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Preparing for Protests, Civil Unrest Requires Coordination among Agencies

By Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr., Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University

Across the country, communities are experiencing an increase of both planned and spontaneous protests and public gatherings. It is critical that public safety agencies, including emergency management, law enforcement, fire service and others, work together to effectively prepare for such civil events. Regardless of the size of the community, cities and towns across the country must include civil event response as part of its emergency operations plans.

Violence — whether perpetrated by organized groups or individual actors — can always threaten peaceful assemblies. For example, at the same time as the Dallas shooting in July, which killed five police officers, there were also predominantly peaceful protests in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New York, Atlanta and Chicago. This demonstrates that any and every civil assembly has the potential to be calm and orderly or turn into civil unrest and even a riot. In several cases, including the Baltimore riots in April 2015 and more recently in Dallas, individuals bent on creating violence took advantage of the highly charged event and hijacked peaceful protests. Therefore, public safety agencies must be prepared to respond should a peaceful protest suddenly become violent.

Few argue the constitutional rights of individuals to protest and express their First Amendment rights. Many in law enforcement, including Dallas Police Chief David Brown, have expressed their commitment to protect an individual’s right to protest and be heard. However, the commitment to protecting an individual’s First Amendment right to expression requires planning, training and exercising for public safety agencies.

Protests are highly charged special events. When possible, city public safety leaders or emergency managers must take the time to meet with protest organizers to plan for peaceful protests. During an event, agencies must remain vigilant to ensure the protection of the protesters. Public safety agencies, including emergency management, need to assess potential threats to peaceful public gatherings and protests. These agencies must be prepared to deal with any situation and have properly staged resources so they can respond effectively to incidents that may include an active shooter or mass-casualty incident.

Emergency Managers in Civil Events

The role for emergency management is not in tactical operational support, but in developing integrated operational strategies, securing mutual aid agreements and developing general overall community preparedness. When there is a potential for civil protest or a spontaneous protest begins, a threat assessment is necessary to gather information.

Emergency managers bring structure and organization to a crisis. Emergency plans must define the incident command and management structure and provide mutual aid strategies for all contingencies. Following the Baltimore riots, Emergency Management Director Robert Maloney pointed out the value and capabilities of the community to be part of any recovery operations. People tend to support what they help create. Community engagement, prior to any emergency, should be part of all emergency management strategies.

Creating a Strategy for Protests or Civil Events

The three elements to consider when developing an emergency operations strategy are time, resources and money. When time is limited, such as during a spontaneous civil protest, emergency managers and public safety leaders must rely on the expedient deployment of assets. This includes having mutual aid strategies in place to quickly mobilize local, regional, state and federal assets. These assets are used to gather operational intelligence, establish a scene presence, and stage appropriate resources and equipment.

If agencies do not have a comprehensive emergency operation strategy in place ahead of an incident — including a potential threat and risk assessment — the more assets will be needed and the higher the cost to effectively respond and stabilize an incident.

Elements of a Threat Assessment

A threat assessment should include an estimation of the number of protesters present or anticipated. Emergency managers should ask the following questions:

  • Will the protest itself create a counter protest or conflicting response?
  • Does the group have a history of violence in other jurisdictions or previous events?
  • If it is a spontaneous and unlicensed protest, what is the likelihood of violence?
  • Are there critical facilities within the anticipated protest route that must be protected or that may be an area of increased vulnerability?

This component of the jurisdiction’s emergency operations plan will provide law enforcement and emergency service agencies with more information to help them to strategically deploy resources.

A fact sheet published by the InterAgency Board (IAB) entitled Training Trigger: Integrated Response Operations in Active Shooter/Hostile Events (ASHE) highlights the need for integrated public safety response to an active shooter or hostile event. The IAB recommends that organizations prepare integrated public safety response for such events by:

  • Developing a strategic integrated response policy and plan/procedure.
  • Prioritizing and supporting the development and implementation of proactive ASHE-relevant joint policies, procedures, training, exercises and equipment.
  • Integrating and improving coordinated pre-event law enforcement, fire, and EMS policy, planning, training, and exercises including interagency communications.
  • Adopting and implementing a common operating language.
  • Integrating and improving coordinated command and incident management across all responder disciplines.
  • Adopting the Rescue Task Force concept.
  • Employing Tactical Emergency Casualty Care guidelines and training responders in related specialized equipment.
  • Implementing casualty collection points as needed.
  • Developing and communicating evidence-based guidelines for fire/EMS ballistic protective equipment.
  • Establishing evidence-based guidelines and education for medical rescue equipment.
  • Promoting two-way public communication.

Many of the IAB recommendations are also very relevant to large-scale, high-energy events. Having an incident action plan ready to implement when warranted is essential to community preparedness and effective response.

Managing the Consequences of Chaos

Today’s protests are very different from previous generations. The Internet has created a way for civic activists to easily connect with many people and resources. Protests are not always locally driven nor locally sponsored. The actions and issues that cause protests are global in scale and not restricted to local problems. In addition, protesters are not always from the community and often have an alternative agenda, including creating chaos and committing acts of violence.

Public safety officials must develop operational intelligence skills to assess Internet traffic related to protests and assess the behavior of those protesting. It is critical to protect protesters with legitimate concerns from those with violent intent. Activating the emergency operations center and multi-agency coordination center will provide a facility for sharing information and the coordination of resource requests and staging.

Law enforcement officers must monitor peaceful protests to identify individuals who might do harm and incite violence. Such individuals should be detained, isolated or interviewed to determine if they are a threat to the peaceful assembly. Understanding the issues and protesters’ lawful activities provides officers with information not only to protect the protestors but also to step in and detain those who attempt to hijack a peaceful protest for unlawful and often violent purposes.

Emergency managers must work with law enforcement to develop strategies for the protection of critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure is any facility or structure that is essential to preserving community operations and culture. In Baltimore, 300 National Guardsmen were deployed along with district police to restore the area to normal as quickly as possible. Local police officers from each district were partnered with the Guardsmen to ensure knowledge of the area, its residents and specific concerns.

In disaster response and recovery operations, public safety agencies are required to continue essential services in times of crisis. For emergency managers, recovery operations can set the tone for how the community interprets the incident and how leaders are perceived. The most essential role of emergency managers is to restore city systems and provide residents stability and safety.

ProtestsAbout the Author: Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr., MPA, CPM, CEM, has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and public safety operations. Currently, he is the Director of Strategic Relations for Fire and Emergency Services at American Public University System. Anthony is on the faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. He also serves on the Fire & Life Safety Council of ASIS International and Vice-President of the International Association of Emergency Managers Region 2.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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