Charlotte OKs expansion of police powers during Democratic National Convention

The Charlotte ObserverJanuary 24, 2012 

In preparation for the Democratic National Convention, the Charlotte City Council voted 10-1 Monday night to approve new ordinances that will give police more power to stop and search people during the convention.

In addition, the new rules will prohibit camping on city property, a change that will keep Occupy Charlotte protesters from sleeping on the lawn at old City Hall.

The vote was met with shouts of "Shame!" from a packed council chamber, which prompted most of the council and Mayor Anthony Foxx to temporarily leave the dais. Protesters upset at the vote continued to shout chants, such as "Evict us, we multiply ... Occupy will never die," in the lobby of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

No arrests were reported.

The city has said the changes protect the First Amendment, though the American Civil Liberties Union has said some of the measures go too far, including giving the police power to arrest people carrying backpacks, satchels or coolers if they believe the items are being used to carry weapons.

Large protests - and some violence - have been common at political conventions, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they are trying to ensure they have enough power to keep people and property safe.

Council member David Howard, a Democrat, said he's an advocate of free speech, but wants to ensure that the police and public aren't harmed.

"I will support this," Howard said. "Safety comes first."

Michael J. Zytkow, who was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge during the public hearing for the ordinances two weeks ago, said Charlotteans will be "harassed for expressing themselves." He added the ordinances would "criminalize homelessness" because it will be illegal to sleep on city property.

The new ordinances could immediately affect Occupy Charlotte.

Since the fall, protesters have been staying on the old City Hall lawn, pitching tents and even creating a makeshift kitchen.

Under the new rules, protesters can stay on the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But they won't be allowed to sleep, or create any semi-permanent structures used for cooking food, sleeping or other living arrangements.

But there are still some gray areas. The city has said protesters can have tents or sun shades or other items to protect themselves from the weather - so long as they aren't used for "living accommodations."

In theory, that would allow Occupy Charlotte protesters to continue having tents or shelters that protect them from the weather - so long as no one is sleeping in or under them, or living in them.

Discussions likely

CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe said Monday the police will probably have "discussions with the group" before the new ordinances go into effect Jan. 30.

Council members also listed a number of prohibited items for the DNC.

People won't be allowed to carry items such as helmets and body armor; noxious substances; barricades, locks; pipes; mace or pepper spray; or other weapons.

In addition, the new ordinance prohibits people from carrying backpacks, satchels or coolers if police believe they are being used to carry weapons.

"They are frequently used to carry rocks and weapons," said CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, who is coordinating the police department's DNC response.

Medlock said during the 2008 DNC in Denver, some protesters would enter portable toilets and fill backpacks with feces, which were thrown at police.

The ACLU and others have been concerned that innocent people could be swept up in a police dragnet, such as people with bike helmets or people walking to work on Tryon Street with a briefcase. The ACLU has said the police can already stop someone if they have probable cause that a crime is taking place, and the group said it believes the ordinances are unnecessary.

Democrat John Autry, who was the one vote against the ordinances, asked how the CMPD officers would determine intent.

Medlock said CMPD will have extensive training, which will be required for anyone to work during the DNC.

The city also established what it calls an "affirmative defense." City Attorney Bob Hagemann said if someone is arrested for carrying a bike helmet or backpack, they would not be prosecuted if they show the item had a legitimate purpose.

Under the previous version of the ordinances, the new restrictions would have stayed in effect, even after the DNC.

The city has changed that. Now the restrictions take effect if the city manager declares an "extraordinary event."

The manager could in theory declare events like New Year's Eve and Speed Street as extraordinary events, giving police more leeway. Council members wouldn't have to approve the manager's designation as an extraordinary event.

The city also plans to have a designated parade route and a "free speech zone," or what the city is planning to call a "speaker's platform."

Place for protest

The speaker's platform will be a designated area with amplification equipment that will be set aside for people to protest. For both the parade route and the platform, the city has said it will hold a "content-neutral" lottery to issue permits.

That process has angered some protesters, who believe they are being shunted into one area. The city says people are still free to express themselves on any city sidewalk, just as they are today.

Hagemann has characterized the parade route as a place for large groups to march on city streets and the "free speech zone"/speaker's platform as an option.

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