Saturday, March 18, 2006

Just Calm Down, Please

The NYT reports, in Police Memos Say Arrest Tactics Calmed Protest, that the use of "proactive arrests" at political demonstrations was successful in minimizing dissent.

As I read the article, I almost thought that it was a parody. It describes the use of "proactive arrests" by police as a means of controlling protestors:

In five internal reports made public yesterday as part of a lawsuit, New York City police commanders candidly discuss how they had successfully used "proactive arrests," covert surveillance and psychological tactics at political demonstrations in 2002, and recommend that those approaches be employed at future gatherings.

Let's think about this. Let's assume that there is a scheduled event that is expected to be accompanied by a protest. The police round up and arrest demonstrators in anticipation of the event. As a result, the subsequent protest will be quelled. This is akin to an "If A, then B" analysis. Similarly, such a "proactive" move by police would have the added benefit (and result) of toning down future protests.

Does anyone question whether Gestapo tactics like this would not have this effect? Of course they would. That's not the point. The question is, do we permit the police to prevent the possibility of dissent under our system of government?

In its efforts to be "fair and balanced," the article leaves the uninformed reader confused. What is the purpose of this story? To expose the illegal tactics employed by police?

Besides the fact that the tactics employed by the police are clearly improper, the problem that I have with this article is the manner in which it is reported. That is, the situation is explained though the dispassionate description of the "facts" by the reporter, with the only suggestion that these tactics may be illegal is presented through the words of the attorney for the protestors, who brought a lawsuit objecting to the police conduct.

The first suggestion that this is illegal comes from "Daniel M. Perez, the lawyer representing the people arrested at the animal rights demonstration, [who] argued that the police tactics 'punish, control and curtail the lawful exercise of First Amendment activities.'" This is followed by the response that "[t]he Police Department and the city have said that preserving public order is essential to protecting the civil rights of demonstrators and bystanders." You know, the we need to destroy the village to save it defense.

The use of the "he said/she said" style in this story could leave the reader uncertain as to the validity of the conduct used by the police. It is unclear if this really improper or is it yet another example of those protestors trying to cause trouble in the courts. You are not given a good sense of what the state of the law really is in this area. In the so-called "post 9/11 world" that we live in, this is especially important. In the name of "security," Government officials are presumed to be acting in our best interests to protect us. Many may feel that these protestors don't deserve the law's protection. Not providing the necessary clarity is a disservice to the reader, since the law is fairly clear in this particular area of law. You know, dealing with those old-fashioned constitutional concepts such as free expression of first amendment rights, freedom of assembly and probable cause.

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