As the country seems to have become more polarized and protests increase, police departments across the country are tasked with how best to handle the situation when a protest takes place — one that will enable American citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights and keep everyone safe at the same time.
One of the questions many police departments are asking is “to gear or not to gear,” and there are differing schools of thought. Some social psychologists are claiming that the very sight of a solid line of police officers behind barricades in full protective gear can set off even the most peaceful of protestors and incite them to turn against the very people there to protect them.
Others, including retired Police Chief Jack Rinchich, say police have to be prepared in case something turns violent. Rinchich, who is a spokesperson for the National Association of Chiefs of Police, said, “In this day and age where we’re now dealing with terrorists, I support wearing gear.”
Rinchich spoke of a situation where a peaceful protest did take a violent turn and officers were running back to the station to get protective gear. In most situations, there is no time for that.
“I’m not saying they have to deploy it all, but it should be close at hand. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” Rinchich said.
NACOP doesn’t attempt to recommend procedures and policies to its members, according to Rinchich, and he said although police departments may be trained to certain set standards, each community is unique — as is each situation.
“To have a set of absolutes is impossible,” Rinchich stated. “The response and protocol in L.A. and Chicago are going to be significantly different than a smaller community.”
Rinchich retired in 2012 after serving 40 years as a law enforcement officer. Previously, he served two tours in Vietnam in the Marine Corps and 39 years as a chaplain. He recently worked as an interim chief for a department.
Since 9/11, mutual aid agreements between departments have increased and what is standard in one community may not be in a neighboring community. Setting up a command center is critical in these situations where one agency is deciding what to do.
When it comes to handling civil disobedience a “use of force continuum” is usually practiced. The use of force continuum begins with a passive presence, verbal commands, soft techniques like use of pepper spray and works up to lethal force if necessary.
Some changes over the years that Rinchich has observed is a return to “community policing.” “We used to have cops walk the beat, which allowed people to have a dialogue with the officer.”
Training has improved over the years, including specific responses to intel and better diversity training, but with all that, Rinchich said it is still a “balancing act.”
The U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services issued a press release in March of this year commending the city of Minneapolis for its public safety response — in particular to the protest arising from the November 2015 shooting death of Jamar Clark by two Minneapolis police officers.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau asked for a review of the response after the 18 day long protest. In that release, acting COPS officer, Director Russell Washington, stated the officers showed “considerable restraint in these extremely difficult circumstances” and said their actions could “provide a roadmap for other cities facing similar challenges.”
Harteau, who has been police chief for over five years and has served over 30 years in law enforcement, said officers monitor social media so they become aware of what’s going to be occurring in the city; then they reach out to the primary contact to find out what’s going to be transpiring.
“We develop relationships with the organizers,” she said. “Our role is to provide a safe environment for the police and the public.”
Harteau said the city has frequent protests with upwards of 5,000-6,000 people participating and many are what she called “roving.” A roving protest “tends to block the streets and drivers get agitated,” she said, noting that often the protests are directed at her department.
She added, “We do allow them to take up traffic for a short period of time. We found when we do that it’s for a shorter amount of time than it would be if we didn’t.”
She acknowledged that people ask why they aren’t arresting the protestors and said the answer is that it would take a lot of time and manpower to arrest 5,000 people. “They eventually move on,” she said.
Harteau said having communication with organizers is key to knowing where they’re going to go and being able to communicate quickly to inform the public to avoid certain roads at certain times of the day.
Minneapolis, Harteau noted, doesn’t have a lot of good gathering spaces downtown so most of the protests there are moving and will block traffic at some point and they allow it for a “reasonable” amount of time. She also said the city has easy access to the highways and sometimes plans do change and protestors get out on the highway. When that occurs, they notify the highway department.
They usually always have a lead patrol car in front of the protestors and that helps to identify the group’s next move.
Minneapolis has also created a police community support team that goes out and talks to people and helps to handle emotions and to get them accurate information.
“Bad news doesn’t get better. We want to make sure they are getting right information,” she said.
This is especially helpful when protests are against the department, like a recent case where the verdict didn’t go the way the public thought it should in another police department. “People were hurt by the outcome,” she reported.
During a protest the Bicycle Rapid Response Team is deployed to move amongst the crowd monitoring the situation.
“Other than that we try to stay away,” Harteau said, “and allow them to exercise their right to demonstrate free speech.”
As to her department’s use of protective gear, she said they have made changes. They used to wear camouflage but they determined some people are incited by camo, and Harteau said in an urban setting it has no use anyway. So they switched to a dark navy blue uniform.
“All officers have to be armed, but it doesn’t need to be displayed,” she said. Helmets are attached to belts. Some officers are in soft uniforms and some are in hard uniforms.
“If there are rocks and bottles being thrown officers don’t have time to go to the station and gear up. The protective gear is to protect officers, not meant to incite.” The “hard blue line” that some say intimidate and incite is a thing of the past — at least in Minneapolis and many other cities. Those officers are standing nearby but “won’t respond until they need to respond — if things escalate and it becomes a matter of public safety.”
Instead, the BRRT and the community support team travel among the crowd. Harteau thinks the changes, at least in her department, came with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
“We found it beneficial to work with the organizers and work with bank leadership and allow them a reasonable amount of time to make their point,” she said.
However, she pointed out, there are often a few protestors whose goal it is to be arrested. “Usually it’s only a handful assigned for that. We try to expedite and remove them as quickly as possible so it is the least disruptive.”
Harteau added that in today’s landscape protests occurring locally are often about things that don’t directly affect Minneapolis.
Social media benefits and challenges
While it is a benefit for police departments to be able to monitor social media sites for what might be happening locally and to communicate quickly with the public, it can also create bigger problems. If the protests are advertised on social media, it gets the word out quicker and draws bigger crowds. It can also spread to those who wish to show up to do harm to those who are protesting. Harteau mentioned a case that just occurred where a white supremacist group showed up to create problems. “Not everyone on Facebook is your friend,” she said
Additionally, Harteau said, “There are those who don’t think we’re doing our jobs if we allow protests to occur and they want to take the law in their own hands.”
Minneapolis has several demonstrations a week and most are peaceful. “But there’s a difference between peaceful and lawful. All have components of law-breaking because of blocking traffic, but discretion is key,” she said.
The biggest piece of advice she’d offer to other departments is keeping lines of communication open. “Ensure that you have a relationship with the organizers as soon as you know a demonstration is going to occur. Work with them to determine their needs and how the police can support them. If you have no idea what their agenda is, it can escalate quickly,” she said.
Sometimes, Harteau said, the relationship between her department and the organizers are acrimonious because they’re protesting against her department, but the goal is to keep everyone safe. Balancing act
Both Rinchich and Harteau agree handling protests is an ever-changing balancing act.
“Ensuring protestors get from point A to point B with the least amount of disruption is really a balancing act for us,” Harteau said.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions as you go,” Rinchich said. “As long as the planned protest is civil, unless they are overtly violating the law or where the police officer or public safety is concerned, you can let them go. It’s a complicated issue but I think our officers do a good job.”
Harteau added, “Anytime there’s a large public demonstration officers have to assess the crowd and be extra-vigilant.”