Stuck in the Middle: Policing in a Politically Charged Election Season

There are myriad other examples of politically motivated civil unrest throughout American history—from the Whiskey Rebellion in the 18th Century, to the Pottawatomie Massacre in the 19th Century, to the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in the 20th Century.

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The first votes are about to be cast in what will surely be a hotly contested Democratic primary season, which is almost certainly going to be followed by a volatile general election season once the nominee responsible for facing incumbent President Donald Trump is selected.

On the other side of this upcoming weekend—Monday, February third—a unique political process will transpire in Iowa in which Iowans will form "gatherings of neighbors" in churches, schools, public buildings, and even individuals' homes to try to convince each other to join the team of their chosen candidate.

There's much more complexity to the process—which involves several more steps such as district conventions—but essentially, the Iowa Caucuses is a series of town meetings happening at exactly the same time across the state.

Authorities there have been bracing for this day for months, with most expecting it will be the biggest turnout in Caucus history.

"It's going to be nuts," Sean Bagniewski—chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party—told The Hill in May of last year.

That was before the current events of the day unfolded—with impeachment proceedings continuing in the Senate even as I write this column. 

The 2020 Iowa Caucuses could turn into a political food fight. The remaining primary elections could then quickly devolve into a real, actual fight.

Guess who will be called to respond to whatever transpires during those events?


You—the men and women of law enforcement serving your communities in the Hawkeye State and across the country as winter becomes spring, and then the two party conventions take place in summer, and the election is held as autumn becomes winter again.

The Iowa Caucuses may prove next week to be a microcosm of what's to come throughout the country over the next nine months—New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina before February even ends!

Here are some thoughts on policing in this political season leading up to November 3, 2020.

Stuck in the Middle

Crowd control will be an issue not only in the places where the candidates show up for rallies, fund raisers, and other events—there are likely to be countless political rallies where there isn't a presidential candidate in sight.

First let's address the big-daddy challenge for law enforcement in the 2020 presidential campaign—a visit to your area by the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania, Donald Trump.

In addition to having to deal with the logistics of the motorcade from the airport, the securing of various venues, coordinating with the Secret Service and other federal agencies, arranging mutual aid for regular patrol, and myriad other factors, the crowd control strategy and tactics have to be rock-solid.

Donald Trump is undeniably one of the most polarizing presidents since his immediate predecessor and the passion of both his detractors and his supporters is unprecedented. Needless to say, these two groups don't like each other much, and they pose a clear and present danger not only to each other, but to non-combatant citizens who just want to get to work, or pick up the kids from school.

Ensure that officers on your department are up to speed on their hands-on techniques as well as all policies and procedures for crowd control during large-scale events. Inspect your riot gear such as helmets, masks, shields, tear gas, less-lethal tools, and other equipment.

Work closely with your neighboring jurisdictions to ensure that while your agency is conducting the business of preventing mayhem during a presidential visit that the day-to-day business of answering calls for service proceeds uninterrupted.

Bear in mind also that the president himself need not be actually present to create a scenario in which pro-Trump and anti-Trump partisans could square off in conflict.

All Politics Is Local

Let's not forget that the presidential race is just one of many thousand contests taking place over the next several months. Putting aside for the time being what will be decided on Nov. 3rd, there are countless primary—and then general—elections for all 435 congressional districts in the United States House of Representatives, a full one-third of the United States Senate, as well as thousands of contests for state and local offices.

It's important that command staff communicate clearly to patrol officers the electoral battles taking place in their very near vicinity.

It's equally important to have a really good sense of the ballot measures under consideration by the electorate in your state, county, and city.

According to BallotPedia, as of January 28, 2020, 53 statewide ballot measures had been certified for the 2020 ballot in 24 states. Are there initiatives to change the age that individuals are prosecuted as juveniles versus facing charges as adults in your state? Are there proposed initiatives that place stricter limitations on who may or may not possess a firearm? What about bond issues that will raise or lower taxes for selected groups of people?

Are there local candidates running for office who are likely to place proponents of reproductive rights against people who support the ideology that life begins at conception?

What are the people on the opposing sides of those highly divisive issues planning in terms of public events, marches, and counter-protests?

For every one of these possible conflicts—for all of these potentially violent situations—law enforcement must have a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency plan in place. Altogether too many events that began as "peaceful gatherings" have ended in violence resulting in untold death and destruction.

Recall that during a protest outside an appearance by then-candidate Donald Trump in March 2016, five people were arrested and two police officers were injured. Other events during that last presidential election cycle resulted in injuries to officers and citizens alike.

There are myriad other examples of politically motivated civil unrest throughout American history—from the Whiskey Rebellion in the 18th Century, to the Pottawatomie Massacre in the 19th Century, to the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in the 20th Century.

Final Words

In the Mel Brooks movie "History of the World, Part I" the "stand-up philosopher"—played by Brooks—got himself into some hot water by making fun of Caesar right in front of the aforementioned emperor.

This election year will be heated—very, very heated.

If you feel compelled to become involved in the upcoming contest, be aware of the fact that there may be unintended consequences for doing so in public view.

If you feel compelled to become involved in the upcoming contest, it may be best to be the duck's feet, pedaling steadily under the surface of the water to propel the visible part of the duck forward. 

Very little good can come from an officer airing their political opinions—whether those beliefs are right-leaning or left-leaning—on social media, at political events, or in any other venue.

Finally, I ask every law enforcement officer in the United States of America to cast their vote this November.

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