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Editorial: Chicago cops make their luck in policing protests

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:04AM

So much for 1968.

So much for baton-swinging cops and tear gas and mass arrests.

So much for police riots.

If the whole world was watching this time, good.

What we saw in Chicago over the weekend and on Monday was police training that paid off. We saw crowd-control tactics that worked. We saw patience.

We saw police work at its best.

A small number, perhaps 200, of the several thousand NATO protesters who hit the streets were begging for a fight, looking to provoke the police into swinging those nightsticks.

Why? Who cares.

But about all they got was a rugby scrum.

Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and his officers deserve high praise for their policing of the NATO protests. They demonstrated maximum respect for free speech and minimum tolerance — by protesters and cops alike — for physical violence.

Only infrequently did an officer cross the line, losing his temper and throwing a punch. And when he did, his fellow officers typically pulled him back and cooled him off. All weekend long, the message over their radios was “remember your training” — and they did.

They stood in 90-degree heat on baking asphalt, loaded down with equipment, the occasional bottle or chunk of wood flying at them. Yet, with some exceptions, they maintained their composure.

For McCarthy, though he’s been superintendent for a year, NATO weekend was his coming-out party, his first chance on a big stage to show the city that he’s real police — and he is. He was all over the place, barking commands in his New York accent, giving a friendly rap on an officer’s helmet, chatting up demonstrators and the media, even making an arrest.

“You lead from the front,” he told reporters.

McCarthy’s constant presence and confidence in command gave his officers strength.

The funny thing about good police work is that it’s less exciting than bad police work.

During the 1968 Democratic Convention, the thin blue line of cops along the edges of Grant Park was so tempting for protesters to dash through, like in a game of Red Rover. But we saw only thick blue crowds this weekend, officers amassed five or 10 deep. When the blue crowd stepped up, the protesters could only step back.

If the street tactics were largely effective, so was the careful communication. City Hall had cut deals with organizers about where and when protests would be allowed, and the city held them to it. During the Daley Plaza rally on Friday, officers handed out fliers stating that it had been their “honor” to protect the demonstrators, but closing time was 2 p.m.

Some will say the Chicago Police got lucky, beginning with the fact that far fewer protesters than expected turned out.

We think they made their luck.

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