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Examining the police response to the pro-Palestinian college protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The police clearing college campuses of protesters are doing their jobs under intense scrutiny.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The authorities have arrested more than a thousand people over the last two weeks, including dozens in the last few hours at UCLA in California, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and at Stony Brook on New York's Long Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No more money for Israel's crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No more money for Israel's crimes.

MARTIN: In what may be the most prominent case, police cleared protesters from a building at Columbia University in New York.

INSKEEP: The Columbia protesters against Israel's war in Gaza have made frequent references to protests from 1968 - one of many past years when police confronted demonstrators. So what has law enforcement learned from all that experience? NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste is with us. Martin, good morning.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So when do police go onto campuses?

KASTE: Well, this isn't following a single script around the country. It kind of depends on the location. In New York, for example, NYPD has gone out of its way to tell everyone that it's going in when the universities call them in. At the University of Texas, though, it's kind of a contrast. The state troopers have the support there of Governor Greg Abbott, who's been quite vocal about the need for police there. Generally speaking, though, I think what we can say here is these police departments are definitely waiting for someone else to tell them to go in.

INSKEEP: Once they have the request, what tactics do they use?

KASTE: Well, again, here, it varies. The lay of the land matters a lot. If it's tents in an outdoor area, the police have a lot more leeway to arrest people peacefully if people want to give themselves up peacefully or vacate the premises. If you have groups fighting each other, though, as we saw at UCLA early yesterday morning - there's this video that The Associated Press has.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS CLANGING)

KASTE: That kind of a fight calls for cops to be more aggressive. Then you have the striking image of Hamilton Hall in Columbia, which was a very specific tactical situation 'cause it's a building in which the protesters had barricaded doorways with big piles of furniture.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

KASTE: They brought this giant truck in with the elevated ramp and went in a second-story window. People watching that kind of expressed shock at the scale of that operation and the number of officers who were involved in this. But lots of officers is something police say is important for safety here. Russ Hicks, a longtime police academy trainer in Washington state, told me that more officers on the scene is actually safer, both for the law enforcement and for the protesters.

RUSS HICKS: What you don't want is a handful of five officers managing a large crowd because that's when things get out of control. Those are the videos that, you know, stick in people's minds. You know, there's these officers maybe using too much force because they don't have enough people.

INSKEEP: This was one of the first things that came to my mind when I heard about the massive presence at places like Columbia. It may be safer if done properly. How have their tactics changed over the years?

KASTE: Well, I think, in the case of Columbia, for instance, the police action in '68 was just more chaotic. There was tear gas. More than a hundred students were injured. One officer suffered a broken back. Operations today tend to be a little more planned, more disciplined. And I talked about some of these differences with Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum. He thinks that, in most cases today, protesters are getting more careful treatment by the police.

CHUCK WEXLER: They're given warnings - you know, given the opportunity to leave. Generally speaking, there's been a lot of lessons from the '60s and '70s, but most recently from the summer of 2020, of how you diffuse demonstrations that are illegal.

INSKEEP: Hasn't there been some violence anyway, Martin?

KASTE: Oh, for sure. I mean, we've seen people tackled to the ground. There have been reports of injuries. That police trainer we heard from a little bit ago, Russ Hicks - he says he's been watching some of the coverage of what's going on. He's definitely seen cops losing their cool in a way that a trainer would not want to see. And the police are definitely sounding more willing to get into the fray now. The NYPD put out sort of a triumphant video after the operation at Columbia with kind of dramatic music. And it ends with this stark warning for protesters. In the video there, they say, if protesters try this kind of thing again, they will be extracted and taken to jail.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Martin Kaste. Thanks for the insights.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.