The Ventura Police Department has come under fire for its handling of a protest last week by anti-abortion activists who succeeded in shutting down a family planning clinic for nearly five hours by blocking its doors.
Officials with the Long Beach-based chain that operates Ventura Family Planning Associates and an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union complained that police effectively sided with Operation Rescue activists by not clearing an access path to the clinic last Thursday and waiting until afternoon to remove protesters.
"I find that unreasonable," said Carol Sobel, an ACLU attorney. "If you only have 75 protesters, you can open access to a clinic in a minute."
Ventura Police Capt. Kenneth Thompson defended the department's response, which culminated in the peaceful arrest of 19 Operation Rescue protesters.
"When everyone arrived to have the clinic opened, the pro-life people already had the doors barricaded," he said. "We could have grabbed those people and dragged them out, but that wasn't a good option. There would have been fights and scuffles."
Clinic officials also criticized the police for preventing 10 of the chain's security guards from opening a path that would have allowed clinic personnel and clients to pass through protesters who were blocking doorways when clinic personnel arrived at 7:30 a.m.
Sobel said the police had threatened to arrest the security guards, who have been trained to open access to clinics under siege by "jostling" through the crowd.
"We felt the response was not only inadequate but the hostility to the property owner was inexplicable and indefensible," she said. "They made the Planning Associates personnel into the criminals."
Thompson denies threatening the security guards with arrest, but admits to preventing them from entering the crowds. He said he was operating on the advice of "a number" of police departments who had warned him of a potential for fisticuffs.
"One of our goals is to keep a business operating, but I'm also sworn to keep the peace, and mixing those two groups together isn't doing that," he said. "I was trying to minimize violence."
He said the main reason that police took so long to clear protesters was the reluctance on the part of local clinic personnel to press charges.
"The people at the clinic said they didn't want to make arrests--that they wanted to wait for their people from Long Beach to come up and press charges," he said.
Officials with the chain of 28 clinics admitted requesting a hold on arrests until their arrival at 10:15 a.m., but faulted the police for not clearing protesters shortly thereafter.
Sobel acknowledged that clinics generally are loathe to press charges against protesters because "Operation Rescue views getting arrested as a badge of honor, and we don't see anything honorable in what they're doing."
Don Coleman, an assistant district attorney contacted by the ACLU during the protest, stood behind the Ventura Police Department, saying that he "questioned whether the ACLU is being reasonable. I presume they wanted people picked up and thrown aside."
Thompson said Tuesday that he had met with an official from Ventura's Planned Parenthood, which operates two clinics offering abortions in the county, to discuss strategy for any future protests and is eager to meet with Family Planning officials, but they had not returned a call placed Friday.
Joanne Moore, director of Ventura County services for Planned Parenthood, expressed satisfaction with the meeting.
"If there were a blockade, I would expect the Ventura Police Department to respond appropriately and I have no reason to believe that they wouldn't," she said. However, she noted that a four-hour delay in the opening of one of her clinics would be unacceptable.
'Violence of Another Sort'
Anything that jeopardizes a patient's right to medical care "is not right," she said. "That smacks of violence of another sort."
In a six-month spate of Operation Rescue protests surrounding the recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion, all but Ventura and two other Southern California clinics have been able to keep their doors open, said Sobel.
The other occasions came on a single day in February when 500 Operation Rescue activists demonstrated at separate clinics throughout Los Angeles.
Los Angeles City Council members later successfully pressed police Chief Daryl F. Gates for assurances that protesters with Operation Rescue would be arrested when they disrupt business at abortion clinics.
Many clinics have been able to keep their doors open by cooperating with police and pro-choice forces. Security guards have been used effectively to preserve access to clinics under siege on other occasions, Sobel said.
In Inglewood, security guards lifted clients over rows of protesters blocking doorways, said Michael Monji, the chain's associate administrator.
On other occasions, police have taken a more active role. At a March protest in Cypress, police officers protected a back entrance to a clinic that had been surrounded by 600 protesters, said the office manager of Cypress Family Planning Associates Medical Group.
"The police have been very cooperative all along," said the Cypress employee, who declined to give her name.