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Op-Ed: Pulling The NYPD Out Of Protests (New York Newsday)

By Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn — The Republican National Convention has left town, leaving in its wake questions about the arrest and fingerprinting of hundreds of people standing or marching on public sidewalks, the lengthy detention of people in a filthy bus depot, and the pervasive police videotaping of protesters. Beyond these controversies, however, is a much more fundamental issue about the role of the New York City Police Department in demonstrations.

Simply put, the police have taken command of protest activity in New York City. While the convention presented unique security concerns, the tight police control over convention demonstrations perfectly typifies New York City’s law-enforcement approach to protest — perfected during the administration of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — that must be changed.

The NYPD controls every facet of demonstrations. For starters, anyone wanting to use a bullhorn or other amplified sound — a necessity for many demonstrations — or to hold a march must obtain a permit from the police department, and permit applications are available only at local police precincts or, for large marches, at police headquarters. Even for those comfortable walking into a police facility, just obtaining applications can be difficult, as police officials who control these forms often are unavailable and sometimes discourage people from holding demonstrations.

Once organizers manage to get hold of an application and gets it completed and filed — they often must then meet with police officials at a police command to describe their demonstration, identify speakers and topics, and explain how they wish to conduct the event. Though we at the New York Civil Liberties Union attend these meetings with organizers, they tell us time and again how intimidating they find it to have to disclose and negotiate the details of their events to police officials, particularly when they believe the police will be unreceptive to their message (as is the case with many political demonstrations).

Assuming they obtain police permission for their demonstration, organizers can then expect to receive a telephone call — often at home — from a detective in the department’s Intelligence Division shortly before the event demanding more information. Once again, we routinely receive calls from organizers distressed by these inquiries.

Finally, when the day of the event comes so does an overwhelming police presence. At demonstrations of any significant size, large number of officers appear, participants are herded into pens comprised of interlocking metal barricades with officers all around them, and officers videotape virtually anyone and everyone. At some events police wear riot gear and have even appeared on nearby rooftops with rifles.

Though many police officials are entirely well-intentioned, this pervasive police control is catastrophic for First Amendment activity. Some people simply don’t hold demonstrations because they cannot negotiate the police bureaucracy or are intimidated from even trying. Others are forced to make substantial changes to their events to comply with police demands. Most troubling, the combination of cops, pens, and cameras scares away people of good will from demonstrations and fundamentally alters their the nature, with participants being made to feel like criminals for going to a rally. Far too often, the policing is as much a part of the event as is the organizer’s message.

This is wrong. Demonstrations are overwhelmingly lawful, and there is no reason to treat them primarily as law-enforcement events. Why in the world, for instance, are the police systematically videotaping participation in peaceful demonstrations, which after all are expressly protected by the Constitution? One can only imagine the clamor that would arise if the police started walking around Yankee Stadium or Times Square — to take two spots with far more unlawful activity than your typical protest — videotaping everyone.

The current approach is also wholly unnecessary. As anyone who has been to a large demonstration in Washington, D.C. will appreciate, the police presence at demonstrations in New York City is unique. Large protests happen all over the country without the suffocating police presence we see here.

Rather than being oppressively policed, large demonstrations and marches need to be managed. We recognize that these events present crowd-control and traffic-management issues and that the police have a role to play in the city’s management of these events. But the time has come to change the basic approach to demonstrations in New York.

A new office outside the police department should be established to handle demonstrations and marches. Permit applications should be widely available — including on-line as is the case with other city applications — and meetings about the logistics of events should be conducted by officials outside the police department (though police officials might of course be involved in such meetings). The on-site management of demonstrations should be moved out of the police department and given to officials trained to deal with the routine logistical issues that such events raise. And the pervasive videotaping of lawful protest activity must stop.

Demonstrations are not criminal enterprises and should not be treated as such. Now is the time to reassess the role of the police in protest activity in New York City.

Dunn is the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union

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