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Providence Police Obtain Training Funds on Breaking Up “Civil Actions,” ACLU Finds

Posted: December 20, 2004|Category: Free Speech Category: Right to Petition & Protest

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Calling it a “a dubious setting of priorities, a potential blueprint for the violation of peaceful protesters’ free speech rights, and a questionable use of taxpayer money,” the R.I. ACLU today revealed that the City of Providence obtained over $100,000 of FY2004 federal homeland security money – almost 25% of the funds earmarked to the police department – for police officers to attend a training on how to handle protests and broadly-defined “civil actions” that arise out of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) incident. Among other things, the course “provides law enforcement officers with the skills and tactics necessary to prepare for and successfully mitigate protesters and their devices.” A catalog for the course further explains: “Civil actions in threat incidents are known by a variety of names: riots, civil disturbances, or protests. From a small, peaceful assembly to a large out-of-control violent confrontation, public safety officials must be prepared to handle the incident.”

R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown issued the following statement in releasing the documents: “Of all the training courses available to police to deal with the horror of another terrorist incident, it is troubling, to say the least, to see Providence Police choosing this one. It represents a dubious setting of priorities, a potential blueprint for the violation of peaceful protesters’ free speech rights, and a questionable use of taxpayer money.

“The fact is, there is nothing for police ‘to handle’ should ‘a small, peaceful assembly’ occur. And if a WMD incident takes place, protesters are the last thing that the police should be worried about handling. It is thus virtually certain that the training gleaned from this course will not be used in a WMD incident; instead, it will likely be used at the next large-scale protest that takes place in the City. First Amendment freedoms will almost assuredly suffer, just as we saw happen earlier this year when, in the guise of protecting us from terrorism, protesters in Boston at the Democratic National Convention were confined to a fenced-in enclosure topped by razor wire. Although the course supposedly also offers training to ‘identify and protect rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment,’ the very fact that the course lumps together ‘riots, civil disturbances and protest’ is cause for alarm. This is just the latest instance of the government, using the rallying cry of ‘homeland security,’ focusing inappropriately on everyday citizens instead of on actual threats to our safety.

“Providence has gone down this path before. In the 1980’s, the Police Department established a Terrorist-Extremist Suppression Team. Although formed in response to incidents of alleged neo-Nazi vandalism, the Team’s first arrestee was the leader of a small left-wing group called the Proletarian Warriors, who was harassed so often that the ACLU had to go to court on his behalf to seek judicial relief.

“We wholeheartedly agree that police could benefit from all sorts of training opportunities in the post-9/11 era. This particular course may have been chosen with the best of intentions. However, if Providence or other municipalities have no better use for homeland security funds than to learn how to ‘handle’ future Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, they should turn the money away. Robust freedom of speech is even more urgent, not less, in times of crisis.” Department of Homeland Security-sponsored courses on radiological and nuclear threats, biological incidents, and suicide bombing were among those that the police department passed up in favor of the course on “managing civil actions.”

The ACLU learned about the training programs through an open records request to the state Emergency Management Agency, seeking information about the federal homeland security funding for which Rhode Island municipalities had applied. The ACLU has today also filed an open records request with the Police Department, seeking copies of any handbooks, manuals or other documents relating to the training.

Virtually all of the other funding received by the Providence police department in FY2004 was spent on another course, called the WMD Awareness Training Initiative, which taught officers such things as “understand[ing] the differences between terrorism, domestic terrorism, right-wing terrorism, left-wing terrorism, special interest terrorism, international terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism.”

A copy of the Police Department's training proposal, and a page from the course catalog describing the program are available here

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