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Unconventional tactics: Police win praise for restraint at DNC

It was Wednesday night, and less than an hour had passed since a handful of protesters had wrenched open the security fence outside the Wells Fargo Center and tried to break through.

It was Wednesday night, and less than an hour had passed since a handful of protesters had wrenched open the security fence outside the Wells Fargo Center and tried to break through.

The police had pushed demonstrators away. Flags were burned. The street erupted with yells, chants, arguments. For a few moments, it seemed as if the unrest that some had feared had finally begun.

But the police never waded into the crowd. They held the fence. The mood lifted. Within the hour, most of the protesters were seated on the ground, arms around each other, singing, "We are in this together."

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, a short distance away, shook hands with a protester in long blond dreadlocks.

"This wasn't a big deal for us," Ross said later.

The Democratic National Convention's arrival in Philadelphia brought thousands of politicos and thousands of protesters - a potentially volatile mix in a contentious election season.

But the Philadelphia police's deliberately laid-back approach to some of the largest protests in the city in recent years kept the peace - and won praise from civil liberties advocates.

It was a far cry from the riot patrols, preemptive arrests, and, ultimately, hundreds of thrown-out court charges and settled lawsuits that marked the last big political event in Philadelphia, the 2000 Republican National Convention.

The ramp-up to Philadelphia's convention was decidedly less frantic than that in Cleveland, where about 2,700 officers from across the country arrived to supplement local forces, and where tensions ran high over Ohio's open-carry gun laws.

At the RNC there, police presence dwarfed demonstrations. In Philadelphia, the protests were larger, louder, generally peaceful: 13,000 protesters attended 60 demonstrations throughout the week.

Philadelphia police issued 106 citations for disorderly conduct and obstruction - offenses the city decriminalized last month to avoid another 2000 RNC scenario - but made no arrests themselves.

Federal agents, on the other hand, arrested 11 people Tuesday and Wednesday nights for breaching the security barriers, a federal offense. That's still about half the total arrests made in Cleveland two weeks ago.

Same tactics, new vibe

Police in Cleveland had used many of the same tactics on display at the DNC in Philadelphia - deploying officers on bicycles instead of in riot gear (with some exceptions) and creating barriers between groups of opposing protesters. They, too, received praise for restraint.

But fear - in light of several high-profile shootings of police, and gun-rights advocates' plans to carry assault rifles downtown - deterred many protesters from taking to the streets of Cleveland, activists said.

It made for stark visuals: Some protests had twice as many police officers as protesters, and even more reporters following them. On one occasion, tensions between opposing protesters rose high enough that police cleared Cleveland's Public Square, the hub for most demonstrations. Mounted police waited nearby.

At a flag burning later that week, reporters formed a crowd so thick around the protest group that police had to push through the media scrum - only to be met by a line of protesters with linked arms. In the ensuing scuffle, 18 people were arrested. "It was a massive police presence [in Cleveland]. Overwhelmingly massive," said Nori Kalom, a protester with a Christian political party who was at both conventions handing out pamphlets lamenting the nominations of both presidential candidates. "And we were afraid, because the cops had been killed in Dallas."

In Philadelphia? "It's been very laid-back," Kalom said.

'I felt supported'

Andrea Silverman traveled by bus to Philadelphia from her home in New York City armed with phone numbers for attorneys she could call if things went south during a march she attended Monday in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Silverman, 46, a longtime activist who has marched with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said she was "terribly worried" about how police would react to protesters in Philadelphia, given her previous experiences at demonstrations. "Under these circumstances, normally it creates a tension between the protesters and the police that's palpable, but I didn't feel any of that here. I felt supported," she said. "I came with a slight bias and Philly police diminished it. No: They removed it."

Marching for miles in the heat, she found camaraderie with officers "suffering right alongside us" who were "accessible and friendly," giving directions to the train and to a decent lunch spot, she said.

They didn't seem to want to arrest anyone, she said.

Not all protesters thought that the police had been friendly. The American Civil Liberties Union fielded complaints about the number of police officers.

It also got complaints about a SEPTA policeman wielding pepper spray through a security barrier, which the agency deemed justified but which a protester's attorney called unwarranted.

Asa Khalif of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic, and Legal (REAL) Justice, a black activist group that has organized large protests in the past, said his group felt hostility from police as it marched against police brutality Tuesday.

"It was clear, based on my experience, that the police handled the black resistance march that took place on Tuesday, which was led by black and brown people, with nothing but aggression," he said. "It was clear how differently they treated the Bernie Sanders people and how they handled us."

Nighttime protests were marked by the most tension, albeit short-lived, between police and protesters. On Tuesday night, with multiple marches heading up and down Broad, police moved squad cars into the street at Packer Avenue as protests began to merge. Officers in riot gear occasionally were seen standing by at a distance, but never moved in.

Civil rights lawyers criticized the role of federal authorities in policing the protests. They cited the expanded use of powers designated by declaring the convention, like the pope's visit to the city last fall, a National Special Security Event.

That meant that before the convention, the U.S. Secret Service could fence off a wide swath of the area around the Wells Fargo Center, including parking lots and an adjoining section of Broad Street, designating it a secure zone and ensuring that protesters would stay outside.

Trevan Borum, a Center City lawyer representing one of the fence-jumpers arrested by the Secret Service, argued that the security zone seemed designed to keep protesters far away.

"What good are First Amendment rights if you're in the middle of a forest protesting?" Borum said. "They deliberately segregated these protesters so their message couldn't be heard."

Eleven demonstrators who breached that 8-foot barrier were charged with federal misdemeanors that carry a potential prison sentence of up to a year.

Impressed by restraint

"It's one thing to protect a motorcade or a specific building where an event is being held," said Paul Hetznecker, a Center City civil rights attorney. "It's another thing to demarcate an ever-expanding geographical area and declare it effectively a police state where the Constitution has been suspended."

Still, Hetznecker said he was impressed with the restraint shown by Philadelphia police in dealing with protesters.

After representing dozens of clients who were arrested during the 2000 RNC in Center City and the Occupy Philadelphia protests in 2011, he was amazed that this one passed without city officers' arresting a single protester. "That demonstrates an evolution in thinking by the police that directly relates to the victories previous protesters have secured here in the past," he said. "The police have recognized that their historical overreaching not only undermines the First Amendment but devotes an unwarranted amount of taxpayer resources to fighting those cases in court."

Ross said that big-city police departments accustomed to dealing with demonstrations have realized that showing up at a protest in riot gear or on horses can escalate tension.

Throughout the DNC, Ross - like his counterpart in Cleveland, Chief Calvin Williams - made a point of being at protests. "The higher the rank, the higher the accountability," police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said. "He leads by example, being out here."

Ross said the department was simply "trying to convey something positive."

"If you go looking like you're prepared for a fight," he said, "then that's what you're going to get."

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the city's decision to let protesters march down Broad Street - an issue over which her organization had sued - and to issue civil citations instead of arrests made for "a fantastic atmosphere," especially in Center City.

"The chant is, 'Tell me what democracy looks like,' " she said. "Well, this is what democracy looks like. The way it turned out was the way it always should turn out."      215-854-2961


Staff writers Chris Palmer and Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.