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Oakland police alters crowd-control policy due to Occupy protests

Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen lies on the ground bleeding from a head wound after being struck by a projectile during an Occupy Wall Street protest in Oakland.A week before a scheduled May Day protest by Occupy movement demonstrators, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan on Monday announced what he said were major reforms in department crowd-control tactics after injuries and widespread use of tear gas last fall sparked international outrage and triggered hundreds of abuse complaints.

The announcement of the shifting approach -– which largely involves improved training, the use of small groups of officers to isolate troublemakers and clearer dispersal orders before arrest -- also comes as the monitors of a decade-long federal consent decree are expected to release a report on the department’s handling of Occupy protests.

Furthermore, the city in December hired an independent expert to review the department’s Occupy response. And a federal lawsuit is pending over its use of projectiles and mass arrest tactics in the weeks after the City Hall Occupy encampment was razed last fall.

In a news conference with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana, Jordan said police have handled Occupy events involving 60,000 people since Oct. 25. Most events “have gone without incident,” Jordan said, but he acknowledged some failings.

“Even before the final results of these external reviews are complete, we recognize that there is room for improvement,” Jordan said. “We are committed to immediately improving our training, tactics, and policies in light of our experiences.”

Jordan said that by next week, every officer will have completed crowd management training. He has formed a community advisory group to review the crowd control policy and recommend improvements, he said. And the policy will also be adjusted to comport with upcoming guidelines by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

The department plans to better coordinate with the agencies it calls on for mutual aid, he said, and has increased the number of investigators handling use-of-force complaints. “The Oakland Police Department is committed to becoming a national leader in crowd management by reforming and improving our policies and practices,” Jordan said.

Rachel Lederman, a civil rights attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who is pressing a federal lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department for its Occupy tactics, expressed skepticism, saying existing written crowd control policy need only be followed -- not altered.

The policy was crafted as part of a settlement to a 2003 federal lawsuit involving mass injuries to antiwar demonstrators at the Port of Oakland, while the current suit targets police actions against Occupy protests.

“We were unimpressed and, in fact, kind of disturbed by this press announcement,” Lederman said of Monday’s news conference, calling for “common sense” changes in the way officers attempt to scatter crowds.

“The rampant use of flashbang-type grenades, that really has to stop,” she said. “Those are designed to cause panic and confusion and that’s exactly what you don’t want in a crowd. Actions speak louder than words and that’s what we want to see is an actual change in the approach.”


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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen lies on the ground bleeding from a head wound after being struck by a projectile during an Occupy Wall Street protest in Oakland. Credit: Jay Finneburgh / Associated Press

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