AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Protecting the Right to Protest: Intervention and De-Escalation Tactics

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on police preparation for riots and protests. Read the first article.

By Andrew Bellfaculty member, Criminal Justice at American Military University and
Bruce Razey35-year police veteran

The right to protest is legally protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, there are certain rules, depending on the locality, that need to be followed, First Amendment or not.

Some governments require a permit to publicly protest. The permit is designed to inform the locality of the event, determine the estimated number of participants and to identify the dates and times of the demonstration. This enables local authorities to make the necessary preparations so as not to inconvenience businesses and residents and to provide safety for everyone, including the protesters.

These protest preparations include providing safety barriers, crowd and traffic control, and possible alternate routes for vehicles. Police departments are usually involved in the approval of the event so they can work with activist leaders. Protesting is authorized on public property only if specified in the permit and streets are off limits. Protesters are never permitted to block traffic or harass the public.

When a protest occurs unexpectedly, police are usually notified by 911 calls. The calls typically report that groups of people are yelling, carrying signs and obstructing traffic, pedestrians, and blocking local businesses. These calls initiate dispatching police to the area to resolve the situation.

The police will identify the group leader and if the group is small, the officer might decide to have the protest leader agree to certain terms to keep the demonstration orderly. With large groups, police might suggest a safer location or request the event be postponed until the proper permit is obtained. In any case, police want to cooperate and will do so with the help of the protesters.

Duty of Protesters to Ensure They Are Not Infiltrated by Extremists

Activist leaders must take responsibility to ensure their protesters are not infiltrated by extremists, agitators and criminals looking to cause disruptions and lawlessness. These people are generally easy to identify.

Consider the George Floyd demonstrations. Some biased media coverage suggested that the protesters were against all police. However, the peaceful protesters were simply calling for justice. Although they might believe there are bad cops who should be identified, disciplined, removed from the force and prosecuted. Most cops agree. When a peaceful crowd observes law breaking or hears rumors that the demonstration could turn disorderly, the police must be notified by alerting any officer at the scene.

Police Departments Must Be Trained and Prepared to Protect Protesters

Police must be trained and prepared to protect protesters and enforce the law when necessary. Government officials are required to provide protection and safety to the community they serve and their political and moral beliefs cannot stand in the way. So when government leaders tell police to stand-down while rioters loot, destroy property, or assault police and civilians that is a violation of their oath of office. All police officers must take an oath, swearing to uphold the laws of their state, locality and the U.S. Constitution. Thus, it is our belief, a stand-down order constitutes an unlawful order, which police are not required to obey.

Use-of-Force Continuum Response Techniques

Many law enforcement agencies still use an old method of demonstration response training called the Force Continuum or a similar model outlining the “types of force/weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance” in escalation and de-escalation. The idea of many departments in training using the use-of-force continuum was to limit officers’ discretion in the use of force.

For example, if no aggression is displayed when an officer initiates contact with a citizen, there is no aggression by the officer. But as the force of the aggressor increases so does the force used by the officer. Also, if the aggression diminishes, so does the force used by the officer, thus establishing an up-and-down continuum.

It seemed easy to understand: If a suspect had a knife and was an immediate deadly threat, the officer could use his firearm. However, using “less than lethal” force could include weapons such as the baton or taser. In addition, the continuum was not the law, so many departments abandoned it. The standard set by the court is “objective reasonableness.” With no other guidance available, this standard leaves use of force to the discretion to the officer and is apparently more defendable in court.

There is no empirical evidence that the use-of-force continuum reduces improper use of use of force. But we believe that, coupled with direct supervision, the continuum is better than applying a general standard. We recommend that departments periodically review their use-of-force policies to provide the guidance needed to restrict and monitor officer discretion through first-line supervision for demonstrations and riots. In addition, supervisors should review the use-of-force policies and procedures with their personnel prior to deploying to demonstrations.

Peaceful demonstrations require that officers show no aggressive behavior toward the demonstrators. If verbal non-threatening aggression occurs, the officer should attempt to verbally calm the situation. A peaceful protest, with just a few agitators in the crowd, accords with the spirit of the Broken Windows theory; that is, maintaining order by working with the community to prevent an escalation.

After several instances of rioting, our department trained citizens to be “Beach Ambassadors” identified by their yellow shirts and walking in pairs. They were able to do everything from giving directions to calling for police assistance. Moreover, police chaplains were a great addition to the Beach Ambassadors program because they promoted a noticeable calm while walking with the crowd. Their uniform, displaying arm patches with the Christian cross and the words “Police Chaplain” likely contributed to the calming effect.

An Officer Making an Arrest Should First Use Verbal Commands

If intervention and de-escalation fail, an officer making an arrest should first use verbal commands. If the aggressive behavior increases to threats or walking away, the officer should continue using verbal commands but could escalate to using hands-on to make the arrest. If the aggression continues to increase, so will the aggressiveness of the officer. Thus, the aggression/force by the officer is relative to the actions or inactions of the citizen. In addition, once the citizen complies and the arrest is made, no other use of force by the officer is warranted or authorized.

A police show of force must not be displayed during a peaceful protest. However, force is easily available. Both of us have experience dealing with protests and all-out rioting. Although many approaches are viable, the goal is to prevent escalation and to de-escalate dangerous situations.

In the final article in this series, we’ll discuss the tactics officers should consider when preparing for riots and protests.

About the Authors:

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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