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Oakland: 'Less-Than-Lethal' Weapons Come Under Scrutiny
Published on Saturday, December 13, 2003 by the Oakland Tribune
Oakland: 'Less-Than-Lethal' Weapons Come Under Scrutiny
Review Board to study police actions against protesters, crowds
by Robert Gammon

OAKLAND -- Amid legal concerns that Oakland police should not have fired "less-than-lethal" munitions at anti-war protesters earlier this year, the Citizens Police Review Board has postponed making recommendations on a plan to revise police procedures.

After a five-hour hearing Thursday night at City Hall, Police Review Board members were poised to comment officially on Oakland Police Chief Richard Word's proposal this week to limit or eliminate the use of less-than-lethal weapons such as wooden dowels, bean bags and stinger grenades.

A protestor, who refused to give her name, bears the wounds after she says was hit by Oakland police weapon during a anti-war protest in Oakland, Calif., Monday, April 7, 2003 outside the port area. (Paul Sakuma)

Berkeley resident Clay Hinson (R), who was shot once in the chest and twice in the back during an anti-war protest, shows his wounds to an Oakland Police sergeant (L) who takes his statement at the West Oakland train station, April 7, 2003. Oakland police fired rubber bullets and wooden pellets on Monday to disperse hundreds of anti-war protesters in what was believed to be their first such use against U.S. protesters since the American-led war on Iraq began. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
But after repeated concerns raised by protesters and the police review panel's own legal counsel, Anthony Lawson, a private Oakland attorney, the panel put off the issue.

The six-member panel instead unanimously agreed to organize a committee of top police officials, peace activists, legal experts and Police Review Board members and staff for further study.

Lawson contended that legal precedent in police brutality cases raised doubts as to whether police can fire less-than-lethal weapons at protesters in an effort to break up large demonstrations.

"You can't really do that," Lawson said. "To use less-than-lethal weapons for crowd control, you're going to create a liability problem" for the city.

Less-than-lethal weapons can seriously injure, or kill. As a result, courts have ruled that police officers should only use such weapons if there is an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, Lawson said.

Controversial demonstration

During an April 7 demonstration against the war in Iraq, Oakland police shot wooden dowels and bean bags and hurled stinger grenades at protesters, injuring 41, including bystanders, according to a report by the review panel's staff. Many of the demonstrators were hit in the back as they tried to get away.

The melee made national news. Two dozen protesters were arrested and are facing misdemeanor charges. Protesters and members of the International Longshoremen Worker's Union sued the police department and the city in federal court.

Word has repeatedly defended his officers' actions, echoing their allegations that protesters threw projectiles and that police ordered demonstrators to disperse more than once before opening fire. Word said Thursday police have videotape evidence and collected a few of the projectiles.

Such evidence, however, has not been made public.

Protesters deny the police allegations, saying they were demonstrating peacefully, exercising their First Amendment rights. Police overreacted and should not have attempted to disperse them, they argued.

In addition, there is no evidence the protesters presented an immediate threat to police or anyone else when police fired at them.

"You need to be discussing police control, not crowd control," Jack Heyman, an agent for the longshoremen's union, told the police review panel. "What police did on April 7 was an atrocity."

More training proposed

Jerry Harper, a longtime top official in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and former director of the California Youth Authority, told the review panel that police departments must focus more on training when dealing with demonstrators.

In a response to a question by panel member Susan Raffanti, he also said the most effective way to disperse peaceful protesters is for officers to form a skirmish line, issue a dispersal order repeatedly and move toward the protesters. If the protesters do not leave, police should push the crowd with their batons and then arrest protesters if they still don't disperse, Harper said.

Earlier this week, Word announced that after an internal review his department would ban the use of wooden dowels and would no longer bump protesters with police motorcycles. During the meeting, he also said his department would suspend the use of stinger grenades. But he said his department would keep in its arsenal bean bags shot from rifles, known as "flexible batons."

Lawson said later the emphasis on what weapons should remain on the department's list represents "a disconnect" from the more pressing issue of the appropriate use of force against protesters.

"The underlying question is not what should be discontinued by the department," Lawson said. "The underlying issue is whether it was reasonable to use force."

Word also vowed to attempt to meet with protest leaders before planned demonstrations. Such meetings occurred prior to protests on April 5 and May 12, and they went off without incident.

©1999-2003 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers


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