Executive Summary

Policing protests requires law enforcement to accomplish two primary goals that are sometimes in tension with one another: protecting the constitutional right of free speech and assembly and preserving public safety. Law enforcement agencies are expected to apply proportional and impartial strategies and tactics to accomplish both imperatives. The law enforcement response to protests is primarily a local function in the United States, but the federal government plays two key roles in shaping that response, one direct and one indirect. The principal direct role involves federal law enforcement agencies responding to protests on federal property, in and around federal buildings, and when called on to provide mutual aid or other forms of assistance in communities. The principal indirect role involves training state and local police on how to handle protests and other crowd events. Several crowd policing events in the past two years have revealed related deficiencies in the manner by which federal agencies fulfill these two roles. Those deficiencies include: 

  • Reliance on ill-conceived and outdated training, strategies, and tactics among federal law enforcement agencies charged with policing crowds;
  • Guidance to state and local law enforcement agencies that is similarly inadequate and often lacks a basis in research evidence; and 
  • Patterns of disproportionate response, including tendencies to both over- and under-respond to public safety threats posed by crowds.

Crowd policing has undergone two overhauls in the past 50 years. First, some law enforcement agencies shifted from the heavy-handed tactics of the 1960s and 1970s to negotiated management of crowds, which involved communication and coordination with protesters to ensure free speech and assembly and public safety. Then, after a decade of disastrous crowd control efforts, from the Los Angeles riots to the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, many law enforcement agencies readopted confrontational techniques, which remain central to protest responses today. These techniques include: 

  • Deployment of military tactics and equipment. 
  • Use of force and arrests as primary means of crowd control.
  • Emphasis on controlling space and access .
  • Sophisticated surveillance of protesters and interagency cooperation.
  • Unwillingness to communicate or negotiate with protesters.

These tactics are rooted in a view that all protests and similar crowd events are volatile and have the potential to become serious public safety threats. This view tends to lead law enforcement agencies to treat crowds as homogenous entities and adopt an adversarial approach to policing them. Recent research that draws from law, psychology, and criminology suggests that, on the contrary, police have an interest in fostering a cooperative relationship with protestors and other, similar crowds. To this end, four principles for crowd management emerge: 

  • Education – Police should work to understand the composition of protests, particularly their internal social dynamics, values, and goals. 
  • Facilitation – Protestors have legitimate rights, and police should work to minimize violence by facilitating peaceful speech and assembly. 
  • Communication – Through deliberate and clear communication, police can understand the goals of protestors, prevent conflict, and quickly identify threats to public safety. 
  • Differentiation – Police should focus their enforcement efforts on members of crowds who actively endanger safety, rather than uniformly suppressing all protestors. 

To remedy deficiencies in its response to protests and similar crowd events, the federal government should conduct a comprehensive review of the relevant training and policies of every federal agency that engages in crowd control, crowd management, or the response to civil disturbances. That review should focus on the extent to which the training and policies are consistent with current research evidence and best practices. The federal government should also work with researchers to begin testing and evaluating changes to training, policies, and operations. This will involve carrying out honest after-action reviews that seek to identify which approaches worked well and which ones require further adjustments. In following these steps, the federal government can take a leadership role in adopting, testing, refining, and modeling evidence-based practices for handling crowd events in the most judicious and effective manner. 

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