If last weekend was a “complete success,” we’d hate to see a failure

The people of Missoula should be ashamed of their local police this week, not only for their poor judgment and excessive use of force against citizens during the Hell's Angels visit last weekend, but also for the embarrassing attempt by Police Chief Pete Lawrenson to justify the actions of his men.

Says Lawrenson, “We accomplished our mission with total and complete success.”

The Hell’s Angels got to have a vacation get-together in Montana, spend a little money, drink a few beers and rile up the local yokels. Complete success.

The local police amassed an armed force of truly impressive size to deal with the Hell’s Angels. Two helicopters provided aerial surveillance while officers on the ground tirelessly shadowed the bikers. No Hell’s Angels were arrested during their stay. The cost of the massive law enforcement effort has been estimated at $125,000.

Complete success.

The police detained a group of Hell’s Angels looking for a man they believed to be wanted for murder. The man wasn’t with the group. Nor was he wanted for murder, or anything else for that matter. But the authorities didn’t get it straight until after they had defamed him in the local media.

Complete success.

As many as 200 protesters demonstrated outside City Hall Saturday evening against the massive presence of law enforcement deployed to deal with the Hell’s Angels. Dozens of the protesters were then arrested for marching through downtown streets. Local media captured images of an enraged police officer grabbing a protester’s sign and swinging it wildly, threatening to injure demonstrators.

One man arrested during the demonstration, Richard Wachs of Alberton, claims he was a bystander uninvolved in the protest. He reports being thrown on the hood of a patrol car, handcuffed, arrested, and held in jail for three hours without ever being charged. “By treating peaceful citizens with aggression and hostility, the police in fact guaranteed that conflict would occur,” Wachs said Monday.

Complete success.

The police provoked a confrontation with downtown crowds early Sunday morning, ordering them to disperse even though the people gathered posed only a vague threat to public safety and downtown property. Roughly 40 officers in full riot gear descended on the intersection of Front St. and Higgins Ave. at 3 a.m. after an ambulance was called to the scene to deal with an injury to one of the people in the crowd.

Complete success.

Forcing the crowds to disperse, police brandished clubs against unarmed citizens and attacked them with pepper spray, arbitrarily arresting some who didn’t flee. Many witnesses were shocked by the violent police tactics.

Complete success.

Police attacked and arrested members of the local media who were reporting on the melee that broke out Sunday morning. The police tackled and arrested a television cameraman from local station KPAX and used pepper spray on a Missoula Independent photographer.

Complete success.

Chief Lawrenson defended his department’s show of force this week by claiming that he’d received 40 supportive phone calls on Saturday. The chief thus attempted to turn an issue of public safety and civil rights into a popularity contest, divisively implying that citizens either support the police, or they don’t. Lawrenson ignored the fact that 200 protesters had picketed City Hall on Saturday evening.

Complete success.

In another misguided effort to spin the interpretation of events and restore his department’s reputation, Lawrenson claimed that some people made an organized effort to disrupt law enforcement activities during the weekend. But Lawrenson refused to comment on who the agitators were, nor did he offer any other information to support his accusation. Without stronger evidence to back the claim, we cannot help but wonder if the police are making it up.

Complete success.

Still another attempt by Lawrenson to bolster his credibility backfired when he misrepresented the disposition of the criminal cases resulting from the weekend arrests. He told the assembled media that most of those arrested had already admitted guilt. In fact, at the time Lawrenson made his statement, only a few of the defendants had entered guilty pleas. Lawrenson volunteered this misinformation without being asked, ineptly trying to justify the arrests.

Complete success.

During the last week, decisions made by the Missoula police have resulted in huge taxpayer expenses, large demonstrations of public opposition, violent confrontations between the authorities and citizens, a series of questionable statements from the police chief, and an atmosphere of hostility and distrust toward local law enforcement unprecedented in recent memory.

To his shame, Police Chief Lawrenson has chosen to rationalize his department’s actions and cast aspersions on potential detractors, rather than acknowledge that concerned citizens might reasonably disagree with police tactics. Lawrenson’s uncompromising defense of his department promises to polarize the community into police supporters and police opponents.

We shouldn’t tolerate it. We should be able to rely on a police force that ensures public safety without trampling civil rights. And we should absolutely insist upon convincing explanations from the people in charge.

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