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Notes from the Field: A Sensible Response to Civil Disturbance

Notes From the Field
Date Published
March 7, 2018

Seattle has a vibrant demonstration community — over 300 demonstrations a year — and our job as police is to facilitate the First Amendment rights of all, empowering expression while managing public safety. We take great pride in the fact that the vast majority of the hundreds of demonstrations we facilitate each year proceed peacefully and safely, regardless of content.

My approach to demonstration management in Seattle was heavily influenced by the time I spent working on police reform during the Peace Process in Northern Ireland and as Police Commissioner in Boston. I believe a successful strategy must include the following steps:

  1. Careful and deliberate communication with organizers.
  2. Tiered approach during the event (as non-adversarial as possible).
  3. Learning debrief after an event has occurred.

Careful and Deliberate Communication With Organizers

Although we do all we can to promote safety, we need to be prepared nonetheless for an event that devolves into a civil disturbance. Part of this preparation is being deliberate about developing relationships with event organizers. Establishing communication in advance enables the police to establish trust and learn as much as possible about an event before it occurs. Organizers can be invaluable in helping reign in an event in the case that it does become chaotic. Event organizers are not law enforcement, but they often carry significant legitimacy and power with participants. Sometimes building relationships with them will work and sometimes it will not, especially during a spontaneous demonstration or when the organizers have no desire to work with the police. I've found, however, that more often than not organizers are willing to engage, albeit sometimes only quietly and behind the scenes.

I learned a great deal about the importance of strategic communication while in Northern Ireland. On the heels of decades of violence during a period known as The Troubles, the police service recognized the need to reform its response to civil disturbance. They experienced significant improvement when establishing relationships with event organizers in advance and planning collaboratively to the greatest extent possible.

Tiered Approach: As Non-Adversarial as Possible

We certainly need to equip and prepare our personnel for incidents of violence, but managing the visible appearance and demeanor of officers in a manner as non-adversarial as possible is critical. Showing up in full riot gear, for example, absent notice of an imminent safety threat, may serve only to escalate a situation and provoke a violent conformation. Simply put, the police service on the streets plays a vital role in setting the tone of an event. In Seattle, whenever possible, we start our visible response with officers on the streets wearing regular uniforms and engaging with people in a peaceful, non-threatening manner. We then increase our response as needed if the situation escalates. 

It sometimes requires a leap of faith to put police officers without significant protection on the streets when there is the possibility of escalation to violence, but in my experience, an event is more likely to escalate if we begin with officers in full riot gear. A non-adversarial, softer approach sets a peaceful, more relaxed tone than that set by helmets, riot gear, and long batons. Of course, in the interest of community and officer safety, we must always prepare for violence that may erupt. Staging additional equipment and units invisibly, but in close proximity, is vital to safety and security during an event that could possibly go awry.

I first implemented this approach as Police Commissioner in Boston while hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2004. In preparation for the convention, I sent teams to Northern Ireland and Seattle, to capture knowledge from their experiences. As a result, we designed a public order strategy with a three-tiered approach.

First-tier response involved police officers in ordinary uniforms engaging with people in a friendly and non-adversarial manner. If the situation became tense or unwieldy, we deployed our second-tier response: highly trained squads of bicycle officers, some accompanied by firefighters and emergency medical personnel who trained together in advance. Bikes are incredibly versatile, easily converted into barriers to steer crowds, and serve as a means of fast and mobile transportation without creating a threatening presence. We drew inspiration from Seattle in deploying the bike units and, no doubt, they were the most valuable component of our public order strategy during the convention (I had no idea at the time that I would ultimately serve as Police Chief in Seattle.) Our third-tier response included eight to 10 public order platoons staged strategically and invisibly throughout the city. These included tactical teams from the Boston Police Department, Massachusetts State Police, and regional organizations. They participated in joint training exercises as well.

In advance of the event, we had to assure officers that we would provide the necessary training, equipment, and resources to maximize their safety, particularly those assigned to the tier one, soft approach. Officers were rightfully concerned after viewing images of violence at previous conventions and large gatherings. We provided updated equipment and robust training to all. We also assured officers on the front lines that we would “have their backs” by staging additional gear close by and immediately deploying tactical units to support or replace them if things went awry.

The strategy worked remarkably well. In advance of the convention, based on other events of the time, many experts predicted thousands of arrests during the course of the convention. When piloting this tiered approach, we experienced only one instance in which we had to deploy a public order platoon. During the entire course of the convention, we made only five arrests. Since then, I’ve been a strong proponent of this more sensible approach to demonstration management. It actually enhanced officer safety and provided greater opportunities for peaceful demonstration.

Continuous Learning and Adjustment

A police department must learn from every event it handles, regardless of the outcome. We will still make mistakes and we’re always learning, particularly as the dynamics of large-scale events continue to change over time. We must acknowledge that some event organizers are intent on disrupting public order and are becoming more sophisticated in their tactics. Continuous learning must be a part of any department’s demonstration management strategy. In Seattle, we plan every time, and we learn every time. We're constantly revisiting and adjusting our tactics to learn from previous experience.

It is also important to learn from the experience of other departments. As indicated, some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about civil disturbance and demonstration management have been from the experiences and examples of others. I continue to exchange knowledge with national and international police partners, while understanding that each jurisdiction has unique characteristics and challenges. I do believe, however, that the same foundational principles apply universally, and strategies can be culture-proofed and adjusted according to local conditions.

I have seen this tiered approach to demonstration management work firsthand, but my experience is anecdotal. It would be interesting to engage behavioral psychologists to study this issue and look more empirically at how the visible presence of the police affects the tone and outcome of a demonstration. I’m convinced there is a psychological advantage in starting, when possible, with a softer approach and graduating as necessary.

Needless to say, there is no panacea in demonstration management or response to civil disorder at this time. We’ve learned many lessons, and we will continue to learn. Better technologies and equipment will emerge, but on a human level, I believe a collaborative, less adversarial approach and continuous learning will enhance the safety of police officers and community members and further guarantee our First Amendment rights.

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: March 7, 2018