NEW YORK (Reuters) - After a rough start marked by mass arrests and allegations of heavy-handed behavior, the New York Police Department has settled into an uneasy standoff with the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.
Officers say they are frustrated by people they think are willfully flouting the law — protesters marching without permits, erecting tents, breaking noise and curfew regulations, publicly defecating and so on. Meanwhile, protesters say the cops should be with them, not against them, in their fight.
Five weeks after the first protest in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, a nervous stalemate has evolved as the movement mushroomed and drew the world’s scrutiny.
Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association of the NYPD and a 30-year veteran of the force, finds the mixed messages from above frustrating. “At times we don’t have to - or they don’t want us to - do things, and at times they do want us to do things. There’s no real clear message as to what right and wrong is,” he said. “In many ways we are almost the pawns in this situation.”
The early days of the protest, which routinely draws at least a few hundred people, were marked by more contentious relations. There was a high-profile incident of an occupier being pepper-sprayed by a senior officer, who has since been disciplined. On October 1, more than 700 people were arrested after a march on the Brooklyn Bridge; many accused the police of entrapping them.
Paul Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, was widely quoted after those arrests saying the protesters had been given ample warning to get off the bridge’s roadway before being detained.
Browne did not return phone calls or emails over the course of a week seeking comment on the police’s relations with the protesters or its tactics in dealing with the movement.
But as the Occupy Wall Street protests have grown larger and drawn more attention, the tone of relations has changed.
When a group of protesters was arrested in Washington Square Park in Manhattan early on October 16 for an act of civil disobedience - failing to obey a midnight curfew - the atmosphere, by all accounts, was relatively calm.
A branch movement has even popped up - OccupyPolice - to try and convince officers to join the protests. Its website lists contact information for police departments and attorneys general nationwide to further the effort.
The police are also under pressure because they know they are potentially on film at all times. The overwhelming majority of demonstrators have smartphones, and many have handheld cameras as well, such that anything the police do, day or night, can be captured from multiple angles.
One expert on policing policy said the constant scrutiny by protesters and the media had a clear effect.
“Police departments around the country and the world, and that includes the NYPD ... are very much concerned with visible accountability,” said Maki Haberfeld, the chairwoman of the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Still, she said that despite the presence of cameras “you cannot demand of police officers that they perform their duties in an emotionless manner.”
One officer who has become something of a media darling over the course of the protests said there was an unease between the sides but behind that there was also dialogue.
“There’s mistrust on their end, there’s mistrust on our end, but we’re trying to maintain a relationship,” said Detective Rick Lee, a non-uniformed officer who has been dubbed the “hipster cop” by a number of websites for his trendy dress and ongoing dialogue with the protesters.
Some protesters are willing to concede that not all the police guarding them are against them.
“They’re asking people questions, they’re intrigued, they want to know,” said protester Andrew Carbone of Brooklyn. “The cops, you see them a lot of times smiling, laughing at stuff.”
In keeping with the core role social media plays in the Occupy movement, a Twitter account has popped up, @OccupyArrests, to keep a running count of those who have been arrested for participating in some capacity. As of Monday afternoon, the account tallied 2,382 arrests worldwide, though that figure is not independently verified.
Fears of a crackdown have spawned parody. A Facebook page called “Occupy Lego Land,” urging peaceful protests by the popular children’s’ toys, carried pictures of toy police roughing up toy protesters during a “demonstration.”
Joke or not, cops chafe at such images.
“If anything rankles a police officer it’s that kind of stuff, it’s the kind of stuff that makes the cops look like they’re out of control,” said one retired police official now involved with an association of officers.
The protesters tell police they too are “the 99 percent” — working and middle-class Americans who struggle to pay bills and chafe at the inequities in the financial system.
For the dozens of cops circling the park, who spend most days doing little more than standing cross-armed and staring at the crowd, there is some financial upside.
“There’s so much of this stuff going on, our guys tend to look at it as ‘great I’ll get some overtime,’” the retired official said.
Reporting by Ben Berkowitz, editing by Martin Howell