Monday, October 20, 2014

Could violent protests come to community?

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 8/15/2014

Tear gas filled the streets while a crowd of 2,000 hurled small explosives, beer cans and punches at police and firefighters, who were trying to maintain peace. Struggling to breath from the tear gas he deployed, a police officer unknowingly spurred his own fatal heart attack.

The event was not part of the nationally reported conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri. Instead, it was July 6, 1963, in Garnett, according to Herald archives. The officer who died was Ottawa Police Capt. Robert Cowdin, who was 43 at the time of his death.

Tear gas filled the streets while a crowd of 2,000 hurled small explosives, beer cans and punches at police and firefighters, who were trying to maintain peace. Struggling to breath from the tear gas he deployed, a police officer unknowingly spurred his own fatal heart attack.

The event was not part of the nationally reported conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri. Instead, it was July 6, 1963, in Garnett, according to Herald archives. The officer who died was Ottawa Police Capt. Robert Cowdin, who was 43 at the time of his death.

While the at-times violent dispute between residents and law enforcement in Ferguson and St. Louis County raged this week — sparked by a police officer’s fatal shooting of 18-year-old black resident Michael Brown, which was followed by tear gas, deployed military equipment, Molotov cocktails and general unrest between police and residents — the riot that broke out in 1963 in Garnett shows such conflicts between the public and authorities, isolated as they might be, can happen anywhere at any time.

Officials from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the Ottawa Police Department would not comment specifically on the Ferguson police force’s handling of the Aug. 9 shooting and its aftermath, but both agencies have protocol and equipment to handle such incidents locally if needed.

Protocol

After four nights of unrest, which saw looting, violent protests against Ferguson police and widespread criticism from the public, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon named the Missouri State Highway Patrol as the new acting law enforcement in charge of security Thursday in the community of 21,000. The move immediately saw a decrease in conflict, according to media reports. Many had criticized the actions of the Ferguson police and local officials in how they dealt with the shooting, protestors and members of the media.

Back in Franklin County, Sheriff Jeff Richards said handling a tense situation like the one in Ferguson depends on the circumstances. The county has seen public demonstrations, but nothing on the scale of this week’s incidents in Ferguson, he said.

And though none of those local events warranted a strong response or show of force from the sheriff’s office, Richards said, the agency still kept a watchful eye. If things had turned violent, protocols are in place to ensure deputies can safely disperse the crowd, he said. Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, said he’s known in advance of every planned protest except for one. If the event is planned, Butler said, he contacts members of the protest group to ask if protestors plan to be peaceful or violent, and if they want to be arrested or just heard. He also asks the date of the event so he can plan ahead to have enough officers available if needed, he said.

“We monitor the event and communicate with the protestors as much as possible,” Butler said. “If we expect arrests, we notify the sheriff’s office to expect an increased workload, however, if it is a situation in which the arrestees can be released on the scene we would try to do that instead.”

On the lone occasion when Butler was not informed of a protest beforehand, he actually was present to witness the event, he said. Protesters came into the meeting of a governing body in another community carrying signs and chanting slogans to protest an issue that was being discussed, he said. The meeting was disrupted and council members were moved to a different location for safety while Butler notified more officers to help monitor the crowd until the protest was complete.

“The ‘sit-in’ lasted about two hours during which time print and electronic media were allowed in to monitor and report the protest,” Butler said. “There were no arrests, no injuries, and no recurrence from that group. The council called the meeting back into session and finished their agenda without further interference.”

Police as military?

While several conservative politicians, including U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have called for the “de-militarization” of law enforcement, a lawmaker from Kansas was not yet ready to make that proclamation. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who was visiting Ottawa as part of a listening tour, said there isn’t an easy fix to situations like the one in Ferguson.

“You’ve got to separate out those who are protesting and those who are breaking the law,” Roberts said. “But during that time, you have to have calm, if you possibly can, and a reasonable conversation. That’s easy to say, but tough to do.”

Dealing with the Ferguson situation is more difficult than one might think, he said, and it’s up to the local agencies to decide how to keep protestors and law enforcement interactions from turning violent.

“I don’t know what to do to stop that. A lot of people are speaking out, including the victim’s dad, on ways to do it,” Roberts said. “That’s up to the state of Missouri and the City of Ferguson to decide.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was “deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” according to the Washington Post.

The Defense Department’s Excess Property Program, also known as the 1033 program, has often been sourced as the program that put military equipment into the hands of local law enforcement, according to the report. Transfers through the program have increased dramatically in recent years.

The Washington Post reported the program made 34,708 transfers worth $33 million to law enforcement agencies in 2006. Last year, the number grew to 51,779 transfers valued at $420 million, according to data provided by the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the program, according to the report. Through April of this year, the agency had made 15,516 transfers of equipment worth $206 million.

Both the Ottawa Police Department and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office have received military equipment through federal programs, both departments said. The equipment only is used by a Special Tactics and Rescue Team (STAR), which is commonly referred to as a SWAT team, and only in certain situations. The STAR team is shared by the county and city, Butler said.

“That type of equipment is used to keep everyone safe and take care of a situation to make sure everyone goes home at the end of the day,” Richards said. “We don’t patrol with that equipment, but we use it when we need to.”

Acquiring military equipment is only a possibility if it is justified, Butler said.

“My position is that, if we could justify the need to acquire any more surplus military equipment, we would request it,” Butler said. “I have entertained casual requests to acquire surplus vehicles, but at the time and currently, I cannot justify exploring this further.”

Noting that the military equipment is expensive, Butler said he has never seen military vehicles offered to police forces with military weaponry included. Such equipment is not deployed unless the lives of officers and others are at risk, he said.

“Moreover, I have never seen this equipment deployed in routine manner, but only in response to hostage and barricade situations, civil disorder that is violent and when law enforcement officers have come under gunfire or know they are dealing with some who is armed and could harm or kill them,” Butler said. “Unlike military deployments, this equipment is deployed by us in a defensive posture to protect the lives of our officers and others. It looks menacing, and because of that, these situations are often resolved peacefully when the threat realizes they cannot overcome what they see. This surplus equipment we possess — no vehicles — is not deployed whimsically and there are usually written protocols or a threat matrix used to justify the deployment.”

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