It will soon be two years since thousands of people across dozens of cities took to the streets in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The size and scope of those protests underscored the longstanding centrality of political demonstrations, marches, and other forms of collective action to U.S. political culture. Americans’ zeal for political assembly has deep roots and has shown no sign of slowing down. In fact, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), between 2017 and 2020 more than 11 million Americans participated in 16,000 protests.. Per CSIS, the five largest demonstrations in U.S. history occurred during those years. The number of U.S. demonstrators over that period likely exceeded participation in both the anti-Vietnam War movement or the Civil Rights movement, respectively.
Recent events have revealed how law enforcement responses to protests can be ineffective or counterproductive. For example, some of the George Floyd protests were met with a heavy-handed and excessive response, which inflamed tensions between protesters and police. Last year, police in Washington, D.C., were nearly helpless as a crowd that had gathered to protest the certification of the 2020 presidential election degenerated into a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
Of course, effective crowd policing is easier said than done. Demonstrations and protests require law enforcement to accomplish two imperatives that are sometimes in tension: on the one hand, protecting the constitutional right of free speech and peaceable assembly; on the other, preserving public safety and social order. Law enforcement agencies are expected to apply proportional and impartial strategies and tactics to meet both obligations.
In an important and timely paper, Arizona State University Professor Edward R. Maguire examines crowd policing and finds that deficiencies in current practices are partly the result of the federal government’s direct and indirect influence. For example, he finds that training for crowd policing is often premised on recycled theories and debunked practices. Among them, the view that all protests and similar crowd events are volatile and have the potential to become serious public safety threats tends to lead law enforcement agencies to treat crowds as homogenous entities and to rely on confrontation when policing them. However, recent research drawing from law, psychology, and criminology suggests police would achieve better results by fostering a cooperative relationship with protestors and other, similar crowds. Professor Maguire reviews the evidence, highlights several inconsistencies between that evidence and current practices, and provides a policy roadmap to ensure that the lives, safety, and rights of civilians and law enforcement officers alike are protected when crowds assemble.
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