UnAmerican Arrests: Trap and Arrest in Washington

The Washington Post
October 6, 2002 Sunday

HEADLINE: Un-American Arrests;
Mass detainments of the innocent may be the ultimate form of crowd control, but the tactic is unconstitutional.


The urgent calls began late on the first day of the World Bank- International Monetary Fund protests: Students who were either reporters or bystanders had been swept up in mass arrests. The accounts had one common element: All the students were arrested while trying to comply with the law.

The D.C. and National Park Service police had used the same technique in each instance:

Surround the crowd. Tell its members to disperse or face arrest. And then, as people try to disperse, block their escape with rows of officers in riot gear and arrest them.

This happened to a number of student reporters from various universities who were arrested while older reporters were allowed to exit through police lines. One student photographer was clubbed by police while taking pictures. The students then were held in handcuffs on buses for as long as 10 hours before being taken to holding areas for the night, where they slept with one wrist handcuffed to an ankle. Police told them they would be held until Monday if they challenged the arrests but would be released immediately if they pleaded no contest.

Obviously, with thousands of protesters and fluid conditions, police can make mistakes. However, the practice of intentionally encircling large numbers of people for mass arrests, whether or not any law is being broken, was no mistake.

The protests occurred outside the dormitories of some George Washington students, and the university’s law school is located across from the International Monetary Fund and down the street from the World Bank. Many students who were arrested report that they were never told to disperse. The Constitution protects a person’s right to witness public events. While the city may prohibit protests without a permit, it is not allowed to arrest people who are not engaged in such protests. It must give people, including bystanders, an opportunity to leave the area. The error some people made last week was not in their understanding of the law but in their expectation that the D.C. police would comply with it.

The practice of preventing withdrawal seems calculated to maximize arrests in order to remove large numbers of people from the streets. This view is reinforced by the fact that hundreds of people were held until Saturday evening, then released in a perfunctory manner. While they could have been released within hours of their arrest, their continued detainment achieved the purpose of disrupting the protests.

Most officers showed professionalism and restraint during the demonstrations. Moreover, some protesters who sought to interfere with traffic or to protest without a permit were legitimate targets for arrest. But many seemed to have been taken into custody through the trap-and-arrest policy.

It is hardly difficult to make the D.C. streets as orderly as Beijing’s if police can arrest large numbers of people without cause. However, this technique is both distinctly unconstitutional and un-American.

The D.C. Council should investigate whether police:

* Prevented crowds from dispersing by closing off exit points as a prelude to arrest.

* Kept people in shackles for more than 24 hours.

* Used excessive force when people tried to disperse through police lines or in the course of the mass arrests.

* Held hundreds under the pretense of administrative delays in order to deplete the protests.

If the council finds that there was such a policy, police management (including Chief Charles Ramsey) should be held accountable. A trap-and-arrest policy may be the ultimate form of crowd control, but it is neither a constitutional nor a commendable practice. Unless there is an investigation and corrective action is taken, this convenient policy of crowd suppression is likely to become standard operating procedure in our nation’s capital.