By Mary Slosson
(Reuters) - Oakland's Police Department will significantly change how it trains officers to control large crowds following criticism over its practices during anti-Wall Street protests last year that sometimes erupted into violence, the department said on Monday.
"It is our duty to protect public safety and at the same time balance the free speech rights of individual protesters with the rights of non-protesting residents," Police Chief Howard Jordan said in a statement.
"In the few individual cases of alleged and known police misconduct, I have acted quickly to investigate and hold officers accountable," he said.
Oakland's police practices came under intense scrutiny last year when a former Marine and Iraq war veteran, Scott Olsen, was critically injured during a demonstration in October. Protesters said he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister but authorities have never said exactly how he was hurt.
Olsen's case reinvigorated the Occupy movement against economic inequality, and the confrontations with police in subsequent protests turned Oakland into a focal point for the movement as demonstrators rallied against what they described as police brutality.
An outside investigator hired by the City of Oakland has been looking into how the department handled the Occupy movement since December, police said, in addition to a separate review by a federal monitor.
Police will also assign more manpower to investigations into complaints about excessive use of force, which spiked during the duration of the Occupy Oakland movement.
In a given year, the department receives a total of roughly 1,000 use of force complaints, according to City of Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd. That number jumped, with around 1,000 such complaints related just to the Occupy movement alone, she said.
"When it's clear that we can do things better, we're going to do things better," Boyd said.
The department last revised its crowd control policies 10 years ago, according to Boyd, who added that Jordan became police chief within a week of the first Occupy tents appearing in the park in front of Oakland City Hall.
The Occupy movement, which set up camp in New York on September 17 and sparked a wave of protests across the United States, appeared to lose momentum late last year as police cleared protest camps in several cities.
But in January, Occupy protests in Oakland again led to confrontations, with police firing tear gas into a chaotic crowd of protesters who were attempting to barge into a convention center. That demonstration resulted in 408 arrests, police said.
In coordination with Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Police Chief Jordan formed a community advisory working group to look at the department's past crowd-control behavior, and pledged to train every officer in media relations and First Amendment law by the end of April.
""We are building a new police department with stronger ties to the community," Quan said in a statement. "Our interactions with demonstrators and the community have already changed. This commitment to accountability is critical to build the trust necessary for real community policing."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)