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Police Face Backlash Over Crowd Control Measures After Several Political Protests


A controversial "alt-right" political rally in San Francisco tomorrow is now off. Organizers made that decision just this afternoon, saying hostility from local politicians and local activists has made the situation too dangerous. Instead of a rally, they're planning a news conference in a park, though that may also attract counter-protestors and create a crowd-control problem for police. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's a challenge police are facing around the country - how to balance free speech with public safety in an age of angry protest.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you're a police commander handling a big demonstration, your hardest call is deciding when to do this.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: OK, there goes the tear gas cans.

KASTE: That's my colleague Kirk Siegler reporting from Phoenix on Tuesday night as the police used tear gas, flash bangs and other methods to clear a crowd of anti-Trump protesters.


SIEGLER: OK. People are just screaming and running away right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It is time to leave the area.

ED MAGUIRE: I myself was struck just above the eye by a pepper-ball round.

KASTE: Ed Maguire was also there. He's a criminology professor from Arizona State University who studies exactly this - how police handle demonstrators. He says the Phoenix cops were pretty restrained until violence by a few people caused them to shut the whole thing down. It was an overreaction, he says. It's better when cops target only the troublemakers.

MAGUIRE: You're cutting off the actual people who are engaged in the destructive behavior, pulling them out of there and allowing the protest to go on as the First Amendment allows for.

KASTE: But given the national shock over the recent violence in Charlottesville, he says he understands that police are feeling pressure to err on the side of caution. The former police chief of Seattle Norm Stamper recalls the difficulty of balancing public safety with free speech.

NORM STAMPER: Part of it is a guessing game, and the best you can do under those circumstances (laughter) obviously is to guess right.

MAGUIRE: He says he guessed wrong back in 1999 during the notorious Battle for Seattle anti-globalization protests. He used tear gas to clear intersections, something that he now has come to regret. But he says that people do have to understand that police make these guesses or gambles, as he also calls them, often based on previous incidents elsewhere in the country.

STAMPER: One of the things that police chiefs are contemplating these days in their private moments is the punchline that the - the way that news media, for example, have summed up Charlottesville, Phoenix, Seattle. And they're asking themselves, OK, what did they do? What did they not do that led to this outcome?

KASTE: For instance, Phoenix police may have cracked down because police in Charlottesville had been seen as too hands-off. But Charlottesville's restraint came after the cops there had been criticized for being too heavy-handed at an earlier demonstration. One tactic that's definitely catching on, though, is separation. When there are two opposing sides, police make sure to keep them apart.

Joey Gibson's been holding right-wing Patriot Prayer rallies, as he calls them, up and down the West Coast for the last few months. He's one of the organizers of the Saturday rally in San Francisco which has now been downgraded to a news conference. He says he's definitely noticed the new trend toward separation.

JOEY GIBSON: One of the biggest problems is if the police just bring a whole bunch of police and just keep everyone separated from the very beginning, then it just turns into a yelling match, and nothing gets resolved.

KASTE: Gibson believes it's still possible for opposing groups of protesters to talk to each other peacefully. But right now, that optimism of his is not shared by local police. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "ATTACK THE DOCTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.