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Notes from the Field: Civil Disturbance - Intelligence, Communication, and Lots of Resources

Notes From the Field
Date Published
February 20, 2018

In responding to any incident of civil disturbance, police agencies have two main goals: protect the First Amendment right to free expression, and keep everyone safe.

Over the past years, one of the biggest civil disturbance challenges for New Orleans has been the controversial removal of four Confederate monuments in 2017, which sparked more than a dozen protests and counter-protests. Over the course of these removals, we had no incidents of violence or injury to either demonstrators or police.

Based on our experience preparing for and managing these events, along with the dozens of festivals and major sporting events that New Orleans holds annually, I believe there are three major factors that police departments must consider when formulating their civil disturbance strategy. First, maximize intelligence collection. Second, communicate with demonstrators to ensure they understand expectations, laws, and potential consequences if laws are violated. Third, invest in both human and physical resources to set the tone for an event and make sure we aren’t caught off guard if things do escalate.

The Value of Intelligence

In New Orleans, we place a high value on intelligence collection. Before any event, we want to make sure we have the factual intelligence to understand its scale and intentions. This involves investing our own resources in intelligence collection, as well as forming strong partnerships with local, state, and federal partners. I recommend departments spend significant time and energy gathering intelligence both before and throughout an event. In New Orleans, we always have plainclothes officers within a crowd, so we know immediately if tension starts to escalate.

It’s not enough to only collect intelligence — departments also have to determine if it’s credible and have the will and resources to act upon it. If you can’t determine the credibility of the intelligence quickly, I urge departments to always err on the side of caution.

For example, Louisiana is an open-carry state, but New Orleans has a city ordinance that prohibits firearms at large gatherings. Prior to the removal of one Confederate monument in 2017, we received intelligence that demonstrators were planning to come with rifles and shotguns. We treated this intelligence as credible, and although there was no indication that protestors intended to use their firearms, we deployed snipers on the surrounding rooftops. When the armed protesters arrived, officers engaged them, passing out copies of the law and explaining that it is unlawful to carry at a demonstration. Then we pointed to the snipers on the roofs, in SWAT gear with rifles. The protesters were caught off guard, complied, and put away their weapons.

None of the protests in New Orleans around the removal of four Confederate monuments in 2017 turned violent, and I think that a big part of this was due to how we treated intelligence as credible and deployed accordingly.

Communication Matters

Communication is key in managing any large-scale gathering, and this is especially the case with demonstrations. In New Orleans, we communicate as much as possible with event organizers prior to an event to understand their plans and intentions, explain the laws around civil disturbance, and make clear what the consequences will be if they violate these laws.

Prior to an event, we make it clear that city ordinance prohibits weapons at large gatherings, and that we will not tolerate any form of violence. Sometimes demonstrators want to be arrested in public view. If this is the case, we lay out what constitutes a violation of an ordinance and the potential short- and long-term consequences if an individual commits this violation.

The day of an event, officers pass out printed copies of our relevant laws. This sets a strong tone that the police department wants to cooperate with demonstrators, but we also want to educate them on the law and the consequences of breaking the law.

Invest in Resources

I advise departments to deploy more resources than they think are necessary. In preparing for and responding to civil disturbance in New Orleans, we use a lot of human and physical resources.

In terms of human resources, we deploy a large number of uniformed officers, which establishes a highly visible presence and enable us to manage the situation if things escalate. We don’t deploy officers in riot gear upfront — this can actually provoke a crowd, rather than pacify it — but we do have officers in riot gear staged nearby. We also deploy covert police from multiple agencies to identify agitators in a crowd and extract them if necessary.

For example, with the monument removals in 2017, we deployed officers in advance so the monument area was secured when demonstrators arrived. This consumed a massive amount of resources but set the tone for the demonstrators: the police department is ready, willing, and able to safely facilitate their expression of First Amendment freedoms, but people who want to commit acts of violence will not be able to do so.

An effective response is a combination of human and physical resources. Because New Orleans hosts so many festivals and parades, we’re lucky to have miles of hard barricades and a lot of other physical resources to leverage. Other jurisdictions may have resource constraints but may be able to partner with state and local partners to leverage as many physical resources as they can for a large-scale event.

Of course, there’s no magic formula for responding to civil disturbance. We learn from every event and incorporate these lessons into our future responses.

Resource constraints will always be a reality of policing, but in cases of civil disturbance, I urge departments to deploy resources without being overly concerned about budgetary constraints. Collect intelligence, treat threats as credible, and deploy to the threat, whether real or perceived, as appropriate. In New Orleans, we’ve found these strategies to be effective in preventing and effectively responding to instances of civil disturbance — particularly in politically charged demonstrations like monument removals — and in preventing the escalation of violence.

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: February 20, 2018