A police witness to protests: Conflict persists between tension, duty
As a senior in college at San Jose State, I began my policing career in January of 1967. I graduated with my bachelor's degree and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army in June of that year. The anti-war demonstrations had already started by that time. I would learn much about protesting and the role of police during demonstrations over the next 53 years.
A few short months after my officer's commission, I took a military leave of absence from the police department and began serving my military commitment. My first year was spent in Basic Infantry Officer School at Fort Benning, Georgia, Military Intelligence School (the former Fort Holabird, Maryland) and then to the Vietnamese Language Institute (Fort Bliss, Texas). Then, I was off to the 9th Infantry Division in Mekong Delta for the next year. When I returned from Vietnam, I married my fiancee who had sent me letters every single day that I was there. (We will be celebrating our 51st anniversary this year.)
In October of 1969, I went right back to work on the police department and was quickly assigned to a countywide emergency response team. By 1970, I found myself loaded onto a bus, along with several other officers from the Santa Clara County area and being transported to Stanford University, where I would have my first experience as a police officer at an anti-war protest. Most of what the officers did was enforce curfew violations in the area and arrest a few protesters for trespass violations. Although I did not personally observe any violence, I did become aware that a San Jose Police Officer, Chuck Hogate, had been injured by a piece of cement that had been hurled toward the police. Chuck and I had been classmates at San Jose State in the '60s.
Later in the early '70s, I was assigned along with scores of other police officers to block a group of anti-war protesters from storming the San Jose Civic Auditorium where President Nixon was speaking. There were several hundred protesters at the back of the auditorium shouting, "One, two, three, four. We don't want your f----g war!" All of the police officers were armed with long batons known as Kendo sticks and standing very close together, forming a line between the rear door of the auditorium and the very large crowd of protesters. When the president exited the rear door, the crowd began screaming loudly and the entire group of several hundred began surging forward and pushing the police line back. The protesters at the front of the group next to the police line could not help being pushed into the police because they were being pushed by the hundreds of protesters behind them. The crowd began to disperse within about 15 minutes after the president departed.
In the 1990s, an international anarchist group (known as Reclaim The Streets) came to Naperville for three consecutive years. As the police chief during those years, I was responsible for the police response. That group showed up in several American cities during those years to protest capitalism. In some cities, such as Seattle, they damaged significant property before the police stopped them. When they came to Naperville the first summer, they were somewhat organized and expressed the intent to block traffic on Washington Street in the Naperville downtown area on a Friday evening. That year was somewhat uneventful. They assembled at the Riverwalk Park and several cops were assigned to prevent them from closing major streets.
They were better organized during their second year and so, too, were the cops. There were approximately 200 protesters that night and 17 people ended up getting arrested. Similar to what is occurring today, most of the arrestees were from other towns and states. The third year resulted in an extremely large multijurisdictional deployment of approximately 200 cops. We had a command post set up and buses from DuPage County to handle any mass arrests that may occur. The protesters marched around town a little and complained about capitalism. They did not, however, commit any criminal acts that year and that became the last time we heard of them.
In recent years, planned and spontaneous protests have become more frequent and more violent. Social network sites and the internet have enabled protesters to quickly connect with many people and draw large crowds in a very short period of time. Public safety officials monitor these sites to assess possible threat levels and to prepare for them.
Whenever possible, police agencies try to meet with protest leaders to set boundaries and ensure the safety of everyone involved. Responses to these events are dictated by time, resources and money. In suburban areas, responses involving mutual aid from neighboring jurisdictions are common. The law enforcement role and that of the police officers who are present is to ensure the safety of the peaceful protesters and to protect property whenever that is possible.
As we have seen from recent events, peaceful assemblies can always draw people who are bent on the destruction of property, looting, arson and violence. That is when things can escalate rapidly and sometimes involve the National Guard to assist local authorities to restore order.
• David Dial is chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Aurora University and former Naperville police chief. He is a member of the Daily Herald's advisory Sounding Board.