G-20 summit: City could need 4,000 police officers

Civil rights groups concerned about size of presence

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

It will be the largest police presence on the streets of Pittsburgh in a generation.

Police Chief Nate Harper is hoping to have more than 4,000 officers on hand to provide security for the G-20 summit in September. But Pittsburgh's own police force has just 877 officers, meaning planners will have to look to dozens of other law enforcement agencies to put "boots on the ground" Downtown, where leaders from the world's 20 largest economic powers will gather.

The summit, scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, has attracted huge protests -- and clashes with police -- in other cities. About 10,000 officers were on duty for the London G-20 meeting in April.

The planning process in Pittsburgh is in its early stages. Last week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named the summit a "National Special Security Event," making the Secret Service the lead agency for coordinating preparations.

Still, Pittsburgh's rank-and-file officers will be at the center of crowd-control efforts, which the city's top public safety officials will organize.

In an interview last week, Chief Harper said Pittsburgh would seek help from police departments throughout Pennsylvania and "all major cities" in the United States. Pittsburgh officials also intend to contact state police in West Virginia, Maryland and New York.

Police brass have canceled days off for city officers during the week of the summit, unless those days already had been approved. Officials are still determining how to staff the city's six police stations to make sure all 911 calls are answered. One possibility is making officers work 12-hour instead of eight-hour shifts.

Pennsylvania State Police will send 400 troopers to the city, although that figure could change, said Maj. Terry Seilhamer, of the Butler barracks, one of the top state police commanders in the western part of the state.

"Right now, everything is up in the air," he said.

State police also will provide at least one special emergency response team and several helicopters.

Troopers will undergo refresher training for "riot formation." They already are equipped with helmets and batons, and their crowd-control supplies, such as tear gas, are stored at individual barracks and in a warehouse in Harrisburg.

Maj. Seilhamer said state police have an "excellent relationship" with the command staff of the Pittsburgh police bureau.

Pittsburgh officials also must find a place for out-of-town officers to sleep. Chief Harper said a building with a cafeteria, such as a former school, would be ideal.

The city has not yet purchased mass quantities of non- and less-lethal weapons, like "bean bag rounds," for the G-20.

"We're not going to be very forthcoming about what we're getting," said Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. "We're not going to telegraph what our capabilities are."

Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard, said there had not yet been any formal requests for troops. But the Guard is ready, he said.

"We continue to plan for possible missions for the G-20," he said. "What's great about the Guard is the sheer number of personnel -- boots on the ground."

More than 5,000 guardsmen are deployed, mostly in Iraq, but that leaves about 14,000 at home. Two large Guard units are located near Pittsburgh -- the 171st Air Refueling Wing, with 1,500 airmen, at Pittsburgh International Airport, and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, with 2,348 soldiers, in Washington, Pa.

The 2nd Brigade was involved with security for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. Guard members were used on "presence patrols," such as checkpoints on roadways. The Guard also has special units that can respond to threats of weapons of mass destruction.

It's unclear whether Guard members would be able to make arrests. In other situations, such as security checkpoints at Pennsylvania's airports after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Guardsmen would report suspicious activity to police.

Gov. Ed Rendell has broad powers over the deployment of the Guard, but his office declined to discuss specifics.

"We've been in conversations with the city about the meeting in general," said Chuck Ardo, Mr. Rendell's spokesman. "The governor is prepared to offer whatever assistance he can."

Warden Ramon Rustin, of the Allegheny County Jail, said his staff is working on a plan to deal with mass arrests. The jail now is nearly full, and a second holding site will be needed for the summit.

The specter of thousands of police officers and soldiers in Pittsburgh worries some free-speech advocates and members of groups that are planning to protest the economic policies of G-20 leaders.

"When you have reports of huge numbers of police coming in, it suggests they plan to cordon off much of Pittsburgh and prevent meaningful protest," said Jules Lobel, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "Hopefully, that's not what they're planning."

Mr. Lobel also is vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York group that was involved with lawsuits related to the 2004 Republican National Convention.

"There are certainly security concerns, but those concerns have to be balanced with First Amendment rights to protest," he said. "If there are law violators, the police ought to arrest them, but not arrest hundreds of other people."

Mr. Lobel will be working with Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and Michael Healey, a Pittsburgh lawyer with extensive experience in free speech cases, to make sure city officials don't try to keep protesters away from the Golden Triangle or follow the "kettling" practices of London police that involved keeping large groups of people confined in one area for hours.

"We will not be put in cages," said Carole Wiedmann, of the Thomas Merton Center's Anti-War Committee.

The center hosted a meeting yesterday at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside to discuss preparations for the G-20 among members of the city's social justice community.

Earlier this month, a group of 60 "anarchists, radicals and anti-authoritarians" gathered to launch the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project.

According to their Web site, resistG20.org, one goal is "to directly confront systems of oppression by advocating forms of resistance which maximize respect for life and oppressed peoples' rights, and construct local alternatives to global capitalism."

Preparations are also under way for "A People's Summit," on Sept. 21 and 22, with speeches and panel discussions related to the G-20. Paul Le Blanc, a professor of history at La Roche College, said organizers are still searching for a site.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said the board has been asking the police bureau for several years to put its crowd-control policies in writing.

Chief Harper said a written policy would be in place before the summit.

"For protesters, we have to make sure the message to them is, 'You're not the enemy,' " Ms. Pittinger said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the city. But it's going to be a huge challenge to pull it off peacefully and safely."

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?