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Protest policing: Echoes of the past reverberate into the present

Police responses to public protests and unrest have varied over time


Two Los Angeles police officers and a National Guardsman position themselves to respond to semi-automatic gunfire in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles, Saturday, May 2, 1992. On Saturday marked the third day of unrest following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were accused of beating Rodney King.

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

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

This is the second 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 to understand the full context of the discussion.

In the 1960s, the United States experienced a great deal of turbulence, stemming from a confluence of social ills, racial and ethnic prejudice, and the Vietnam War. In comparison to today’s unrest, events between 1968-1972 included more violence from both police and protesters. Our history is filled with examples of contentious politics and associated efforts by the police to enforce the law and manage public safety.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned an investigation to identify the genesis of the violent riots that killed 43 people in Detroit, Michigan and 26 others in Newark, New Jersey, as well as 23 more across other U.S. cities that year. The Kerner Commission concluded that in addition to a flawed justice system, unfair consumer credit practices, housing inequality, high unemployment, voter suppression and other socially embedded forms of racial discrimination, as well as inferior policing practices fueled violent unrest across Black neighborhoods across the country. [1]

Yet in spite of the Kerner Commission’s findings, flashpoints between police and protesters extended into the 1970s. Police continued to rely on shows of force, tear gas, physical violence, raids, mass arrests and surveillance to control various activities including mass demonstrations. [2,3] This period of so-called escalated force [4] fed a vicious cycle of rioting as well as protest and criminal violence.

Failures in the escalated force model eventually prompted a shift toward a negotiated management model of policing characterized by heightened respect between protesters and the police. Under this new style, police and protesters made efforts to communicate ahead of time to avoid escalation during protests and reduce the need for police to engage in use of force. [5]

After the passage of a number of legal directives establishing where, when and how citizens could engage in protest (for example by obtaining permits and specifying a protest time and location), the severity of protest policing seemed to diminish. Increasing peaceful interaction between police and protesters and better management of protest events led to fewer arrests and less pepper spray, beatings, and shootings. [4]

Though the negotiated management model of policing led to a number of successes, especially as it stimulated communication between police and protesters [5], it began to fade in the 1990s as police turned again to more aggressive and invasive tactics and strategies as a result of rioting incidents that led to substantial loss of life and property.

During riots in Miami, Florida in 1980 in the aftermath of the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating to death Arthur McDuffie, the unrest led to 18 deaths and more than $100 million in property damage. In March 1992, Los Angeles erupted in anger in the wake of the brutal police beating of Rodney King. When the officers involved were acquitted of criminal charges despite a highly publicized videotape of the incident, riots erupted in L.A. Voices from the community once again decried the systemic racism and bias that guided the behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). [6] The unrest resulted in more than 50 deaths, 12,000 arrests, and property damage exceeding one billion dollars.

In retrospect, the LAPD’s initial response to the rioting was to not respond at all, since city officials largely failed to anticipate any major unrest in the wake of the officers’ trial. The LAPD’s chief at the time assured the public early on during the first afternoon of rioting that his officers had things under control. [7] The events that ensued in April and May 1992 proved otherwise. Though police department, city and state representatives may have had time at some point early in the riots to engage community leaders to negotiate an end to the violence, they made no attempts to do so. The resulting police action, including the use of the National Guard and other military units, carried strong elements of “command and control” policing commonly reserved for major disasters.

By the late 1990s, perhaps in part due to the violence in Los Angeles, the negotiated management model of policing eventually gave way to a “strategic incapacitation,” or “command and control,” model. [5]

The eruption of violence during protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999, followed by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., crystallized this regression back towards policing tactics reminiscent of the 1960s.

Today, we can still see a re-emergence of the command and control model as barriers are erected and perimeters are staffed by the military and the police around the US Capitol building and the Supreme Court.

PART THREE: Building on recent lessons


1. Kerner Commission. (1968). (National Commission on Civil Disorders, Otto Kerner, Chair, John Lindsay, Vice Chair). Report of the National Advisory Commission on civil disorders. National Institute of Justice. Report #NCJRS8073.

2. Donner Fr. (1990). Protectors of privilege: Red squads and police repression. Radical History Review, 48: 5-31.

3. Earl J. (2003). Tanks, tear gas, and taxes: Toward a theory of movement repression. Sociological theory, 21(1): 44-68.

4. McPhail C, Schweingruber D, McCarthy JD. (1998). Protest policing in the United States, 1960-1995. Policing protest: The control of mass demonstrations in Western democracies (Donatella della Porta & Herbert Reiter, eds.), 49-69.

5. Maguire ER. (2015). New Directions in Protest Policing. Saint Louis University Public Law Review, 35(1): Article 6.

6. Christopher Commission. (1991). Report of the Independent Commission of the Los Angeles Police Department (“the Christopher Commission”). Los Angeles Police Department, 1991

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.