For all the times that we have criticized the Davis Police Department on these pages, this was an incident in which they deserve praise and appreciation. As I made my way through the event, I spoke first to Lt. Dorothy Pearson and then to the new Chief himself, Landy Black. In both cases, they downplayed the significance of their actions. Telling me that this was their job. Chief Black spoke about the importance of the right to protest as being a centerpiece of a Democratic society and I could not agree more. However, as we have seen throughout history, the actions of the Davis Police Department on this day should not be dismissed as lightly as the leadership did.
The irony of these discussions is that they took place before we learned about what happened with similar protests in Los Angeles, that led to the Los Angeles Police Department under heavy scrutiny and criticism for firing non-lethal munitions into a crowd of protesters.
The protests during the Civil Rights movement turned people’s viewpoints when images of police dogs attacking protesters along with firehoses were embedded into the consciousness of the nation. The nation who was somewhat indifferent to the plight gained sympathy for the protesters as they watched the heavy-handed tactics of the police. While brutal, these types of actions were exactly what the protesters wanted and needed in order to gain support for their cause.
What authorities soon would learn is that the better they handle protests, the more professionally, the less likely the protests are to get out of hand and have the impact that they had during the civil rights movement. And yet, as we have seen time and time again with the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1968, Kent State, and more recently in Seattle with the WTO, is that events can quickly get out of hand and become much larger than life when police fail to follow simple rules.
The latest incident in Los Angeles illustrates this perfectly. At some point, the police decided that the best idea was to disperse a large crowd of people. This move itself is probably ill-advised.
Contrast that to what the Davis Police decided to do on Tuesday. When the large group gathered in the middle of the street chanting, beating their drums, and dancing, they allowed the group to stay there until they moved to the adjacent sidewalks on their own and a small group of protesters stayed behind, sat down in the street. This was the group of people who had intended to be arrested.
Had the Davis Police decided instead to go after the larger contingency, chaos would have quickly ensued. The police even with a number of UC Davis officers and traffic enforcement officers would have been heavily outnumbered by the protesters. Keeping things orderly and calm is a good approach.
The lesson here is patience is sometimes a good police tactic. Simply allow the crowd to disperse on its own. But the Los Angeles Police did not do that. Instead they quickly moved to escalate rather than de-escalate the situation. When you start firing rounds, even non-lethal rounds, and hitting protesters with batons, many of whom are trying to disperse, then you are causing the problem rather than solving the problem.
Often it is the small decision that proves pivotal in cases like these. I was not on the ground in Los Angeles and do not know whether the decision to disperse the crowd that had a legal permit to be there was warranted. Some have suggested that there were some troublemakers in the ground–there is no doubt that is the case. However, you do not always have to disperse the whole crowd to get troublemakers out. After all, there are troublemakers in concerts and Mardi Gras celebrations as well, as usually they can contain those people without dispersing the full crowd or using escalation techniques.
One of the things that attorney John Burris discusses in his book is that in police work, you want to use force only as a last resort and you want to takes steps to de-escalate any situation of tension. The Los Angeles Police Department clearly violated those tenants of law enforcement when they chose to escalate the situation there.
Everyone on the ground on Tuesday in Davis complimented the protesters as well as being well-organized and disciplined. And that is probably true. But we also need to compliment the Davis Police for doing an excellent job of keeping the peace here.
In the coming weeks and months, there will undoubtedly be criticism and scrutiny revisited on the police department. However, in this event, on this day, praise is indeed in order.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting