Police officers in Boston are equipped with batons, thick SWAT vests, and heavy shields.
The Cambridge Police Department has a tactical team, and trucks painted in green camouflage.
But when protesters blocked off Harvard Square earlier this month and students cut class Tuesday to descend on Downtown Crossing, police in both cities donned only their regular uniforms and neon vests, not shields and helmets, and wove through the crowds on foot and on bicycles, not in armored vehicles.
“If you look like you’re ready for a fight with all the gear and everything, you’re going to get one,” said Boston Police Commissioner William Evans. “Throughout meetings and roll calls, we set the tone where we’re going to use as much restraint as possible.”
Nationwide, thousands of people have taken to city streets to protest their anger over the deaths of unarmed black men, and a 12-year-old in Cleveland, at the hands of police. The images of officers in riot gear using tear gas in Ferguson, Mo., have raised questions about whether local police departments are too militarized and too quick to respond with a heavy hand.
But in Boston and Cambridge, where college and high school students have engaged in protests that show no sign of abating, police commanders said they have stressed patience to officers on the street.
In Cambridge, three massive protests have brought traffic to a standstill and hundreds of demonstrators into busy squares. But police, who have spent $15,000 on overtime to control the crowds, have refrained from donning thick, black helmets worn by police in other cities and have made no arrests.
“It’s part of the strategy,” said Cambridge police spokesman Jeremy Warnick. “That [gear] can be kind of imposing and there is a message that can be sent. We’re conscious of that.”
Over the weekend, 1,000 people marched through downtown Boston, but city police made no arrests, even after one demonstrator shoved an officer off his bike.
By contrast, State Police wielded batons, wore helmets, and arrested 23 people who they said tried to break a line of troopers guarding the entry ramp to Storrow Drive.
Colonel Timothy Alben, superintendent of the State Police, said he agrees with the Boston police strategy to leave alone protesters who stage “die-ins” or simply march in the street.
“I think that’s all pretty harmless stuff,” Alben said.
But when protesters began trying to push past troopers onto Leverett Circle, troopers had no choice but to make arrests, Alben said.
“Those interstates are very, very dangerous places,” he said. “If the crowd hadn’t tried to break the line, there wouldn’t have been anyone arrested.”
The sight of batons and helmets, which State Police have worn during recent demonstrations, can intimidate, even infuriate protesters whose emotions are already high, said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a Roxbury minister who has participated in some of the marches in Boston. He said protesters spoke more positively about Boston police, who wore soft hats and yellow vests, than they did about State Police, who protesters perceived as intimidating and even hostile.
“I think the message that it sends is when you’re in riot gear, you are expecting to go quell an uprising that you deem illegal or out of hand,” Brown said. “People are upset, tensions are high, people are frustrated and fed up. They’re going to get loud. Loudness does not mean that they’re about to engage in hostility.”
Alben said batons help keep troopers safe.
“The batons are a piece of equipment that’s been issued for decades in police work,” he said. “It’s just a whole lot easier to control and maintain the crowd when you have that baton with you. That’s one of the reasons they’re used, not to antagonize people, not to start a fight.”
The arms-length tactic employed by Boston police is not fail-safe. In New York, police used a hands-off approach with protesters, but massive marches continue and some officers have been assaulted by demonstrators.
And Boston police still face criticism. Carl Williams, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he has been disturbed to see officers filming protesters.
“The Boston Police Department should not be monitoring people who are expressing their First Amendment rights,” Williams said, “especially when they’re protesting the police. What are they doing with that information?”
A Boston police spokesman said the recordings are analyzed not to identify protesters, but to find ways to improve crowd control at future events.
On Tuesday, when several hundred students left school to protest downtown, Boston police kept their distance. When several police cars blocked the on-ramp to the Massachusetts Turnpike, the protesters peacefully moved another direction. They then formed a circle around two intersections on Massachusetts Avenue. Officers held back traffic, even as irate drivers honked their horns.
Evans said he worries more about those stuck in traffic hurting protesters, not officers.
“I just fear someone is going to step on the accelerator and take it out on the protesters,” Evans said. “I just worry that sooner or later the public is going to lose its patience and get someone hurt.”