NEW YORK — During the first two months of the nationwide Occupy protests, the movement that is demanding more out of the wealthiest Americans cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtime and other municipal services, according to a survey by The Associated Press.
The heaviest financial burden has fallen upon law enforcement agencies tasked with monitoring marches and evicting protesters from outdoor camps. And the steepest costs by far piled up in New York City and Oakland, Calif., where police clashed with protesters on several occasions.
The AP gathered figures from government agencies in 18 cities with active protests and focused on costs through Nov. 15, the day protesters were evicted from New York City’s Zuccotti Park, where the protests began Sept. 17 before spreading nationwide. The survey did not attempt to tally the price of all protests but provides a glimpse of costs to cities large and small.
Broken down city by city, the numbers are more or less in line with the cost of policing major public events and emergencies. In Los Angeles, for example, the Michael Jackson memorial concert cost the city $1.4 million. And Atlanta spent several million dollars after a major snow and ice storm this year.
But the price of the protests is rising by the day — along with taxpayer ire in some places.
“What is their real agenda?” asked Rodger Mawhinney as he watched police remove an encampment outside his apartment complex in downtown Oakland. “I’ve gone up and asked them, ‘What are you truly trying to accomplish?’ I’m still waiting for an answer.”
The Occupy movement has intentionally never clarified its policy objectives, relying instead on a broad message opposing corporate excess and income inequality. Aside from policing, cleaning and repairing property at dozens of 24-hour encampments, cities have had to monitor frequent rallies and protests.
The spending comes as cash-strapped police departments have cut overtime budgets, travel and training to respond to the recession. Nonetheless, city officials say they have no choice but to bring in extra officers or hold officers past their shifts to handle gatherings and marches in a way that protects free speech rights and public safety. In some cities, officials say the spending is eating into their overtime budgets and leaving less money for other public services.
Protesters blame excessive police presence for the high costs in some places. And they note the cost has been minimal in other cities, and worth the spending because they have raised awareness about what they call corporate greed and the growing inequality between rich and poor.
“We’re here fighting corporate greed and they’re worried about a lawn?” said Clark Davis of Occupy Los Angeles, where the city estimates that property damage to a park has been $200,000.
In Oakland, where protesters temporarily forced the shutdown of a major port, the city has spent more than $2.4 million responding to the protests. The cash-strapped city, which had to close a $58 million budget gap this year, was already facing an uphill battle when Occupy Oakland began Oct. 10.
“The cost of the encampments is growing and putting a strain on our already fragile resources — police, public works, and other city staff,” said Mayor Jean Quan. “We will continue to be vigilant and ensure that public safety remains our first priority and that our downtown businesses are protected from vandalism. We will not tolerate lodging on public property, whether in parks or open space. It is illegal.”
Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said Occupy-related costs will soar past $3 million when it’s all said and done. The city, he said, had to pay more for mutual aid when police removed the encampment at City Hall for a second time on Nov. 14, nearly three weeks after its first early morning raid, leading to dozens of arrests.
“A lot of this could’ve been avoided if we stood our ground when we went in there in the first place,” Arotzarena said. “I know we would’ve saved the city a significant amount of money.”
Portland, Ore., has spent a total of about $785,000 — much of that in police overtime when officers enforced the mayor’s order to evict protesters from two downtown parks because of concerns about sanitation and public safety. Randy Leonard, a city commissioner and former firefighter, said he thinks the protest could have cost the city much more if not for a restrained police response.
“The amount of money we’re saving by (our) very strategic response versus sending police out en masse to arrest people and cause confrontations dwarfs whatever we’ve spent so far,” Leonard said.
In New York City, the police department has spent $7 million in overtime on the protests. But that’s small change given the department’s $4.5 billion budget, which allots money for emergency overtime. Last year, the NYPD spent about $550 million on overtime.
“Public safety and providing essential services is what we do. So the first thing we’re going to do is handle the situation, and any situation that comes up,” Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said. “So yes, this has been significant and it’s been going on for many days, but really in the broad scheme of things, it’s not something that we aren’t prepared to deal with.”
Pete Dutro, a protester in charge of finances in New York City, called the NYPD’s response “completely unnecessary.”
“It’s $7 million of taxpayers’ money that’s being spent to stifle our First Amendment rights,” he said. “You know, they’ve consistently overreacted.”
In Seattle, where the National Guard was deployed during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, the mayor has publicly supported the Occupy protesters. But that doesn’t mean taxpayers won’t feel the pinch later on; the city has already spent at least $625,000 on the protests, with the police department taking the bulk of the costs.
“These costs are currently being absorbed by the departments and may result in reduced service levels in other areas in the future,” said Julie Moore, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mike McGinn. She did not specify which public services might suffer.
Other cities were not too concerned about mounting costs, with officials saying they budget for events like these.
“Our view is that unexpected things happen,” said Sonji Jacobs, spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “Occupy Atlanta is something that folks didn’t necessarily see coming, but the good news is that we have flexibility in our budget.”
Overall, the city spent nearly $652,000 on the protests, paying for everything from overtime for police officers and firefighters to running its mobile command center. The city has $56 million in its reserve fund.
Costs were far lower in Boston than City Council President Stephen Murphy initially predicted last month, when he said police costs for providing security at Occupy Boston for October would be as high as $2 million, based on what a police commander at the scene of mass arrests told him.
The city of Boston has spent $575,000 in overtime through mid-November to pay officers policing Occupy Boston. That’s about 2 percent of this year’s $30 million police overtime budget.
“We have a history of starting, as well as managing, historic demonstrations,” said City Councilor Michael Ross. “We’ve done it well and we’ve managed it well, and that’s not going to stop anytime soon, and that doesn’t cease to exist after it hits a certain budget threshold.”
St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; Providence, R.I.; and Burlington, Vt., were among the cities surveyed by AP that reported costs of less than $10,000.
Don Tripp, the parks director in Des Moines, said protesters camped out in a city park have arguably saved money by taking their garbage out of the park in barrels and shoveling the sidewalk after the first snow, tasks city employees normally handle.
Unlike some other cities, protesters also agreed to pay the full cost of their electricity usage. Tripp noted the protests did come with an intangible “social cost” — discouraging other residents from using the park that they pay to maintain, too.
“But at the end of the day, the thing that has been in the back of my mind is that during times of public discourse in our country parks are noted for being places where people have the chance to demonstrate their First Amendment rights,” he said. “I think their use has been consistent with that.”
But not all protesters have been the best neighbors. In Tennessee, where protesters have been camped outside the Capitol, a State General Services spokeswoman said two cleaning crew members have spent about three hours every morning pressure-washing entrances to the building using household cleaners to deodorize them.
And in Los Angeles, property damage to the park surrounding City Hall — where nearly 500 tents are jammed in — is estimated to be at least $200,000, including the destroyed lawn, sprinklers, graffiti on a fountain and damage to trees and shrubs. City Hall spokesman Peter Sanders says there’s not a definite estimate on damage yet because workers have not been able to properly inspect the site.
For police officers, the longer hours mean bigger paychecks but come at a cost, driving up their stress levels and potentially leaving less money for other initiatives in the long-term.
Unlike a parade or a one-day march, the Occupy protests are in their third month in some cities and show no signs of easing up, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank for police chiefs.
“You’re dealing with 50 to 75 cities where this is going on. In some cities it’s a minimal expense. In some cities, it’s considerable,” he said. “For a city that has slashed overtime, this has an impact. And that means they are going to have to cut back in other ways.”