Bike cops better than snipers for crowd control

Posted: August 15, 2014

COUNTLESS PEOPLE have hoisted signs and chanted slogans at the top of their lungs on the streets of Philadelphia in recent years.

Their causes have varied - covering everything from income inequality to environmental concerns to overseas conflicts - but protesters in this city have all shared one thing in common: They didn't have to gag on billowing plumes of tear gas, or dodge rubber bullets that were fired by cops clad in military gear.

Much of the world has watched in horror as protesters and reporters in the small town of Ferguson, Mo., have been met with those nightmarish conditions in the wake of a recent police-involved shooting that claimed the life of an unarmed, college-bound teen named Michael Brown.

Many have taken to social media to decry the militarized show of force that has confronted residents of Ferguson - the imposing armored vehicles, the snipers who trained rifles on unarmed civilians, the weaponry and gear that seem made for war.

Interestingly, those images haven't been a part of recent demonstrations in Philly, not even during the sprawling Occupy Philly protests that took over Dilworth Plaza for two months in 2011.

For one thing, the Philadelphia Police Department prefers to rely on bike cops and open lines of communication when dealing with crowds of protesters, police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan said.

"Once you start pulling weapons out, it's already lost," he said.

"I'm not trying to compare Occupy Philly to Ferguson, but they were here for 56 days. They had 42 marches, and we made 115 arrests.

"We didn't use [pepper] spray or tear gas. We used the bike cops to keep everyone moving along, and we kept communicating with [Occupy's] leaders," said Sullivan, who oversees Homeland Security and the SWAT Unit.

But the department has also opted against splurging on sleek-looking military surplus equipment and vehicles.

"It sounds nice, but it's just not cost-effective," Sullivan said of retrofitting military vehicles for police use.

The department owns two armored vehicles, which were purchased several years ago from a civilian company. The vehicles are supposed to be used to ferry cops into and out of dangerous situations.

"We don't have any surprises. We can't shoot down any planes," Sullivan said.

"We get a better bang for our buck by spending money on things like training our officers and paramedics on how to respond to active-shooter situations."

On Twitter: @dgambacorta

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