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Dealing with ‘Messy Democracy’: A Guide to Policing Protests

Photo by Joshua Hayes via Flickr

Think of a mass demonstration or protest in a large U.S. city, and the first image that often comes to mind is ranks of glowering police officers outfitted in riot gear, shields at the ready—occasionally with armored vehicles close by to underline the point.

The image can be deceiving—not all protests end with scenes of violence broadcast on the evening news. Still, many police agencies argue that militarized responses are increasingly necessary for the control of unruly, potentially violent crowds, as well as for protecting the safety of officers.

But a new study argues that such strategies not only are wrongheaded, but can fuel the violence they are meant to prevent—and, just as importantly, they make it less likely that police can preserve the respect and legitimacy they need to fulfill their roles as guardians of public safety.

The study, published by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and funded in part by the Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS) in the Department of Justice, offers a set of principles and practices for law enforcement for what it calls “fair and effective management” of protests in America’s increasingly turbulent political landscape.

“Democracy can be messy sometimes,” says the study, written by policing scholars Edward R. Maguire and Megan Oakley. “The nature and character of protest policing is in some ways a measure of democracy, revealing how free we really are.”

The researchers, working together with senior police officers, drew their conclusions from interviews with managers and rank-and-file officers in 15 police agencies around the U.S., as well as with participants in the “Occupy” movement that flared up in 2011.

Using examples of good and bad law enforcement in some of the most tendentious mass protests in recent U.S. history, including the events surrounding the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chaotic 2017 clash between white supremacists and anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., they prepared a set of guidelines for applying the principles of community policing now favored for defusing tension in day-to-day neighborhood policing to the management of large, often unpredictable crowds of demonstrators.

Following those guidelines is as much in the interests of long-term police effectiveness as in preventing abuses to constitutional rights of free expression and due process, the researchers wrote.

Police choices in handling protests can have far-reaching effects

“Police choices in handling protests can have far-reaching effects,” the study said. “Research shows that when citizens view police officers using fair and respectful procedures, they are more likely to support and cooperate with the police, comply with their directives, and obey the law.

“When a police officer is seen as unnecessarily impatient, rude, brutal, or otherwise unfair in dealing with a protester, people are more likely to view the police (and the law more generally) as illegitimate.”

Accepting the principles does not necessarily mean that they are easy to follow in the tumult of a protest rally, the researchers acknowledged—noting that police occasionally need to move more aggressively to protect lives and property.

But a key element in policing modern protests should be ending the aggressive, military approach that has become the first response of many law enforcement agencies since 1999, when protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle erupted in violence, the study said.

Before 1999, many police forces had in fact been using less provocative techniques of crowd management in a move away from the hostile, brute-force methods that characterized the policing of protests during the 1960s and 1970s, the researchers said.

But the increasingly violent nature of protest movements since Seattle, and particularly concerns following the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center that rallies could be infiltrated by terrorists, turned the clock back to “hard-hat” militarized efforts at crowd control, according to the study.

Those agencies, however, who managed to resist the impulse to crack down, produced lessons that should serve as guideposts for law enforcement in what is likely to be an even more difficult period of street protests as the country enters a polarizing election period this year.


They cited for example the Salt Lake City police department’s successful handling of the Occupy protests in that city, which involved close, frequent and candid communication with protest leaders, limiting arrests, and even bending some city bylaws against overnight camping.

A similar approach was used by the Boston and Tampa police departments towards Occupy protesters. One senior Tampa police official told the researchers that “conversation” with protest leaders was essential.

“Ask them what they want to get done,” he reported telling his officers. “Help them do it without violence. Help them to do it while still adhering to the law.”

A ‘Graded Response’

In Boston, police managers use a “graded response” to protests, first sending officers into the streets with regular uniforms, while making sure officers wearing helmets and armed with 36-inch riot batons are close at hand if things turn sour; and finally having a full-scale “tactical” response available complete with riot gear (which is dubbed “turtling up”).

“If you start hard, where else do you have to go?” one Boston officer told the researchers.

That approach is burnished by officers taking pains to talk directly to people in the crowd—a strategy used to head off potential unrest at Red Sox games for instance, where some officers take pains greet fans as they enter the stadium.

“It’s a lot harder to throw a bottle at a guy who said hi to you on the way in,” an officer explained.

Although many veteran police officers around the country still deride such strategies as “coddling” lawbreakers, the researchers pointed out that they were equally important for easing the strain on cops themselves, who are often put in situations where they are working long hours in hostile crowds whose politics they don’t agree with.

“Police leaders must ensure that appropriate plans are put in place to meet officers’ physical health needs, ensuring that they remain hydrated, fed and protected from prolonged exposure to extreme weather,” the study said.

“At major events, particularly those at which police are being taunted or are under threat of physical violence, officers must be rotated out periodically so they can rest, have a meal or a snack, and compose themselves before resuming their duties.”

The authors said the evidence showing the benefits of community policing strategies on the streets of American cities makes clear that they are equally applicable to dealing with large crowds of demonstrators.

“By behaving in a fair and respectful manner during their interactions with citizens, police officers can enhance the extent to which the public views the police and the law as legitimate institutions,” the study said. “A crucial lesson is that the inverse of this argument is also true.

“When police officers treat citizens in a manner that is perceived to be procedurally unjust, the police and the law are perceived as less legitimate, and people are less likely to comply with the law or legal authorities.”

Understanding Crowd Psychology

The study argues that research on crowd psychology combined with the use of violence de-escalation techniques and awareness of procedural justice—both of which have become concepts now taught to recruits in police academies around the U.S.—provide a solid foundation for smarter protest policing.

The studies recommendations are grounded on three basic principles:

  • Facilitating the desires of citizens to make their voices heard peacefully;
  • Communicating which actions are permitted and which cross the line:
  • Differentiating the participants in the protest between those who are bent on creating havoc and the larger number who just want to demonstrate and go home.

Largely left unsaid, but implied, by the researchers is the responsibility of participants, particularly protest organizers, to communicate as much as possible the intentions of the event to police in advance, and to ensure that those bent on violence are quickly isolated.

But the authors point out that missteps in crowd control generate a dangerous dynamic: a crackdown on demonstrators protesting economic inequality, for instance, can be the focus of a new round of protests targeting police brutality.

It can also be expensive, they added, noting that police overreaction can end with lawsuits that force cities to pay “seven-figure settlements” to protesters.

Many of the suggestions in the guide echo earlier recommendations intended to bridge the growing gap between police and the communities they serve, most notably recommendations developed by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing established by former President Barack Obama in 2014.

The Guggenheim study is, however, the first comprehensive attempt to apply community policing principles to the policing of protests.

“Community policing and protest policing go hand in hand,’ the study authors declared.

Observing that “unfortunately, some U.S. police agencies are still policing protests in much the same way as they did in the 1960s,” the researchers argued that it was in the best interests of law enforcement managers themselves to shift their approach.

“Protest policing is admittedly difficult, and even the most well-intentioned leaders make mistakes,” they wrote.

“Through creative and thoughtful community policing strategies that incorporate the principles outlined here, police agencies can focus on those who are violating the law while upholding the constitutional rights of those engaged in peaceful and lawful expression.”

The guide has been distributed to nearly 1,000 police agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Editor’s Note: The H.F. Guggenheim Foundation funds the annual Symposium on Crime in America, organized by the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which publishes The Crime Report.