A leader stands down

Opportunities are lost with Chief Lawrenson’s departure

December 28, 2000

When the half-page press release arrived by fax at the Independent last Friday informing us that Police Chief Pete Lawrenson was retiring at the end of December after more than 24 years with the Missoula Police Department, the news was sudden though not unexpected. Two weeks earlier the Citizens Review Committee had released its report about the events surrounding the Hells Angels national ride through Missoula in July, and while much of it praises Lawrenson and the Hells Angels Task Force for their professionalism in preparing for what could have been a destructive and even deadly ordeal, sections of it are sharply critical of some police policies and decisions.

Chief Lawrenson declined our offer to speak at length about the Hells Angels affair. His letter of resignation to Mayor Mike Kadas offers no explanation for his departure, leaving his personal reasons for retiring just that—personal. While I respect his choice to retire—he has earned it—the timing is unfortunate, and not only because Lawrenson will end a long and impressive career with the city on a bitter note. Undoubtedly there will be those who believe the police chief got a raw deal from the review committee, the media and the community at large, while others will say that his retirement amounts to sour grapes.

Whether such speculations are accurate or even fair is immaterial, since they overlook a more important consideration: The Missoula Police Department needs someone like Pete Lawrenson at its helm, not in spite of what happened in July, but because of it.

In the weeks following the Hells Angels affair, many discussions centered around the way the clashes between civilians and police were characterized: Lawrenson referred to “troop deployments,” “measured tactical responses,” and made an unfortunate comment about “the enemy within,” for which he eventually apologized. He explained that his use of military phraseology is simply a holdover from his military years and not, as some have suggested, a reflection of a growing militarization in the Missoula Police Department. Ironically, what many bystanders found so offensive about the police tactics in July was that their resemblance to martial law was so uncharacteristic of the Missoula Police, an observation that has spurred speculation about the role of federal and out-of-state law enforcement agencies.

Keep in mind, however, that the clashes in Missoula between police and protesters did not occur in a vacuum but are symptomatic of larger forces at work beyond the confines of our cozy little valley. You need not be a paranoid or a conspiracy nut to take notice of disturbing trends in law enforcement, many of which arose after last year’s World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Since then, our country has seen a resurgence in street demonstrations and civil disobedience unparalleled in the last 30 years. Many police departments have shown that they are physically equipped but psychologically unprepared to manage those events without resorting to tactics that threaten constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

For instance:

•During a May Day demonstration in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department locked 40 people on a bus and held them overnight in jail on trumped-up charges that were tossed out in court a few weeks later. According to the Aug. 3 Minneapolis Star Tribune, hundreds of heavily armed officers conducted random searches of protesters, introduced “agents provocateur” to stir up trouble in the crowd and snatched demonstration leaders off the street. Some designated observers from the National Lawyers Guild were jailed just for recording police badge numbers.

• During this summer’s Republican National Convention, the city of Philadelphia passed an ordinance prohibiting people from wearing masks. Entire city blocks were declared off-limits to protesters and police barricaded a warehouse rented by protesters to build street puppets for the demonstrations.

• In August during the Democratic National Convention, the Los Angeles Police Department fired rubber bullets repeatedly at television news crews for trying to videotape the actions of protesters. The LAPD also recorded the license plates of out-of-state vehicles at protesters’ headquarters and buzzed their building all night long with helicopters and spotlights.

These incidents, and dozens more like them, are becoming alarmingly commonplace. One need only attend one of Missoula’s almost nightly political forums or presentations to meet activists who have endured similar—or worse—treatment at the hands of police officers elsewhere.

With the exception of the Hells Angels affair, such trends have not caught on in Missoula, in large part because the Missoula Police Department—under the leadership of Pete Lawrenson— has established a different kind of relationship with the citizenry.

Unfortunately, the timing of Lawrenson’s departure could undermine the implementation of important policy reviews recommended in the committee’s report. Already, some members of City Council are challenging its conclusions. In a climate where critique is no longer differentiated from condemnation, they and other elected officials may be reluctant in the future to seek an independent appraisal of government actions, fearing that to do so will result in similar hard feelings.

One must also wonder how Lawrenson’s departure will be read by those who have served under him. It is possible that his officers will interpret the report and Lawrenson’s resignation as a “payback” for police behavior, that Missoula citizens are unappreciative of the work they do, and unforgiving to those who err by not foreseeing every possible outcome.

Political demonstrations will remain an integral part of life in Missoula. This city needs a police chief who can appreciate and respect that quality in its citizens and manage those events effectively but compassionately, by having learned the painful lessons of the past and taken them to heart. It’s too bad that Pete Lawrenson will not be around to show them how it’s done.

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