The events these last few days in Ferguson, Missouri, ought to be of grave concern to anyone who believes in the First Amendment, and specifically the rights to free speech, protest and assembly. Police arrested a St. Louis alderman and two reporters, and tear-gassed a news crew from Al-Jazeera. There were also reports, video and images of police tear-gassing and intimidating peaceful protests all over the town.
While it’s true there were rioting, looting and violence directed at police, the initial protests over the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown were peaceful. The problem lies in the local police response to those protests: They brought out the full riot arsenal.
Here we have a community that doesn’t see itself reflected in the police force. Ferguson is 67 percent black, while its police force is more than 90 percent white. It’s a community with long-simmering racial tension between police and the people they serve. It has now been well-reported that blacks are significantly over-represented when it comes to stop-and-frisks, traffic stops and arrests in Ferguson, even though the town’s white residents are more likely to be caught with contraband like drugs or illegal weapons. It isn’t difficult to see why black residents of Ferguson may have already felt as if the police are an outside force that has been imposed upon them, rather than a group of public servants selected from the community to protect them from harm.
We then have an incident that represents all of these problems in a concentrated form – an unarmed black man was killed by a (reportedly) white police officer who had stopped him as he was walking home. The police, under pressure, released the officer’s name Friday, along with an incident report that raised many questions. But they have not released Brown’s autopsy report. All of this only adds to perception of a Ferguson Police Department that is detached, unaccountable, opaque and unconcerned with how it is perceived by the community it serves. If a town’s citizens are reminded over and over again that the law has no respect for them, we shouldn’t be surprised if they begin to lose respect for the law. This isn’t an excuse for the looting and rioting. But it does add context.
How should police respond to protest? And how should they respond when protests turn violent?
One of the pioneers of community policing – a form of policing that stresses interaction over reaction, de-escalation over brute force, and that police should have a stake in the communities they serve –is Jerry Wilson, appointed police chief for the District of Columbia in 1969. That was a turbulent time in America, and Wilson took office just after the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had ripped Washington apart. But he recruited police officers from the city’s residents and tried to make the police force more reflective of the city. He also took a much different approach to protest. In an interview for my recent book on police militarization, Wilson elaborated on his approach to protest. He said he believed an intimidating police presence “didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it.” He put his riot control teams in buses, then parked the buses close by, but out of sight of protesters. Instead of brute force and reactionary policing that tended to pit cops against citizens, Wilson “believed that cops were more effective when they were welcomed and respected in the neighborhoods they patrolled.”
It’s worth noting that during Wilson’s tenure, not only did Washington not see the level of rioting and protest violence we saw in other parts of the country, crime fell in the city, even as it soared across the rest of the country.
The 1999 WTO protests in Seattle represent another landmark moment in how police handle protest in America. Those protests also began peacefully, but eventually evolved into rioting, mostly after police responded to peaceful protesters with tear gas. Reports after the protests conducted by the city of Seattle and state of Washington found that police overreaction, paranoia and misinformation played a major role in escalating the situation. Seattle’s chief of police at the time, Norm Stamper, now says his response to those protests was the biggest mistake of his career. I also interviewed Stamper at length for my book. Here’s an excerpt:
There were few injuries and no fatalities, 1 / 8but 3 / 8 the images that emerged from Seattle depicted a city that had lost control. Going forward “control” would be the operative word in how police handled protests. In the years to come, the “Darth Vader” look would become the standard police presence at large protests. . . . There would violent, preemptive SWAT raids, mass arrests, and sweeping use of policed powers that would ensnare violent protesters, peaceful protesters, and people who had nothing to do with protest at all.
Stamper calls his decisions in Seattle “the worst mistake” of his career because he’s seen how the police response to protest has changed since 1999. “We gassed fellow Americans engaging in civil disobedience,” Stamper says. “We set a number of precedents, most of them bad. And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That’s disheartening. So disheartening. I mean, you look at what happened to those Occupy protesters at U.C. Davis, where the cop just sprays them down like he’s watering a bed of flowers, and I think that we played a part in making that sort of thing so common – so easy to do now. It’s beyond cringe-worthy.”
The Occupy protests were also a fascinating case study in protest and how governments should respond to them. Because the protests went on all over the country, and because the police responses were so varied from city to city, we can look at the different approaches, the results those approaches produced, and perhaps gain some insight into how to best protect safety and property without infringing on the civil rights and liberties of protesters.
Lt. Max Geron is in charge of the media relations and community affairs units of the Dallas Police Department. He’s also a security studies scholar who recently wrote his master’s thesis on policing and protests at the Naval Postgraduate School. His thesis studied police reactions to the Occupy protests in Oakland, New York, Portland and Dallas.
“The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all,” Geron says. (Geron emphasized that he was speaking as a scholar, and his views are his own.) “You want to let people exercise their constitutional rights without interference.”
Barring that, Geron says, it’s important for police to communicate with protesters to establish expectations. “The technical term is negotiated management. What that means is that you want to come to an agreement about what’s expected, what’s allowed, and most important, you want to reach an agreement about what won’t be allowed.”
But Geron cautions against setting arbitrary expectations, such as mandatory dispersal times. “Most protesters will meet, protest and go home when they feel they’ve made their point. If they aren’t breaking any laws, they can be left to express themselves.” Establishing a dispersal time then gives protesters something to rebel against. “When you establish arbitrary rules that have no basis in law, the police then feel they have to enforce those rules or they look illegitimate.”
Geron also stresses fluidity and the ability to adjust on the fly. Police organizations are fond of protocol and standard operating procedures. But protests can be unpredictable. “The standard or by the book response may not be the best response,” he says. He points specifically to the Ferguson Police Department’s delay in releasing the name of the police officer who shot Brown. “That may be the policy there. But you have to look at the situation. You have a community that is upset, that feels wronged. It’s important to establish trust with them. A big part of that is helping them to believe that you’re being straight and transparent with them. You have to be sure to protect the officer’s safety, but to win trust you have to be aware of the people’s fears, and you need to show you’re willing to make concessions to accommodate those fears.”
One active police chief who has adopted a less reactionary approach was Chris Burbank in Salt Lake City. I profiled Burbank last fall for the Huffington Post. When the Salt Lake city council told Burbank he’d have to remove the Occupy protesters from the park where they had been encamped, he showed up at the camp and talked to the protesters. He explained that they’d need to start leaving the park at night but that they could return during the day. They could leave peacefully or could choose to be arrested, and he had no problem if TV and newspaper cameras recorded them “giving themselves up for their cause.”
When eviction time came at Pioneer Park, police wore their standard uniforms. Burbank was first on the scene, “so that the first person the protesters saw was the one with whom they had already had a conversation.” Most of the 200 protesters left voluntarily; 19 were arrested. There was no violence, no rioting and little anger.
“I just don’t like the riot gear,” Burbank said. “Some say not using it exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important.”
Burbank also dismisses the idea that his approach could only work in a smaller city like Salt Lake. “I think it should be applied everywhere. That’s exactly how we as a nation should approach these events. We should approach it asking, ‘How can we best facilitate these people’s free speech?' “
Burbank’s approach is far from common, but there are at least some other police officials who share his philosophy. One of them is former Madison, Wis., Police Chief David Couper, who wrote: “Early in my police career, I began to re-think the role of police and protest after I had witnessed and participated in too many that had gone wrong. I was beginning to see that proximity mattered, being close was safe-just like on the beat. Get close, talk, stay in contact. The further the police positioned themselves from people in the crowd, the greater the chance the crowd would depersonalize them; to see them as objects and not people.”
Dallas’ Geron also emphasizes personalization, pointing out that when police show up in full riot garb, especially gear that covers their faces, they dehumanize themselves to protesters. This is especially dangerous when the protests are against the police themselves, as was the case in Ferguson. “You make all of your officers look like one another. To the protesters, to the people, your officers are no longer individual human beings with faces. You’ve just made each of them a faceless symbol of the police institution that the protesters are reacting against.”
The police in Ferguson are almost a textbook example of how not to react to protest. “When you start by rolling out the SWAT team, and you then position a sniper on top of an APC with his gun pointed at the protesters, what kind of message are you sending? Did they really expect the sniper would need to start shooting people? It was just a show of force,” Geron says. He adds that it’s particularly important for police leaders to prepare their officers when the protests are aimed at police, and to stress the importance of separating themselves from criticism directed at the agency, or at policing in general.
“It’s a crucial conversation that you need to have with your commanders and your officers,” he says. “You have to tell them that it isn’t personal ‘They’re going to be critical of us. They may yell at us. But that’s OK. That’s their right. And our job is to protect their rights.’”
The buzz phrase in policing today is “officer safety.” You'll also hear lots of references to preserving order, and fighting wars, be it on crime, drugs or terrorism. Those are all concepts that emphasize confrontation. It’s a view that pits the officers as the enforcer, and the public as the entity upon which laws and policies and procedures are to be enforced.
Note the contrast between that and the approaches recommended by Geron, Burbank, Couper, Stamper and Wilson. They all pit police officers not as enforcers, but as servants. Their primary function isn’t to impose order, but to preserve and protect the rights of citizens. In a strictly academic sense, preserving order and protecting rights are the same thing. Operationally, they’re radically different approaches to policing.
Balko, who blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post, is the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”