[author: Courtney Sherwood]
A group of Occupy Wall Street protesters who were arrested and accused of forcing cops to spend thousands of dollars on unnecessary overtime has been at least partially vindicated.
Of 47 protesters who were arrested during a 2011 Phoenix, Ariz., march, every person who fought back has had the charges dropped as of this month, according to David A. Black, a criminal defense lawyer who represented one of the defendants. Black’s review of Phoenix police spending also suggests that law enforcement officials may have overestimated the cost of keeping order during three days of protesting – or else considerably overpaid themselves.
The conflict started in October 2011, when Occupy groups across the country were staging protests against income inequality and corporate influence over government. In Phoenix, local media estimate that close to 1,000 people marched on Oct. 14. By the end of the day, about 50 protesters remained – in violation of a city park curfew, according to police. They were given until just after midnight Oct. 16 to disperse, and the 45 people who refused to go were arrested on trespassing charges.
Some 25 arrested protesters opted to plead guilty to low-level charges, presumably to save on legal fees and avoid future jail time. But another 20 fought back, with the support of 17 defense attorneys, including Black, who volunteered their time at no cost to the accused. Those who fought back came to be known as “The Phoenix 20.”
Five months later, Phoenix City Prosecutor Aaron J. Carreon-Ainsa opted to let them go.
“This country was founded on protest,” Carreon-Ainsa wrote in his motion to dismiss the charges. He said he did believe that protesters should not have been in the park after hours, but cited America’s long history of protests, going back to before the founding of the U.S., concluding that “protest is part of the fabric of our nation.”
Attorney Black applauded the prosecutor’s decision, but has continued to question law enforcement’s handling of the situation.
“We also shouldn’t forget about the dozens of people who pled guilty to charges, people who were punished for the same thing the Phoenix 20 were exonerated from,” Black said. And several protesters are unhappy with Carreon-Ainsa’s insistence that it is legal to limit protests on public property after certain hours, he said.
The True Cost of Protests
Black is also among those questioning the Phoenix Police Department’s claims about how much it cost to patrol the October protests.
Initially, police estimated that they spent $204,162 on overtime, but a police spokesman later revised the cost of keeping order to about $181,250 from Oct. 14-16. Black estimates that about $20,000 went toward a police raid on the first night of the demonstration. If the police department paid the remaining $160,000 in overtime payments to 20 officers, sergeants and lieutenants who supervised the protest over that three-day period, those cops would have each been paid $8,000 – enough to cover 133 hours of work – even though they were on the scene for only 72 hours, and even though fewer than 50 people remained after the first day’s march.
Phoenix police have not clarified their statements about overtime spending.
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