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Police union questions why Pa. officers weren’t in riot gear at Trump protests

The president said his officers were denied the protective gear

By Dan Majors
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — The president of Pittsburgh’s Fraternal Order of Police on Monday said a command decision preventing officers from wearing riot gear during Donald Trump’s appearances in town last week exposed them to danger.

Police Officer Bob Swartzwelder, who was sworn in as FOP president last month, said his officers were denied the protective gear — helmets, face shields and body padding — while Allegheny County police officers, who were also present, were fully equipped.

“We have the gear, it just wasn’t allowed to be worn,” Officer Swartzwelder said. “Some high-level person made a command decision that it wasn’t going to be worn. Uniforms, your equipment, your formations, those are all command decisions. And my officers are concerned about it.”

Officer Swartzwelder said he had asked the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to include at least one member of the FOP’s safety committee in the “after-event review,” which is to begin today.

A public safety spokeswoman said the review will take some time and it would be inappropriate to answer questions regarding the event until it is concluded.

Thousands of people supporting the Republican presidential campaign of Mr. Trump turned out for events Wednesday at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Hundreds of protesters converged on the sites and marched between them, often confronting the Trump supporters.

More than two dozen police officers created a line to separate chanting protesters from those waiting in line to enter the convention center to hear Mr. Trump. Officer Swartzwelder said there were potentially dangerous situations that were not reported by the media coverage of the events.

“The concern I have is First Amendment protections, to protect all the people that have different opinions,” said Officer Swartzwelder. “As long as it’s peaceful and organized, we allow that to occur. People are allowed to assemble. In this instance, people were permitted to violate the law.

“Police officers were placed in the middle of this political mess. Other groups get a permit and a place to protest. That’s not what happened here. People took to the streets, blocked traffic and interfered with people trying to go into the convention center. Would we have let them do that with the auto show or the home show? But we allow it outside a political forum and the police are placed in the middle of this.

“We were told to bring all the gear to the scene. But then we weren’t allowed to wear it.”

Officer Swartzwelder, who was on duty at the Consol Energy Center for that evening’s playoff game between the Penguins and the New York Rangers, said he did not know who made the decision, but he said he believed it was made at the scene.

“When police stand there with all that gear on, it sort of sends a message,” he said. “That if you decide to start throwing stuff or spraying people in the face with pepper spray, they will respond. We had hundreds of officers wearing gear at the G-20 [Summit in 2009] and the protesters didn’t intermingle.

“I’ve been in full riot gear and people just wandered on by. It’s just protective gear and people nowadays are used to that. What they judge is police officer actions, not their gear. We were in riot gear for hours at G-20.”

He noted that other cities had experienced problems during Trump rallies and Pittsburgh officials should have learned from those situations.

“Now, I hope the command review will result in improvements, so officers won’t be placed in any more dangerous situations,” he said.

Copyright 2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette