- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey yesterday said his department has made some mistakes in handling large-scale protests, but he denied trying to limit free-speech rights with a mass arrest during a demonstration at Pershing Park last year.

“There was no conspiracy to try to violate anyone’s rights in any manner, way, shape or form,” the chief said during a D.C. Council hearing. “We’re certainly not saying that we did anything that actually violated rights. We made mistakes, but no one acted in anything other than good faith.”

Chief Ramsey spoke after more than four hours of testimony during the second day of a two-day hearing by Council member Kathy Patterson on police practices during demonstrations. Mrs. Patterson, a Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Council’s Judiciary Committee, said she held the hearings as part of a larger, national debate over protecting civil liberties while ensuring public safety.

“My own view is that the scales have tipped away from free speech,” she said.

Much of the discussion focused on antiglobalization protests in April 2000 and September 2002. Protesters complained that undercover officers infiltrated public and private protest meetings and that undercover officers encouraged demonstrators to commit illegal acts so that they could be arrested.

Chief Ramsey said officers did not bait the demonstrators, and he made no apologies for using undercover officers to gather intelligence on demonstrations.

During the 2002 protests, police arrested about 400 protesters who were demonstrating without a permit, and a dozen or so bystanders were caught up in the sweep.

Chief Ramsey said there have been 1,553 different demonstrations in the city since April 2000, and about 80 percent of those have been unpermitted.

He said the difference is that protesters in September 2002 had vowed to “shut down the city” and used a Web site to post details of a “scavenger hunt” in which points would be given for destructive acts.

The chief said he had no choice but to take those claims seriously, and he accused some Council members of siding too quickly with the protesters in their claims of being denied their free-speech rights.

“If I have one disappointment, it’s in the fact that there seems to be a preconceived notion on the part of some members that that is the case,” he said. “And I was hoping there would be a fair and objective look at the case and let the cards fall where they may.”

Chief Ramsey said that while police did nothing illegal in arresting the demonstrators, some policies have been adjusted to prevent misunderstandings.

For example, he said the mass-demonstration handbook has been rewritten and all command-level officers now carry a bullhorn in the trunks of their cars.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams said Wednesday that he supports the right to peaceful assembly but sees the need to balance “openness and order.”

“I think by and large the chief has struck the right balance,” Mr. Williams said.

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