Police acted responsibly in reacting to occupiers

The Denver Police Department and the Occupy Denver movement clashes over the last few days have caught the attention of much of the media, especially those on the left like the Huffington Post and those in a geosynchronous orbit around Pluto, like Keith Olbermann.

To some extent this is expected. Riots, or near riots, are never pleasant news but make great copy and often better video.

What most immediately catches my eye and ear is how alarmed some commentators were by the presence of a retiree in a folding chair waving a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) during a tea party rally, but find a gaggle of often incoherent, lawbreaking protesters to be the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi.

Part of it, I suppose, gets determined by who you think has the right idea about social and political change, the guy in the lawn chair who leaves the area cleaner than he found it or someone illegally occupying public property, fighting with the police and creating communities that make the old Hoovervilles seem like Park Avenue.

It is genuinely important to know with which one of these options a politician or commentator is most comfortable.

As to the response of the Denver Police Department, I must rise to its defense. I looked at some of the videos and read several descriptions of the events and, while there may be isolated incidents of problems, there is a sad inevitability of certain responses to lawless and aggressive actions by mobs.

During a conflict with protesters at the Capitol building on Saturday, Denver police officers arrested 15 protesters, after scuffling with a crowd originally estimated at about 2,000. The crowd was advancing on the Capitol building with the possible intention of occupying it in the vein of protesters who assumed control of the Wisconsin state Capitol earlier in the year, doing millions of dollars in damage.

They also were attempting to set up tents and camp in the nearby park, which is illegal, not just for them but for everyone. Once again, we see protesters who complain about others being treated differently while they demand to be treated differently.

The protesters received repeated warnings they chose to disregard and were being stopped from setting up campsites in the park. Then a police officer was attacked on his motorcycle. Enough was enough.

No one had denied members of this group their right to protest peacefully, nor had anyone attempted to suppress their freedom to assemble. But that freedom was sacrificed when that officer hit the ground. The response was strong and swift, yet on the whole, professional.

Does the Denver Police Department have a reputation for having a strong hand and in some cases an overzealous one? Yes. There is little doubt that the Denver police have carried a reputation that they were not to be trifled with or manhandled. However, most of the old breed are gone — the ones with the cross-draw holsters so they could get to their weapons easily in the car and the sap pocket of their trousers filled with the 8 inch arrest-control device that actually had a model named after the department.

Those officers had their time and did the job they were tasked, sometimes harshly and in ways we might now find heavy handed. But the 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square would not exist as they do today without their work. It is a rough job with some dangerous districts, but they remain a proud group, with one of the simplest uniforms in the country. A Denver police sergeant told me years ago they’re not Boy Scouts who sew badges across their uniform.

They certainly are not Boy Scouts, and have been struggling with scandal over the last four years, with little involvement, much less leadership from former Mayor John Hickenlooper, who avoided conflict and difficult situations at every turn. I hope Mayor Michael Hancock will become engaged with the department and maintain simple and effective oversight that protects citizen rights and officer safety. These should not be conflicting objectives.

In cities like Denver just changing the chief occasionally isn’t leadership. A strong police department needs strong leadership; not next-day generals, even if they have their own TV shows.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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