The Metropolitan Police Department has found itself in a rare position the focus of worldwide attention, not for what it did wrong, but for what it did right during the World Bank protests this week.
And much of the credit is being attributed to the leadership of Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who took charge of the beleaguered police force two years ago today.
“We set a new standard and now the world knows we can handle something like this,” Chief Ramsey said. “I’ve told the command staff that we have some great momentum and we’ve got to keep it going.”
From Philadelphia to Prague, the 3,500-member D.C. police force has gained recognition for thwarting tens of thousands of protesters trying to halt a joint meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Most noteworthy has been the lack of violence that marred similar demonstrations last year in Seattle.
Peter LaPorte, director of the District’s Office of Emergency Management, said the department has received praise from police officials around the country for controlling the estimated 10,000 demonstrators.
“I’ve talked to many chiefs of police I know and they are commenting that MPD never looked better,” Mr. LaPorte said.
Officials from the Czech Republic, which will host IMF meetings for two weeks in September, met in Chief Ramsey’s office this week to study police tactics.
Police officials from Chicago and New York as well as Philadelphia and Los Angeles, host cities for the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer took copious notes on how D.C. police handled the protests.
Moreover, an article in Tuesday’s editions of the Seattle Times noted: “In the end, the area surrounding the IMF and World Bank was too big, the protesters too few and the police too numerous and well prepared.”
D.C. police officials had said they wouldn’t be overwhelmed like Seattle police, who imposed a curfew and broke up protests with clubs, rubber bullets and tear gas. Hundreds of Seattle police, 200 National Guard troops and 600 state troopers were needed to restore order after rioting erupted. More than 580 protesters were arrested and about $10 million worth of property damage reported.
The World Bank protests provided a test for D.C. police officials, who said they had learned the lessons of the Seattle riots. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned in December, taking full responsibility for the violence that disrupted meetings of the World Trade Organization.
Police prevented protesters from using common building materials to form nearly impenetrable barriers in the streets, conducted a pre-emptive raid on the activists’ warehouse headquarters and arrested hundreds during a spontaneous rally the day before the main rallies were to begin Sunday.
In all, D.C. police arrested more than 1,200 protesters, about 150 of whom remain in custody in the D.C. Jail.
Chief Ramsey and Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer spent the better part of the week keeping their officers from being too aggressive and limiting the use of force. Officers used batons to push back crowds and let loose with pepper spray to clear streets and sidewalks when demonstrators refused to move.
“It was a great thing that they understood what we were doing and they had the discipline,” said Chief Ramsey, who often stood on the front lines with his officers and even arrested a protester himself.
He said he could not have gone to the barricades to defuse tensions between officers and demonstrators and Chief Gainer could not have negotiated a truce without the officers on the line having the discipline, trust and confidence in their leaders.
“It calmed them down,” Chief Ramsey said. “It relaxed them.”
The tactic of having Chief Gainer and himself walk between the officers and the demonstrators was the result of a “gut feeling,” he said, crediting Chief Gainer with negotiating a truce with the protesters.
Officer Kervin Johnson, assigned to the 7th Police District in Southeast, was among those holding the line at 20th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW Sunday when Chief Ramsey walked up to the barricades.
He was at the same place Monday when Chief Ramsey and Chief Gainer quieted the crowd and began negotiating a peaceful ending in which 400 activists allowed themselves to be arrested peacefully.
“They walked the line and they talked to us and the demonstrators,” said Officer Johnson. “They reassured us everything was OK.”
Chief Ramsey said the protests demonstrated how the Metropolitan Police Department can cooperate with other agencies, noting that 10 federal and local police agencies at the barricades followed the commands of the D.C. police.
The D.C. officers “are proud as a peacock,” Detective Frank Tracy, chairman of the MPD Fraternal Order of Police Labor Committee said. “These young folks are part of MPD history and they are riding high right now.”
D.C. Council member Harold P. Brazil, chairman of the council’s Judiciary Committee, said the police officers and officials should take a bow for their performance.
“Everyone was doing their jobs the little one and the big one,” said Mr. Brazil, at-large Democrat, adding that Chief Ramsey had to overcome huge problems to get to where he is today.
“It was difficult. It is a big bureaucracy,” Mr. Brazil said. “It is hard to change the policies and practices. I think they made a good showing.”
Chief Ramsey noted that the police department had been looked down on because of past mismanagement and scandals. He said now all officers, even those hired in 1989 and 1990 when background checks and training were lacking, have something to be proud of.
“Many of the men and women on that line were the class of ‘89 and ‘90. Most of them did a … good job. All those kind of [scandals] cause low self-esteem,” he said. “All it takes is a major event like this to bring it back.”
Chief Ramsey said he’s glad that other departments are asking him for help, rather than the other way around. “It does feel good.”