Eyes of the Beholder 

Lawrenson testifies before police review panel

A definitive work remains to be written on the cultural phenomenon of why public attitudes toward police officers differ so starkly from those of others entrusted with safeguarding life and property. You won’t find many books, movies or prime-time dramas steering your sympathies toward the fire and against the firefighter, or leave you rooting for the natural disaster over the paramedic. But the police officer is far and away the most likely character to be assassinated by negative media portrayals.

The reasons are as numerous as they are deeply ingrained in our collective psyche: the 1950s black-and-white films of Birmingham cops unleashing attack dogs on civil rights protesters, the video images of the Rodney King beating, the WTO protests in Seattle, or the speeding ticket you landed once for driving 57 mph in a 55 mph zone. Whatever the reason, there’s a rich American tradition of cheering for the bad boys and raging against The Man.

This is worth keeping in mind as Police Chief Pete Lawrenson explains and defends his officers’ actions to the independent review committee looking into the events surrounding the Hell’s Angels July visit to Missoula. This phenomenon not only shaped public attitudes toward the heightened police presence in town, but also affected the police response and their subsequent perception of those events.

Thus far, some of those perceptions have found a voice in the prevalence of military jargon characterizing the week: the movement of “troops,” the presence of “outside agitators” and “the enemy within.” Granted, Lawrenson served five years in the military and may be justified when he says, “I’m not trying to put a military swing on things. I just have never broken my connection with the military.”

But military phraseology creates a distinct impression in the mind of the listener, namely, that of a police force and a city under siege, coping with extraordinary circumstances under extreme duress. Now, whether you believe that the siege persona is simply a byproduct of the law enforcement mindset or a deliberate attempt to put a favorable spin on the facts will likely depend upon your level of cynicism, and your overall attitude towards the police.

For their part, the Missoula PD had evidence to justify a siege mentality. In addition to the months of media buzz and intelligence work highlighting the long and sordid history of the Hell’s Angels, what came to light this week were other threats to public safety, both real and otherwise.

For example, Lawrenson testified Monday about an intelligence report received in July out of Houston that some 70 members of the rival Bandidos motorcycle gang had left town en masse to points unknown. Likewise, a July 30 report mentions a conversation overhead in a bar about a pipe bomb reportedly planted to “kill some cops.” Another anonymous caller says that the police were “going to see something they’ve never seen before.” All of these incidents later proved unfounded or irrelevant but demanded a police response nonetheless.

But amid the tales of unidentified personnel on downtown rooftops and the nonexistent homicide suspect en route from Canada, other details crept into the testimony to reinforce the state of siege, both from without and from within. Lawrenson notes that as early as July 25 citizens were cheering the Hell’s Angels but “giving the finger” to the cops who were following them. Likewise, he suggests that the Utah police—who were widely criticized by many on the streets that weekend for being arrogant, insensitive or overly aggressive—were in fact singled out by citizens early on and called “Mormon Nazis.” Factor in the intense heat, stress and exhaustion, and the image of a besieged police force begins to take shape.

At times, however, the testimony becomes inconsistent. For example, Lawrenson rebukes the media for repeatedly misstating the number of arrests throughout the weekend, saying at one point, “This was not a mass arrest situation.” However, when asked by committee member Sherri Matteucci whether his officers had provided decontamination to individuals who had been pepper-sprayed, or whether each officer had written the requisite report after discharging an OC-10 canister, Lawrenson says no, blaming “a situation of extraordinary proportions, in that it was a mass-arrest situation.” Why decontamination measures were not foreseen or taken later at the detention facility was never addressed.

At one point Lawrenson observes that the strategy of pulling officers off the scene had been effective on Friday night, noting that, “The more often police respond, the more agitated the crowd gets.” Yet when asked by committee member Anita Doyle if officers receive training on the psychological effect of riot gear on crowds, Lawrenson said, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” Clearly, one must assume that police in riot gear would have a similar, if not amplified, effect.

Likewise, Lawrenson acknowledges that the video footage of Missoula Officer Dustin Delridge tearing a sign from a protester’s hands was “quite aggressive,” but he defends the behavior by saying that the sign could have been used as a weapon. As committee member Larry Howel later notes, “Isn’t that true in any sort of protest, that a sign can be used as a weapon?”

When asked whether riot gear reduces the threshold for aggressive behavior among officers, Lawrenson answers, “I don’t think there’s a change in their mental process.” It’s a curious response, considering that most football players would say otherwise, that when the pads and helmets go on for the big game, the intensity level rises. The same, I imagine, holds true for most soldiers in a state of siege.

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