Protest policing: When do tensions escalate between protesters and police?

Different police tactics yield different responses from protesters: tactical mismatches are likely to influence escalation as well as who joins or desists from protest events


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

Broad-based participation in what are mostly peaceful protests is a product of centuries of social, political and economic exclusion of America’s Black communities. In 2021, the January 6th attack on the US Capitol clearly demonstrated the volatility of political protests. More recently, the release of a draft copy of a Supreme Court decision, the Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and sustained social unrest around restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “tipping point” in the longstanding conflict regarding reproductive rights and other socioeconomic issues. The result is a mobilization of the aggrieved that we are seeing in communities across America, on social media and in the press.

Political protests are a recurring part of the American experience. Labor rights, civil rights advocates, excessive taxation and suffrage have all resulted in marches, protests, and, in some cases, violence. In each instance, the police are present ostensibly to keep the peace.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor propelled hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S.
The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor propelled hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

In the minds of some, however, they are there to enforce the status quo and suppress dissent. How police respond to and manage public demonstrations differs wildly from one jurisdiction to another and has changed remarkably over time. To better “serve and protect” the police must create reasoned, consistent planning and response protocols across diverse settings. In that way, they will better protect their communities, risk fewer injuries and contribute to the freedom of speech that gives voice to those who seek to be heard.

Dominant models of police response

Police responses to public protests and unrest have varied over time and depend on the motivation for the protests. The strategies largely fall into the following general models used to maintain public peace:

  • A “show of force” model that deploys police forces in overwhelming numbers in the hopes of preventing violence at protests and demonstrations;
  • An “escalated force” model that matches the level of police aggression to that of protesters who elect to use violence;
  • A “negotiated management” model that emphasizes police-protester communication ahead of protest events in the interest of developing and negotiating the limits of peaceful protest and preventing violence on the side of both police and protesters;
  • A “strategic incapacitation” model that relies heavily on the identification and arrest of instigators of violence against the police, other persons, or property; and
  • A “command and control” model, in which departments organize and deploy personnel and resources according to deliberate and careful planning that anticipates how a protest is likely to evolve.

Over the past 60 years, each of these models has achieved some level of success but was ultimately abandoned as violence became more pervasive and the leadership style of protests and demonstrations has become more diverse.

The complexity of protesters and their organization of protests via social media and similar outlets has also accelerated the speed with which aggrieved persons (or those seeking to draw media attention to a cause or political issue) can form, coordinate their presence and monitor the police.

A reflection on different models of protest policing that have shaped police-protester interactions helps formulate our principal recommendation: that police leaders recognize the evolving nature of protests and prepare themselves to deal with their complexity through negotiated management where possible.

This is part one in a four-part series in which we explore 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. 

Escalating tensions

A large body of literature shows that protesters are more likely to endorse and use violence in response to repressive tactics by police and other state agents. [1,2] This is particularly true when perceptions of unjust force against protesters become widespread. [3,4] For example, research shows that protesters who directly observed officers using disproportionate force during Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and Washington, DC in 2012 were more likely to shift their attitudes in favor of violence and to engage in violence themselves. [5] Police that used their authority in ways that protesters deemed were unjustified had the effect of alienating protesters and propelling otherwise moderate, peaceful demonstrators towards defiance. [6,7] Indeed, an after-action assessment of the police response to the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri concluded that the overwhelming use of force by police had the “unintended consequence of escalating rather than diminishing tensions.” [8]

On the other hand, when individuals believe that authority figures are treating them fairly, they are more likely to refrain from violence. Acts such as vandalism do not receive substantial support from protesters when protesters perceive that police have treated them fairly, and protesters are more likely to stick to nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to demand change, such as staging mass demonstrations or occupying public or abandoned buildings. [9]

In short, different police tactics yield different responses from protesters: tactical mismatches are likely to influence escalation as well as who joins or desists from protest events.

Research also identifies “danger zones” during which protests are most likely to turn violent; these typically occur during the first one to three hours of an event. A study of peaceful and violent protests organized by the Global Justice Movement in the U.S. and Germany since 1999, for instance, highlights specific triggers that prompt violent outbreaks. To use violence, individuals typically need to experience a “micro-situation of confrontation” during the protest itself, such as police-protester lines breaking down, one side being outnumbered, or people falling down. [10] Across these situations, we often witness breakdowns in communication between protesters and police. This stresses the important fact that most protesters and officers attending a protest do not have an initial preference or motivation for violence, but that crowd dynamics help or hinder violent eruptions; the rise of tension and fear on both sides often leads to panic and ultimately outbreaks of violence.

We can also point to specific factors likely to prompt the police to use force when responding to protest events. Perhaps most obviously, the extent to which police feel threatened by a crowd is a strong determinant of the use of force. Specifically, the threat that a protest poses increases with its size, but also when protesters use extremely confrontational and violent tactics. [11] The presence of counter-demonstrators, as we saw in response to Black Lives Matter protests in places such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bethel, Ohio, and elsewhere, also increases the likelihood of police action during protests since it creates a more confrontational environment. [11, 12] Moreover, and also highly relevant to today’s context, recent research on protests across the U.S. from 1960-1995 shows that police are more likely to use force against protests that are directed against them. [13] That research shows the police are twice as likely to show up to anti-brutality protests and use heavy-handed responses, and especially unlikely to remain neutral in such contexts, regardless of their training.

Finally, some protest violence might also simply be the result of protesters’ deliberate intentions to use violence, [14] or the result of deliberate provocations on the part of informants or provocateurs who have infiltrated a crowd. [15] As a recent example, members of the white supremacist “Boogaloo” movement have been charged with attempting to cause and provoke violence at Black Lives Matter protests. [16] These are all important dynamics to consider as we think about ways to improve protest policing in the U.S., especially as lessons from history inform what to do today to avoid adding to an escalation of violence.

PART TWO: Echoes of the past reverberate into the present

References

1. Lichbach MI. (1987). Deterrence or escalation? The puzzle of aggregate studies of repression and dissent. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 31(2), 266-297.

2. Moore WH. (July 1998). Repression and dissent: Substitution, context, and timing. American Journal of Political Science, 42(3), 851-873.

3. Pinckney J. (2016). Making or Breaking Nonviolent Discipline in Civil Resistance Movements. International Center for Nonviolent Conflict monograph.

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

5. Tyler DH, Barak M, Maguire ER, Wells W. (2018). The effects of procedural injustice on the use of violence against police by Occupy Wall Street protesters. Police Practice and Research, 19(2), 138-152.

6. Sherman LW. (1993). Defiance, deterrence, and irrelevance: A theory of the criminal sanction. Journal of research in Crime and Delinquency, 30(4), 445-473.

7. Sunshine J, Tyler TR. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law & Society Review, 37(3), 513-548.

8. 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.

9. Snipes JB, Maguire ER, Tyler DH. (2019). The effects of procedural justice on civil disobedience: evidence from protesters in three cities. Journal of Crime and Justice, 42(1), 32-44.

10. Nassauer A. (2016) From peaceful marches to violent clashes: A micro-situational analysis. Social Movement Studies, 15(5), 515-530.

11. Davenport C, Soule SA, Armstrong DA. (2011). Protesting while black? The differential policing of American activism, 1960 to 1990. American Sociological Review, 76(1), 152-178.

12. Earl J, Sarah S. (2006). Seeing blue: A police-centered explanation of protest policing. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 11(2), 145-164.

13. Reynolds-Stenson H. (2018) Protesting the police: anti-police brutality claims as a predictor of police repression of protest. Social Movement Studies, 17(1):48-63.

14. Della Porta D, Peterson A, Reiter H, eds. (2006) The policing of transnational protest. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

15. Herb J, Perez E, O’Sullivan D. (May 31, 2020). What we do and don’t know about the extremists taking part in riots across the US. CNN.

16. Blankstein A, Winter T, Zadrozny B. (June 4, 2020). Three men connected to 'boogaloo' movement tried to provoke violence at protests, feds say. NBC 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.

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