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Policing Dissent

The recent anti-war protests passed without major incident, thanks to cooperation, professionalism, and planning.

August 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

For the LAPD officers working the anti-war protests, the "job" was to get the crowds to disperse after the demonstration was over. And Durham says the key to achieving that goal is not to use overwhelming force or confrontational tactics, but to respect the demonstrators' First Amendment rights and ask them to go home when the demonstration is over. "In Hollywood, Capt. Mike Downing got on a PA system and told the crowd, 'Thank you very much. We've had a wonderful demonstration. Your permit expires at 3 this afternoon. Thank you for your cooperation.'"

What Durham is describing is a very gentle way to tell a crowd to disperse, and for the largely peaceful anti-war protesters in Hollywood, it worked. Durham says the purpose for a dispersal order is not just to let people know that the event is over or to warn them that police action is imminent, it's also a way to gain tactical advantage over a large crowd.

"Downing's message cut the crowd in half," Durham explains. Then the LAPD had to deal with the remainder. "There was another group of people who sat down in the intersection. If they're sitting down and they're just being an inconvenience to the community because now the intersection is closed, it's not violent and you've got a lot of time on your side. Downing gave the dispersal order several times. That resulted in 99 percent compliance."

Officers watch as crowds of anti-war demonstrators gather for a march. Most of the marches nationwide were not marred by major incidents of violence or property damage.

Of course, not everybody at a protest is going to cooperate.  "We had 78 people who didn't comply," says Durham. "So we went in and arrested them. We did it without incident. And everybody we arrested cooperated with the arrest."

What Durham describes is a far cry from the widely held public belief that such protests end with the police "cracking heads." Durham says that both the police and the protesters played a role in ensuring that the arrests did not provide a flash point for violence.

"Significant numbers of the crowd were still watching, and they watched without throwing stuff at us as we made the arrests," Durham says. "There were no attempts to rescue the people who were being arrested. I attribute a lot of that to the fact that we showed a pretty high level of reasonableness. If you do your homework and you appear reasonable and you have been seen by the legitimate demonstrators as being somewhat reasonable, then you're going to get a reasonable response to your request."

Of course, no matter how reasonable or restrained a police response, the primary factor in determining whether a demonstration is a peaceful protest or a full-blown riot is the crowd itself. Durham says one of the factors that made the anti-war demonstrations so peaceful in Los Angeles was the fact that the crowds included families, women, children, and significant numbers of middle-aged protesters.

According to Durham, crowds of young men are the biggest concern for violence. He offers as an example, a Rage Against the Machine concert outside the Democratic National Convention three years ago that deteriorated into a riot. "There were not a whole lot of family units and women and children in that crowd," he explains. "There were significant numbers of males aged 17 to 25."

Preparing for the Worst

Unfortunately, you can't really predict how a crowd will behave at a protest in advance. Demographics and the cause can give you a clue, as can the tone of the event publicity, but Durham says his unit always prepares for "things to go sidewise."

Another problem that faces crowd-management cops is that estimating the size of a crowd is not an exact science and when protest organizers file for their permits they often underestimate or overestimate participation.

In New York City, where some anti-war protest crowds were estimated to be in excess of 100,000, police use the advance information from permit request forms and their own formulas to judge crowd size and the number of officers needed to maintain order. But Chief Michael Esposito, commanding officer of Manhattan South, also uses his experience to gauge what resources he will need to keep the situation under control.

Esposito says he's worked so many protests in his precinct, which includes the United Nations and other high-profile protest targets, that he has a feel for what will be needed to manage them. "I've been here since 1979," he says. "And we've worked so many hundreds of these protests since then that we're kind of world experts."

Moving In

Crowd-control specialists say that demographics played a role in keeping the peace at the recent protests, as the violent tendencies of angry youth were tempered by the influence of older people and families.

Both Durham and Esposito say it's important for police agencies charged with maintaining peace at major protests to keep some cards up their sleeves. In Manhattan, that card is the Special Operations Division and in Los Angeles it's Metro.

In these two jurisdictions, patrol officers and other units work crowd management until it goes bad, and then the special teams come in. And when they come, they come heavy to intimidate and disperse the crowd.

"Part of crowd control is staging your entrance," says Durham. "That's one of the things that we learned after the 1992 riots."

At a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles in the mid-'90s, Metro put this concept in action. "It was a real production," explains Durham. "Around the corner, out of sight, we staged the Metro officers. Then the dispersal order was read and the protesters didn't budge, so Metro came in to make the arrests."

According to Durham, Metro entered the scene like something from an epic movie. "Down the hill came 25 mounted officers in a column of twos, with helmets, face shields, the whole works. And behind them were four Suburbans with our guys on the side wearing tac vests, helmets, and face shields, and carrying less-lethal weapons. They were followed by a big blue jail bus. The only thing that was missing was a helicopter blasting the 'Flight of the Valkyrie.' I was down with the crowd, and they looked up at that and went, 'Uh-oh.' Then they took a step backwards."

To the casual observer, what Durham describes sounds like police overkill, but its goal is to minimize violence, not cause it. "If we're static and I'm confronting you, then I'm pushing a stationary object and that requires a lot of force. But if I can get you to take one step back, then I have momentum. In the past, we had to use force to get that."

Once again, the idea behind making a big splashy entrance with well-equipped cops is to convince a sizable portion of the crowd to go home. "The more you can cut your crowd down without doing anything, the less support those people who want to be violent have," says Durham. "That's a good deal. If you're getting ready to go into a fight and you can make half the other army go home without firing a shot, then you've just turned it into a more winnable fight."

CONTINUED: Policing Dissent «   Page 2 of 3   »

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