by Ben DeMeter
As far as Occupy protests go, the Occupy Phoenix demonstration wasn’t exactly something to write home about. Roughly 1,000 people showed up in Cesar Chavez Plaza on the morning of October 15th, 2011 to represent the “99 %” and rally against corporation-favoring legislation. After a few hours, police moved the protesters to nearby Margaret Hance Park, where they remained for the rest of the day. By the time the park closed at 10:00 p.m., the number of protesters had dwindled to a few hundred. And when the SWAT team arrived at 10:30 p.m. to escort them out, only 47 chose to stand fast and accept arrest.
All in all, Occupy Phoenix was a relatively quiet affair. If the number of people who went to jail is any sort of measurement, it was hardly even a blip on the radar. Occupy Wall Street, the movement’s flagship protest, ended with 2,427 arrests. Occupy Oakland, with all the rumored police brutality, is at 400 and counting. Even Occupy Tucson managed to issue 351 police citations. Occupy Phoenix couldn’t even crack 50. And yet, when Phoenix police issued an official statement putting the costs of handling the Occupy Phoenix movement between October 14th and October 27th at $204,000, the taxpayers and a certain Phoenix criminal lawyer of Maricopa County were outraged.
Occupy Phoenix, which had been relatively ignored by the media after the police “raid,” suddenly became Public Enemy No.1. Why was the city continuing to allow these hundred or so protesters to demonstrate on their dime? Why weren’t the police doing anything to break it up? Phoenix District 6 councilman Sal DiCiccio even remarked that the city should start charging the protesters rent for the privilege of practicing their First Amendment rights. It’s an understandable argument, since $200,000 isn’t exactly pocket change – but when you actually do the math, something about the police department’s estimate doesn’t quite add up.
The city of Tucson estimated that it spent $83,000 in police overtime between October 14th and 27th to manage its Occupy protest. Rather than arresting its protesters, it issued citations. In the end, the cost to the city amounted to $236 per protestor cited. Phoenix, on the other hand, claimed it spent $204,000 handling a noticeably sparser demonstration. That amounts to $4,340 for every protestor arrested. How exactly did those costs get so high?
Running the Numbers
The Phoenix police claim that the majority of the costs of Occupy Phoenix were incurred during the Margaret Hance Park arrests. They claim to have spent $181,250 for the first three days of the protest alone. Let’s figure out how they spent some of that money:
- Sending in the SWAT team. The average SWAT officer in Maricopa County makes $39 per hour. Incarcerated protesters report that between 50 and 200 SWAT officers were involved in the arrests at Margaret Hance Park. They arrested the protesters in a single-file line, which dragged the process out for two hours. If we take the middle ground and say that 125 officers were involved, the cost for two hours of their service would be: $9750
- Deploying the police helicopter. According to the official police report, a Phoenix PD helicopter was in the air for the entire two hours it took to clear the park of Occupy Phoenix protesters. The deployment cost of a police helicopter can range from $300 per flight hour to over $1,000 per flight hour. We’ll take the average again and say that Phoenix spent $650 for an hour in the sky. At that rate, the cost of keeping the helicopter hovering was: $1300
- Housing the protesters in jail. Once arrested, the Occupy Phoenix protesters were taken to the Fourth Avenue jail. They remained there for 18 hours. The average cost of keeping someone in jail for one day is $78. That’s a little low for large cities, but judging by the complaints that many protesters voiced about the treatment they received in the Fourth Avenue jail, you can be sure that they weren’t exactly enjoying a day at the spa. If we stick with that standard, then detaining 47 Occupy Phoenix protesters for 18 hours cost taxpayers: $2,750
- Interviewing the suspects. After they were locked up,the protesters were processed and interviewed by two detectives and four officers from 2:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. Overtime pay for a detective is $108 per-hour. Overtime pay for an officer is $60. The amount of money Phoenix spent on interrogation amounts to: $912
Adding it all up, the city spent $14,712 arresting and handling the Occupy Phoenix protesters. Due to all the estimations that went into this calculation and the unaccounted costs – gas for the paddy wagon, zip tie handcuffs, etc. – a margin of error also has to be factored in to the grand total. By conservative estimates, it’s safe to say that the actual cost to the Maricopa county taxpayers ended up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000. But even then, that’s curiously low – $160,000 shy of the amount the Phoenix police claimed to have spent in the first three days, and $184,000 less than their total bill through the 27th.
Where Did the Money Go?
The amount of unaccounted expenses associated with the Occupy Phoenix protest is phenomenal. Sheriff Arpaio and the Phoenix police claim that the $160,000 they didn’t spend on arresting the protesters went solely to officer overtime, but that response leaves more questions than answers. With the going rate of overtime pay for officers sitting at $60 per hour, the police are suggesting that they needed 2,667 extra man-hours of police work to handle a three-day-long protest that was essentially over after the first day.
According to Modern Times magazine, there were between 10 and 20 officers assigned to the Occupy Phoenix protest ‘round the clock for the first three days. This means that for the first three days of the protest, each officer assigned to Occupy Phoenix earned 5.6 straight days of overtime. If Occupy Phoenix had ended in the same sort of disaster as did Occupy Portland and Occupy Oakland – where riot gear and tear gas were needed to keep destructive crowds in check – then rewarding the officers involved with some sort of bonus would be understandable. But Occupy Phoenix was nowhere near the scale of these raucous demonstrations. From October 16th through the 20th, the average daily attendance in Cesar Chavez Plaza was 40 people. That’s it.
Essentially, the Phoenix Police Department is claiming that they needed to give each of 20 officers an $8,000 bonus for doing nothing but standing there and observing 100 nonviolent protesters for three days. However, any officer assigned to the Occupy protesters will tell you that the city never cut them a check for that amount. In fact, if you sort through the wage reports of the Phoenix Police Department, you’ll probably find that all of the overtime hours are clocked appropriately and that no member of the force was given any sort of unreasonably large compensation. So if Occupy Phoenix really did cost the taxpayers of Maricopa County $181,000 between the 15th and 18th, what did the Phoenix Police Department do with our money?
What Sets Phoenix Apart
Phoenix isn’t the only city blaming the Occupy movements for a massive police invoice. Seattle’s pepper spray-happy police force is claiming that the 101 arrests they made in October and November required $585,000 in overtime. Los Angeles claims that its police force spent upwards of $2 million responding to the chaotic protests that led to 409 arrests. Oakland police, dealing with the most violent Occupy protest to date, have doled out $700,000 in overtime so far and have made upwards of 400 arrests.
However, the protests in these cities make the Occupy Phoenix demonstration look like a homecoming parade. Crowd control was never required in Cesar Chavez plaza. Margaret Hance Park didn’t suffer hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage. There was no rape within the Occupy encampment that forced the city to ramp up their security measures. Although the official Occupy Seattle blog insists that the Emerald City police were deliberately overspending on their response to the demonstration, the protesters seem to forget that a woman attempted to murder someone in the Seattle encampment. One Phoenix reporter has even gone so far as to call the Valley of the Sun protest a complete and utter failure, ending one article about the low attendance with: “Nothing more to see here, folks.” In short, it’s hard to find a reason why the Phoenix police needed to slam Maricopa County with a bill for $204,000 just to handle a few nonviolent protesters.
Both supporters and opponents of Occupy Phoenix could find cause for concern in the city’s reluctance to disclose an itemized list of expenses incurred by the protest. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that the police are wasting taxpayer money to infringe upon a group’s First Amendment rights or that the protesters are wasting taxpayer money by necessitating police supervision – there’s still money missing from your paycheck. And until the citizens of Maricopa County start demanding answers, we’ll have no clue where it went.