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Research and Law Enforcement Partnerships Manage Civil Disturbances More Effectively

Dr. Tamara Herold, Associate Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Ryan Lee, Assistant Chief, Portland Police Bureau

Law enforcement agencies can use research-based practices to manage protests and civil disturbances more effectively. In this video, Dr. Tamara Herold, Associate Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Ryan Lee, Assistant Chief, Portland Police Bureau, discuss some of those methods, some of the misconceptions about how law enforcement should respond to civil disturbances, and where agencies should begin when developing civil disturbance response plans. 

Dr. Herold and Chief Lee participated in the NIJ-sponsored panel “Keeping Protests Peaceful: What Works and What Matters to Prevent and Respond to Civil Disturbances,” at the 2018 IACP Conference.

DR. TAMARA HEROLD: Research shows that for police to keep protests peaceful, we really need to adhere to a set of pretty well-defined principles. And those principles are grounded in science that shows that people when they feel as though their freedoms have been threatened, their behavioral freedoms, they’re likely to react in a way that can be volatile or violent. However, when we’re policing protests we have to sometimes have to restrict freedoms in order to keep people safe. And so, when police must engage in that type of behavior, it’s really important the way they go about restricting behavioral freedoms. And so research shows that, de-escalation tactics, methods of disarming and defusing volatile situations, knowing how to do that is critical in order to maintain peace at protests.

RYAN LEE: The approach in Portland reflects the research in that we try to make our efforts as police to manage the event as transparent as possible. We’re communicating before the event. We’re communicating during the event. We’re communicating after the event. If some sort of enforcement action or some sort of restriction on liberties has to occur, we try and communicate out exactly why and we try and communicate who in the crowd is behaving in a manner that’s necessitating that act. We try and facilitate those that don’t wish to engage in that same type of behavior to still be able to exercise their freedoms and liberties as appropriate.

I think one of the fundamental misunderstandings of how police are responding to protests are that we are really seeing the events that become contentious. In America, we value free speech. Frequently, people are exercising their first amendment rights. Frequently, people are protesting and there is little to no conflict with law enforcement. What they focus on is when the conflict does occur. And I think what’s important to help manage that risk for any law enforcement official, for any government official, is to really embrace an idea that they’re there to be leaders in their community, not people that are there trying to coerce or get people to comply with laws. If we recognize that the role of police in society is to help lead people towards civilized interactions and we try to guide them towards those principles and find ways to encourage them to self-select that behavior, we’ll be better off.

DR. TAMARA HEROLD: I think the chief really summarized very well what it is that creates misperceptions on the part of the public. And I think the other side of that might be misperceptions on the part of practitioners about what’s appropriate in different context and under different circumstances. And so what we’ve seen is that when there’s an overreliance on uses of force or demonstrations of authority, this is where the police tend to get in trouble. And where the misperception is that’s the right way to manage a crowd, where really that’s the right way to manage a crowd only under particular conditions. But there are a variety of different crowd management techniques that should be used under different circumstances in order to effectively manage these crowds.

And for those agencies that don’t yet have a plan to manage protests, I think the most important thing they can do is learn from their peers and learn what other agencies have done. And we consider those best practices and also to turn to the academic literature, and review some of the science in this area that tells us what’s effective when and in what context.

RYAN LEE: The first place they should start is to have a discussion amongst their command staff about how they want to respond. To take a look at their community and then to reach out to other agencies that have had same or similar problems. Unfortunately, the reality in a publicly and politically active environment, such as the United States, is that a protest is only a matter of when, not if. And so, police agencies need to be prepared as appropriate for the size of their community to be able to help manage and mitigate those risks.

I think one of the key lessons and key takeaways that we should have from this dialogue that we’re starting, is that we really need to look towards a national level of professionalization and standardization towards our approaches. We need to engage our academic partners and we need to really message forward that the intent is to manage, not control and to communicate with both our government leaders as well as the citizens we serve.

Date Created: August 28, 2019