When a New York police officer walked up to a group of female protesters immobilized behind a makeshift fence and pepper sprayed them before calmly walking off, seemingly unaware he had been captured on video, he became the latest symbol of the New York Police Department's apparent inability to deal with small-scale civil unrest in a reasonable way. In a city that has seen its share of deadly, full-fledged rioting and the most infamous terrorist attacks in history, the police force is trained to respond to the gravest of threats, but as a New York Times story on Tuesday pointed out, it has lost the ability to tailor that response down to meeting low-level civil unrest. That seems to be a years-long trend, exemplified by Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who has had several lawsuits filed against him for his role directing arrests of protesters in the 2004 Republican National Convention.
According to a 2007 lawsuit unearthed by Anonymous activists, who released Bologna's personal and family information on Monday, the NYPD veteran participated in the arrest of one protester who got into an altercation with a driver during the convention. The protester, Posr A. Posr, has sued Bologna and the department for keeping him confined to a pen on Pier 57 after his arrest instead of processing him through a normal booking facility. Posr's is one of seven federal suits that name Bologna or include him as a John Doe because of his role as a captain in the police department, in complaints about the way the New York Police Department handled arrests during the convention. The department arrested about 1,000 protesters and kept them in a makeshift facility on Pier 57, where, according to Posr's suit, there was limited seating and the ground was covered in toxic grit.
At the time, The New York Times reported that the police response had effectively silenced the protesters. Later lawsuits meant the bureaucratic fallout from the controversial arrests was heavy. On Tuesday, The Times noted that recent unrest elsewhere probably influenced the police response to the weekend's Occupy Wall Street protests.
In recent weeks, police commanders have been discussing the riots in London this summer, and strategizing how they would stop a similar situation in New York, said Roy Richter, the president of the union in New York that represents officers of captain and higher rank. And since August, investigators with the Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have monitored the online efforts of activists to bring demonstrations to Wall Street, people briefed on the matter said.
The Police Department conducts an internal review of its response to every large-scale demonstration, and the protest on Saturday appeared to have resulted in the largest number of arrests since the demonstrations surrounding the Republican National Convention in 2004. The events of Saturday are certain to be examined, especially since so many protesters were recording the events with cameras; videos of the pepper spray episode, for example, offered views from several angles.
On Twitter, where the #OccupyWallstreet hashtag generates several hundred messages an hour, attention has turned to a reported police backlash against those filming the response to protesters. One Anonymous-related Twitter account wrote, "video crews have been assaulted, some repeatedly, while attempting to film police actions against protesters." On Monday, Gothamist took several accounts from photographers and videographers that police were "zeroing in on anyone with a camera." But unlike in 2004, many more protesters have the ability to film, and once an incident is online, it can spread faster than ever.
As for Bologna, police spokesman Paul J. Brown on Monday called his use of pepper spray "appropriate," but Councilman Peter F. Vallone commented to the paper that the incident "didn't look good." He said, "If no prior verbal command was given and disobeyed, then the use of spray in that instance is completely inappropriate." One of the pepper-sprayed protesters, Jeanne Mansfield, wrote about the incident on Boston Review, pointing out a rank-and-file officer's disbelief at the pepper-spray incident. "One of the blue-shirts, tall and bald, stares in disbelief and says, 'I can’t believe he just fuckin’ maced her.' And it becomes clear that the white-shirts are a different species."