Busy year for protests could cost city millions

Pay­ing po­lice over­time is big­gest ex­pense

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY BEN NUCKOLS

The ma­jor protests in Washington that have greeted Pres­i­dent Trump’s first year in of­fice are set to re­turn in force, con­tin­u­ing an al­ready ex­pen­sive year for city of­fi­cials who work to keep people safe dur­ing mass gath­er­ings. With polls show­ing Mr. Trump fac­ing unusu­ally strong dis­ap­proval of his agenda in the first 100 days of a pres­i­dency, or­ga­niz­ers are promis­ing spring ral­lies for a va­ri­ety of mostly lib­eral causes in­clud­ing: sci­ence, cli­mate change, im­mi­grants’ rights, gay rights and arts fund­ing.

D.C. of­fi­cials are ac­cus­tomed to ac­com­mo­dat­ing First Amend­ment demon­stra­tions. But there’s a real chance the city will burn through the money it gets ev­ery year from Congress to cover po­lice over­time and other costs.

The busy year for protests also comes amid an on­go­ing de­bate about crowd sizes and how they’re es­ti­mated, which is noth­ing new. The Na­tional Park Ser­vice stopped count­ing crowds af­ter it was ac­cused of racism for es­ti­mat­ing that 400,000 people at­tended the Mil­lion Man March in 1995.

But Mr. Trump has been par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on how many people show up at events to sup­port him and his agenda.

For lo­cal law en­force­ment, re­spond­ing to protests is usu­ally no big deal. The vi­o­lence around Mr. Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, when a group of self-de­scribed an­ar­chists broke win­dows at down­town busi­nesses and set fire to a limou­sine, was un­usual and led to hun­dreds of ar­rests.

With rou­tine demon­stra­tions, po­lice take a hand­soff ap­proach, even when groups don’t get per­mits, block traf­fic or com­mit other civil dis­obe­di­ence. No one was ar­rested dur­ing the Women’s March on Washington, which drew hun­dreds of thou­sands of people the day af­ter Mr. Trump was sworn in, mak­ing it one of the largest demon­stra­tions in the city’s his­tory.

“It’s the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. It’s where people come to voice their griev­ances with the govern­ment,” Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Chief Peter New­sham said. “We wel­come that.”

The bean-count­ing, han­dled by the city’s home­land se­cu­rity depart­ment, is the tough part. Congress sets aside money ev­ery year to re­im­burse the city for the cost of First Amend­ment ac­tiv­i­ties.

That num­ber fluc­tu­ates yearly, but it is usu­ally around $15 mil­lion, said Christo­pher Gel­dart, the city’s former home­land se­cu­rity di­rec­tor, in an in­ter­view be­fore he stepped down in early April. Some­times the city spends more, and some­times less, but in gen­eral the ap­pro­pri­a­tion isn’t too far off, and if it’s too much, the money rolls over to the fol­low­ing year.

The big­gest cost is po­lice over­time; the depart­ment pays of­fi­cers ex­tra to staff demon­stra­tions so it’s not tak­ing any­one off reg­u­lar pa­trol. For the cur­rent fis­cal year, Congress has set aside $14.9 mil­lion to re­im­burse the city, and $3.8 mil­lion of that had al­ready been spent by Jan. 1, which doesn’t in­clude the Women’s March.

The city also is still seek­ing re­im­burse­ment for what it spent on the in­au­gu­ra­tion. While Congress al­lo­cated $19.9 mil­lion, the city spent more than $30 mil­lion.

By con­trast, Congress gave $50 mil­lion to the cities that hosted last year’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions — much smaller events than the in­au­gu­ra­tion that at­tract a frac­tion of the crowd.

Mr. Gel­dart said that if Congress makes the District whole for the in­au­gu­ra­tion, there should be enough to pay for the Women’s March and all the other planned demon­stra­tions. But there’s no guar­an­tee they’ll be suc­cess­ful with a Repub­li­can Congress.

It’s also un­clear which protests will gather mo­men­tum. City of­fi­cials track bus, train, air and ho­tel book­ings to get a sense of what to ex­pect.

For the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, demon­stra­tions are a mixed bag, said Elliott Fer­gu­son, who heads Des­ti­na­tion D.C., the city’s tourism bureau. On one hand, the crowds spend money at hotels and restau­rants while they’re in town. But in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors also could be turned off if they per­ceive Washington as a cal­dron of dis­sent.

“If you’re march­ing for im­mi­gra­tion rights or what­ever the case is, and it’s tied to Washington, then it be­comes, ‘All bad things hap­pen in Washington, D.C.,’” Mr. Fer­gu­son said.

“If you’re march­ing for im­mi­gra­tion rights or what­ever the case is, and it’s tied to Washington, then it be­comes, ‘All bad things hap­pen in Washington.”

— Elliott Fer­gu­son, Des­ti­na­tion D.C.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Women’s March on Jan. 21 drew thou­sands of pro­test­ers. The ma­jor protests in Washington that have sprung up since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary are con­tin­u­ing an al­ready ex­pen­sive year for city of­fi­cials.

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