Organizational challenges facing law enforcement in 2021: Social unrest

Agencies from small to large faced the challenge of how to allow for the freedom of speech and protests, while maintaining the peace and protecting the rights of all involved


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2021 started the year highlighting social unrest within the first 10 days.

January 6 carried over the social unrest we saw in 2020, and during the year, law enforcement agencies from small to large faced the challenge of how to allow for the freedom of speech and protests, while maintaining the peace and protecting the rights of all involved.

With issues ranging from racism, COVID-19 mandates, elections and the border crisis, many communities that had never had concerns of protests, large-scale crowd control and, at times, violence, were suddenly either reacting to such events or seeing the need to prepare and plan for such events.

Mayors, county executives or even the governor would have to give their approval before police could use tear gas to quell riots under a compromise reached in the Washington Legislature. A conference committee of the House and Senate met Thursday, April 22, 2021, to reconcile versions of a police tactics bill already approved by each chamber.
Mayors, county executives or even the governor would have to give their approval before police could use tear gas to quell riots under a compromise reached in the Washington Legislature. A conference committee of the House and Senate met Thursday, April 22, 2021, to reconcile versions of a police tactics bill already approved by each chamber. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Tactics challenged

Many of the police tactics used in the past were implemented, such as tear gas, projectiles, or batons. It often became evident that these tactics were heavily criticized by the media, the general public and even some courts.

In Columbus, Ohio, a federal judge restricted the use of tear gas and some other forms of less-lethal tactics with non-violent protestors. In many other states, legislation was enacted addressing the police tactics to be used during protests and large assemblies.

Federal lawyers, as well as the Department of Justice, faced claims of insufficient training and improper management and actions in the use of force in Portland last year. These decisions force other agencies across the U.S. to take note and consider what steps to take in the face of First Amendment assemblies. The result was the need for consistent training, better planning and the need to “think outside of the box.” 

Thinking outside the box

While the average patrol officer in the United States does not receive an extensive amount of crowd control training, agencies began reviewing how their officers are trained for such events. Even agencies that may participate in crowd control units or mobile field forces have begun issuing patrol officers “ready bags” with equipment that may be needed if they find themselves in a crowd situation or called to assist.

When protests were known in advance, it was not uncommon to meet with the organizers to discuss expectations, maintain open communications and perhaps gain trust. De-escalation is now highlighted to maintain “peace-keeping” in non-violent situations.

Evolving protester tactics

But just as the police have adjusted some tactics, so have various groups.

Some have used photographs or video for doxing (obtaining a person’s identity or personal information and then releasing the information publicly for malicious purposes such as stalking or identity theft), or to file frivolous lawsuits. This has resulted in some agencies or individual officers removing name tags for the purpose of personal safety and replacing them with identification numbers.

Using the ID numbers, officers still can be identified when needed for a legitimate purpose but may avoid targeted harassment. However, a county circuit court in Oregon determined the City of Portland is required to release the identity of police officers, and several groups are critical of the attempts of officers to remain anonymous and feel it creates the image of a “secret police force.”  

Groups have also utilized sunshine or freedom of information laws to request all personal email, text messages, planning or intelligence documents to target perceived errors in responses or biases. While such actions are legal, police managers and responding officers need to be aware that these messages and documents will be open to public and legal scrutiny.

Prepare for the unexpected

But even in the case of routine events, there is the reminder of always being prepared. Wisconsin ended the year with the Kyle Rittenhouse jury decision, and the tragedy at a Thanksgiving parade in Waukesha. While police were able to plan and prepare, preventing unrest after the Rittenhouse verdict, the events in Waukesha were unexpected. It is a perfect reminder of the possibility that something can happen anywhere, for any reason, and as public safety professionals, we must be ready and always review our plans and preparation.

NEXT: Sentinel event review identifies lessons learned from Madison PD response to 2020's police protests

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