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Communication as a Tool to Prevent and Respond to Civil Disturbance

Notes From the Field
Date Published
January 29, 2018

I’ve been thinking deeply about how to prevent and respond to civil disorder for more than 40 years: in Miami during the unrest of the 1970s and 1980s, in Savannah during a G-8 summit in the 2000s, and in all my policing work when thinking about community engagement. One lesson I’ve learned from these experiences is that communication is the key to predicting and preventing civil disorder, and responding effectively when it does occur.

Recent high profile events have put civil disturbance in the public eye, but it is nothing new. Americans have been protesting since before the United States existed as a sovereign country, and the First Amendment guarantees all Americans the right to free expression, including peaceful protest and assembly. The issues facing today’s police departments are unique in some respects, but we also have a lot to learn from history when thinking about how to predict, prevent, and respond to civil disorder.

“Jammin’ with the Man” in Miami

My experience thinking about civil disorder dates back to my days in what is now the Miami-Dade Police Department. In the 1970s, Central Dade County, Florida, was a community of 150,000 people who were by all measures poor, predominately African-American, and beset by familiar intercity patterns of drug abuse and violent crime. The overworked and poorly trained officers in my jurisdiction handled a heavy volume of calls in a mechanical way, and tended to react to violence from citizens with more violence. Relations between the police and community were at best strained and at worst hostile.

Against this backdrop, the 1970s saw a number of incidents involving race and the use of force that further strained police-community relations. In May 1980, a group of six white officers was acquitted by an all-white jury in a use of force incident that resulted in the death of an African-American motorcyclist. The acquittal sparked 10 days of riots, which led to 18 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

This protest was a catalyst for police change. It was followed by a second police use of force case in which an officer was charged, tried and convicted of manslaughter.  He appealed his conviction and as the appeal date approached, we asked ourselves who was likely to riot if the officer was acquitted. We identified the population of 15- to 30-year-old African-American males. We knew that the ways we were trying to engage with the community weren’t working, so we decided to ask the community for help. We surveyed 1,000 young African-American men to find out where they got their information and inspiration. With the community’s input we identified rap music as an influential mechanism for communication.

We partnered with two rap groups and launched “Jammin’ with the Man,” a series of rap concerts cosponsored by the police department. Admission was free, the concerts were held in local parks, and everyone was invited. We weren’t sure if anyone would come to a concert put on by the police department, but 5,000 people showed up for the first one. The groups played their music—the only rule was no bashing the police in the lyrics. About every 15 minutes, a member of the police staff would get up and say, “We hope you’re enjoying this. What we’re trying to accomplish is to find ways to communicate better with the young men in the community. If you have any ideas and if you’re willing, talk to an officer in the audience, give them any ideas on how we might communicate better with you. Let the music play.”

After the first concert, the officers said the concert attendees had a consistent message: “Come talk to us. Not when you’re always coming to arrest someone or investigate something. Just come and talk to us sometimes.” We put together more concerts, and it really sparked a dialogue. The convicted officer’s appeal date came and he was acquitted. Then the unthinkable happened: nothing. We had no problems in the community.

Savannah G-8 Summit

Fast-forward to 2003. I was the chief of police in Savannah, Georgia, and we got word that the G-8 summit would be held in our jurisdiction the following year. Coastal Georgia had never seen an event like this before—most of us didn’t know what a G-8 summit was. We started doing some research and found that there were troubling instances of civil disorder in every place this event had ever been held: attacks against the police, anarchist demonstrations, fires, and police cars overturned.

We knew the summit was coming one way or the other, so we researched where it had gone best and found that a summit in Calgary, Canada, a few years earlier had seen minimal disruption compared to others. We called them to ask if they could give us some advice. Above all else, their message was that the key to success would be the way we communicated with the community as the event approached. They urged us to think carefully about what message we would project to elected officials, the police department, anarchist demonstrators, and other members of the community.

With their guidance, we crafted this message: We are looking forward to everyone coming to coastal Georgia. We respect everyone’s constitutional right to express their views and demonstrate. We are the hostess city of the South and we are proud to have you.

But there was a second, equally important part of the message: If anyone is coming here to damage our national treasures or hurt any of the people of coastal Georgia, they will meet some Georgia law enforcement officers. In a nutshell, our message was: You’re welcome to come, but behave yourself.

We stuck to this message consistently, tailoring it slightly for each group we interacted with over the year of planning. The event was massive, and trouble-free. It was the best summit in the G-8’s history—completely peaceful. In the final analysis, that success all had to do with communication.

Applying Yesterday’s Lessons on Today’s Streets

“Jammin’ with the Man” and the G-8 summit are two examples of how effective communication can help prevent civil disturbance around major events, even those with a lot of tension involved. The work happens in day-to-day, intentional, thoughtful, sincere messaging as a police department engages with its community.

Of course, communication is easier to implement for planned events than for those that erupt spontaneously, out of an unexpected event like an officer-involved shooting. But in general, tense police-community relations are a perfect opportunity for police to do a better job of engaging with the community.

To organize a rally, protest, demonstration, or any other event, organizers have to communicate. Law enforcement can inject ourselves into this conversation and convey the important message: You have the right to protest, but not the right to violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, that meant surveying the community and engaging through rap concerts, posters, and other advertising. Today, social media has become another phenomenal platform for information gathering and message dissemination. We’re all on the same team—police protect the public and the public has the right to free expression in a safe, nonviolent forum. We just need to be better at communicating.

What needs to be studied further are the communication best practices for predicting, preventing, and controlling civil disturbance. Every jurisdiction and department is unique, but the civil disturbance problems they face date long back into the past—as do the lessons we can learn from them.

About “Notes from the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: January 29, 2018