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Why Misuse of Police Power at Protests Undermines Respect for Law

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, we continue to see images of heavily armed police officers deploying chemical and other munitions, using armored vehicles and military-style equipment in response to the protests that have swept the nation.

The recent demonstrations—and the police response to them—have brought us to an important point in our history, a watershed moment.

Ajit Maan

Ajit Maan

As law enforcement officers endeavor to protect civil rights, freedom of speech, ensure public safety, and resolve conflict, we must pause to consider the use of “power”—both hard and soft—by law enforcement at these events.

In some cities, federal law enforcement officers have been deployed to protect federal buildings and to assist police departments in restoring order— without consulting local authorities—calling into question whether the strategy has helped stabilize communities or further exacerbated tension.

Mass demonstrations are among the most difficult situations the police have to manage. They must balance the First Amendment rights of the protesters with the safety of the public and themselves.

Ideally, the person(s) leading or planning a demonstration would meet with the police to plan the event(s), specifying the times, locations and activities that would happen, including arrests.

However, mass demonstrations today are more complex, spontaneous and unpredictable than in the past, with numerous leaders, perspectives and voices in the crowd often making it difficult for police officials to negotiate the “terms” of the demonstration.

Communication and de-escalation must be the first level of the law enforcement response to mass demonstrations.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, de-escalation and even long-standing relationships between local activists and the police do not guarantee that a protest will remain peaceful.

In protests where agitators provoke violence, or where persons commit crimes amidst large crowds, confusion and turmoil, the police must determine the appropriate level of force to use and when to use it. They must recognize that too much force can escalate the situation just as much as using too little force, or using it too late.

The law enforcement response to mass demonstrations must be proportional to the actions of the protesters and consistent with the rule of law, department policies, procedures and training. Additionally, law enforcement officials must recognize that they are in a “contest” with agitators to control the dynamics of the crowd and to influence public opinion.

The goal of the agitators is to discredit the police by bringing about an overreaction— typically disproportionate uses of force. Therefore, the police response to violence and criminal activity must be disciplined, measured and legitimate in the eyes of the protesters and the community.

Training law enforcement officers who will be assigned to “police” mass demonstrations is essential for crowd management and public safety. Officers should know and understand the constitutional rights of protesters. Training should emphasize implicit bias, cultural awareness, procedural justice, de-escalation, and communications tactics in the context of protests.

Additionally, command personnel and officers must be well-trained in the use of force and the use of less-lethal munitions, including when, how, and by whom their use can be authorized.

A comprehensive crowd management plan includes officers equipped with personal protective equipment and the tools needed to disperse crowds that become violent and endanger public safety.

However, it is important to recognize that once officers are deployed in personal protective equipment and force is used, a dangerous cycle can be created in which protesters escalate their actions toward the police, the police escalate further, and both sides become increasingly angry and aggressive.

Therefore, law enforcement officers should only use force and deploy less-lethal devices in response to escalating violence and/or direct threats to public safety that could not be averted through other methods.

When force is used, it must be closely monitored—and used only until the threat is reduced, carefully documented and discussed with the community.

Transparency and accountability demonstrate procedural justice and support opportunities for constructive engagement. Law enforcement officers assigned to protect and manage protests should be readily identifiable and equipped with body worn cameras to accurately capture their interactions with protesters.

Ultimately, the key to a successful crowd management strategy involves establishing credibility. Police actions should produce trust among the protesters, the communities in which they are taking place, and the nation. This is particularly difficult—but even more important—when officer-involved shootings or excessive uses of force are triggers to mass demonstrations.

frank straub

Frank Straub

In addition, to the kinetics of crowd management, there must be a carefully considered and articulated narrative that tells the story of why the police are doing what they are doing so that, instead of reacting to the weaponized rhetoric of others, the police accurately and honestly describe their actions with the aim of reducing fear, and of creating opportunities for constructive dialogue.

Weaponized narratives, left unchecked, are shaking the faith of citizens in democratic institutions and the rule of law across the nation. Weaponized narratives represent a deep threat to public safety and peacekeeping in our communities.

The current situation is not just a fight between truth and falsehood. It’s a fight over meaning and identity. If we are to move forward , we must focus on what kind of identity layers (personal through national) are being constructed by elected officials, protesters and the police—and on which identities are being undermined.

We must resist adversarial attempts to project irresponsible meaning, and undermine those attempts by speaking truth to power: the power of our citizens, law enforcement and elected officials.

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is a security policy analyst and defense strategist. She is CEO of the award winning think-and-do-tank Narrative Strategies which focuses on the non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism and community stability. She is also Professor of Global Security at Arizona State University and author of seven books including Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, and Narrative Warfare.  

Frank Straub, Ph.D., director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, served for more than 30-years in federal, state and local law enforcement, including stints as police chief in Spokane and director of Public Safety for Indianapolis.