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Protest policing: Building on recent lessons

Law enforcement agencies must carefully balance the optics of providing public safety during protests while preparing for the potential of violence


The Occupy Wall Street leaders deviated from previous models of protest leadership by not engaging in pre-planning with the police and government entities.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

By Bob Harrison, Richard H. Donohue, Jr., Pauline Moore and John S. Hollywood

This is the third in a series of articles exploring the history of mass demonstrations in the U.S. and the various strategies that police have employed in response. Using lessons learned from history and recent events, we propose a path forward for law enforcement leadership to consider. We recommend you read part one and part two to understand the full context of the discussion.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York and other cities in the 2010s provides important context to what we are seeing today between protesters and police.

Occupy leaders deviated from previous models of protest leadership by not engaging in pre-planning with the police and government entities; their tactic of choice was the occupation of public spaces to further the movement’s objective of affecting change through civil disobedience. This strategy bears some similarity to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (“CHAZ”, later “CHOP” as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest) set up in Seattle in 2020.

Today’s demonstrations occur more spontaneously than in the past, often organized via social media. [1] Fifty-one percent of protests in major cities between May and July 2020 were peaceful and lawful; 42% had “some level of “unlawful but non-violent acts”, while 7% (574 of the 8,700 protests) involved unlawful violence. [2] Sixty-two percent, though, experienced looting in at least one demonstration, and 56% experienced arson. [2]

The tactics used to control spaces and eventually evict protesters in the context of the Occupy protests stem from the strategic incapacitation model of protest policing, and ultimately resulted in “police–protester relations [becoming] more adversarial with greatly diminished trust, cooperation, and communication.” [3] Moreover, police use of forceful tactics such as arrests during these protests increased support for the use of violence against the police. [4]

Also pertinent to today’s situation are lessons learned from the police response to mass protest unrest in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality through both peaceful and violent means. The protests further propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into action, the organization leading nationwide mobilization against police brutality in 2020. As in George Floyd’s murder five years later, Michael Brown was also killed by a white police officer and tensions between the community and police in Ferguson, Missouri were already high even before Brown’s death. The police response to protests and unrest in Ferguson also bears striking resemblance to what is unfolding since 2020, suggesting that police have yet to implement many of the lessons learned from earlier events.

According to a 2015 study published by the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IIR), six themes characterized the police response during the first 17 days of protests in Ferguson: inconsistent leadership; a failure to understand the endemic problems of the local community; a reactive rather than proactive strategy; inadequate communication and information sharing; the use of ineffective and inappropriate strategies and tactics; and a lack of continuity in law enforcement response. [5]

While the study published more than 100 findings, four, in particular, lend themselves to today’s situation:

  1. The deployment of militarized units with their associated uniforms and equipment outside the context of an immediate tactical need, especially during daytime hours, exacerbated police-community relations.
  2. Tear gas was released inappropriately by some units, causing a threat to both protester and officer safety. This includes situations where there was no safe egress of persons in the area or enough advance warning for individuals to clear the area.
  3. The study also highlighted the concerns of both community members and the police over nighttime versus daytime protest tactics; while protests were predominantly peaceful during daytime hours, certain individuals exploited the situation at night and things turned violent.
  4. Finally, and critically, the study also highlighted that the local Ferguson Police Department had weak if nonexistent relationships with the city’s Black community.

Each of these major findings clearly connects to the protests in 2020 that continue to the present day. For example, the optics of various law enforcement in tactical gear in Washington, DC, and elsewhere have drawn criticism from political leaders and the media. [6] The use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds has also become a significant issue in 2020. As of June 2020, bans and restrictions on tear gas have been put in place in Dallas, Seattle, Berkeley (California) and Salt Lake City, to highlight a few. Further restrictions are considered in state legislatures and Congress.

According to a report published by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) examining unrest in Baltimore, the uniform/gear worn by police themselves can be a contentious issue. [7] While protesters may feel as though they are under heightened threat when police respond to a demonstration in full riot gear, there are also clear examples of instances when protective equipment has protected officers from injuries. For example, helmets have proven effective when officers have come under gunfire [8] or had projectiles launched toward them. [9]

These complexities highlight the need to carefully balance the optics associated with providing public safety during a protest while also considering and preparing for the potential of violence. Unsurprisingly, both the PERF report and the FOP cited leadership and communications as areas for improvement in the Baltimore context. Since then, incident planning, the use of an incident action plan, and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) incident command structures have been further solidified as best practices across police agencies for mass demonstrations events. [1]

PART FOUR: The way forward – considerations for change


1. Police Executive Research Forum. (2018). The Police Response to Mass Demonstrations. Promising Practices and Lessons Learned. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

2. Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), Intelligence Commanders Group (October 2020). Report on the 2020 protests and civil unrest.

3. Gilman PF, Edwards B, Noakes JA. (2013). Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, 2011. Sociology, 11.

4. Maguire E, Barak M, Wells W, Katz C. (2018). Attitudes towards the use of violence against police among Occupy Wall Street protestors. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 14(4): 883–899.

5. Institute for Intergovernmental Research (2015). After-Action Assessment of the Police Response to the August 2014 Demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. COPS Office Critical Response Initiative. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, p. xiv.

6. Gurman S, Philips M. (June 6, 2020). Federal agents lacking insignia in protests raises accountability concerns. The Wall Street Journal.

7. Police Executive Research Forum. (2015). Lessons Learned from the 2015 Civil Unrest in Baltimore. Police Executive Research Forum.

8. Baker JE. (May 31, 2020). Cincinnati police officer shot at as protests span into third day.

9. Parascandola R, Tracy T. (June 2, 2020). NYPD lieutenant hit by brick during George Floyd riots saved by helmet. New York Daily News.

About the authors

Bob Harrison is a retired police chief who is an adjunct researcher with the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation. He is also a course manager for the CA POST Command College. Bob consults with police agencies in California and beyond on strategy, leadership and innovation.

Richard Donahue is a policy researcher at RAND’s Boston office. His primary areas of research focus on homeland security and law enforcement issues, including training, police-community relations, and recruitment/retention. Donohue has led Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center projects and tasks on law enforcement firearms qualifications, workforce assessments, and terrorism/targeted violence data evaluations. He is currently a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Education and Training Policy Council and has recently published in Policing: An International Journal and the International Journal of Police Science & Management. Prior to joining RAND, Donohue retired as a sergeant from the MBTA Transit Police Department, where he was awarded the George L. Hanna Medal of Honor and was recognized as a 2014 “Top Cops” recipient.

Pauline Moore is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research focuses on terrorism, insurgency, security cooperation and security force assistance, and targeted violence prevention. The regional focus of her work covers Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. She is the author of The Politics of Terror (with Erica Chenoweth; Oxford University Press 2018) and her research on foreign fighters has been published in the Journal of Peace Research.

John S. Hollywood is a senior operations researcher at the RAND Corporation, where he conducts decision science research in the areas of criminal justice, homeland security, and information technology. He is an internationally recognized expert on the use of machine learning in policing and criminal justice technology more broadly and is commonly interviewed on these topics.