sideline the moderates among those who oppose them so as to get more police violence?  (This is an old strategy of insurgents: hollow out the middle thereby making your opponents look more and more extreme.  It can be very effective.)  No, not in this case, at least.  However, Occupy has positioned itself nicely in the information sphere such that anything the police do short of roll over and play dead, serves Occupy’s interest.  That’s a great position for them to be in.