“They’re making the argument for the demonstrators, that American policing remains unreformed and out of control,” says Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who studies police response to protest.
“That’s what people in the community want. They really want to be joined with their police department. They want to feel a sense of trust,” says Cedric Alexander, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
But Vitale says some police departments have been sending a much more aggressive message.
“I’m surprised at the scale of it, that so many departments across the country are taking this zero-tolerance, quick escalation stance towards the demonstrators,” he says. “They very quickly escalated to tear gas and charging crowds. … They did not go that extra mile to try to keep things from escalating out of control.”
Here’s a look at some of the forceful ways we’ve seen officers around the country responding to protests:
Some are firing tear gas
Video footage and photos from protests across the country — from a park outside the White House to the streets of Minneapolis — show law enforcement firing tear gas into crowds of people. Sometimes the tear gas is being fired in response to violence and looting, and sometimes protesters allege it’s being fired without provocation.
“In the 1960s and ’70s we saw a lot of use of tear gas, and mostly police departments learned a lesson — that tear gas almost always makes the situation worse,” Vitale says. “And now all of a sudden, they’re just letting it fly all over the place.”
He says the firing of tear gas is one telling example of the ways police are not only inflaming tensions in the streets, but bolstering the case he and other critics have been making.
“This is a gross overreaction,” he says.
Police across the country have defended their decisions to use tear gas.
Some are accused of using excessive force
Authorities in several cities have said they’re investigating allegations that some officers have used excessive force in their responses to protests.
And in Seattle, city council members are calling for the police chief to answer questions about how officers handled protests over the weekend.
“I think some of the actions of the NYPD have exacerbated the anger. There are videos of some NYPD actions that are very disturbing,” Cuomo said in a briefing on Monday. “There are videos of NYPD cars driving into a crowd that are very disturbing, pulling a mask down off a person to pepper spray them, throwing a woman to the ground, it’s on video, it’s on video. The looting is on video, so is NYPD activity on video.”
The governor’s comments drew a swift rebuke from the president of the city’s police union, who accused Cuomo of “wrongly blaming the chaos on the cops.”
“Police officers are being run down, knocked down and almost shot on a nightly basis,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a statement.
CNN law enforcement analyst James Gagliano, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, said when looking at the video of the NYPD vehicle plowing into protesters, it’s important to remember officers have been facing tremendous pressure and physical attacks.
“I can’t get into the individual cops’ minds, except to think that the night before, a Molotov cocktail had been thrown in a police vehicle with four police officers in New York City,” Gagliano said. “I’m guessing that they were nervous about what was happening. Things were being thrown at their vehicle. There was no way out. Somebody stepped on the gas. It’s unfortunate. It’s awful. We don’t want to see any harm, anybody hurt, but this right now, this — it’s like a war zone in this country.”
Many are wearing riot gear
But even when no tasers are drawn and no shots are fired, some say some officers are behaving in a way that spurs more violence rather than calming the situation.
One case in point, they say: officers wearing riot gear.
Vitale told CNN it’s easy to see how tensions escalate.
“Imagine you’re angry and in front of you is a police officer in his regular uniform. Now imagine you’re angry, and what’s in front of you is a police officer in a helmet and a shield and a military-grade vehicle behind him,” Vitale says. “You’re much more likely to throw a rock. It just dehumanizes the whole situation.”
Police leaders have cautioned that protective gear is necessary to keep officers and the public safe.
“The officers after being attacked by objects thrown at them by violent protestors, were ordered to put on protective helmets, not riot gear,” Boston Police Commissioner William Gross wrote. “The Officers were in uniform not riot gear. Four officers, your constituents, were injured. One hospitalized. Ty (thank you) for caring.”
Some are arresting and assaulting journalists
Some journalists have also reported being attacked by protesters.
Human rights and advocacy organizations warn that attacks against the press are a troubling sign.
“When journalists are attacked, societies are attacked,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Twitter. “No democracy can function without press freedom nor can any society be fair without journalists who investigate wrongdoing and speak truth to power.”
Some may be taking cues from the President
Acevedo said police need to act swiftly to weed out bad cops, stressing that on a daily basis around the county, most officers are doing the right thing.
“When good policing happens, which happens every day in our country, it doesn’t make the news. Tens of millions of contacts every year, in very dynamic situations, it doesn’t make the news,” he said. “We’re the most visible cog of government. When we get it wrong, there’s no excuse. We can’t excuse it. We have to accept it. But don’t kid yourself into believing that the rage is just because of what happens with police.”
Protesters, Acevedo said, are outraged over other things, too, like inequalities in health and education.
“The reason this stuff happens is because there are too many people right now in this country that are throwing block — bricks and damaging property, never bother to vote. So, you have a choice,” he said. “Lift up your voice. Be heard in the voting booth, and continue to march peacefully, so the focus remains on bad policing, criminal policing.”
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