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Protest response: Key considerations to improve LE operations

Sound planning that outlines a response strategy, coupled with rules of engagement and quality less-lethal training, will enhance an agency’s response


The use of less-lethal devices by police during protests and riots is attracting a lot of attention from legislators, the media and the public.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

“The ability to secure ourselves from defeat lies in our own hands” – Sun Tzu

Currently, police are under attack not only in the street but also on the political front. Officers are being scrutinized by the media, political officials, legislators, the courts and the public – all demanding significant changes to police policies, procedures and operations.

One area attracting substantial attention is the use of less-lethal devices by police in protests and riots. Over the past several months, critics have accused police of overreacting and using excessive force to break up demonstrations. Subsequently, these critics have convinced courts in some jurisdictions to place restrictions on police use of less-lethal tools – like extended range impact munitions and chemical agents. As a result, these departments are now limited when using their most effective means of dealing with these dangerous situations. This outcome is unacceptable and places the safety of officers and the community at risk.

Another troublesome issue involves accusations leveled at officers by critics and activists who claim they break up peaceful demonstrations without cause. With the current anti-police climate, accusations, whether valid or not, are being used to force police agencies to change their protest response policies and procedures. To mitigate these issues from happening in other jurisdictions, police leaders need to focus on proper less-lethal training and education, less-lethal policy review, and protest response coordination, planning and execution efforts.

Less-lethal training and education

Training provides skills and instills confidence, while education provides knowledge and improves understanding. Less lethal and chemical agent instructors must be proficient in both of these domains.

Too often, law enforcement officers cannot articulate why they took a particular course of action resulting in lost court cases and public support. To rectify this in a crowd control setting, officers must have documented training (lesson plan, hourly distribution, etc.) to use less lethal and chemical munitions. Annual or bi-annual refresher training, which includes a qualification, must occur, and any new case law and other relevant information should be incorporated.

Training should include decision-making exercises to help officers make tactically sound and lawful less-lethal deployments. While it is essential to have the skill to accurately deploy a 40mm sponge round in a crowd control setting, the decision to fire is just as important. If officers have never been trained or have not received updated training in the use of less-lethal tools or chemical agents, they cannot deploy them. Deploying without training opens up an agency to unnecessary liability.


Agencies must have clear policies on the use of less-lethal tools and officers must understand them. Unfortunately, activists are attempting to push departments to make hasty and rash policy changes. Policy development must be done smartly to ensure a police department follows established law and not activists’ demands. Officers must have confidence in the policies, but if there is constant policy change it will lead to a lack of confidence and poor officer decision-making. Policy formulation should also not try to solve every issue or answer all questions. [1]

Over the last several months, news crews filmed officers firing extended range impact munitions indiscriminately and at protesters who are running away. This irresponsible deployment of less-lethal is the driving force for detractors to further restrict or ban their use, and it must stop. Properly educating and training officers on agency less-lethal policies can help prevent these occurrences. An agency’s less lethal policy should provide general principles to guide officers in their decision-making process.


At the executive level, agency leaders should meet with elected officials to determine their realistic expectations of officers during protests. Questions like whether law enforcement officers will address property crimes committed during a violent protest should be answered. Elected officials and police leaders must give specific guidance on protest response for transparency and accountability on all sides. Departments must maintain legitimacy with their community and determining elected official’s expectations is one way to do that.


Protest planning should not be completed the day before an anticipated event, and departments need standing pre-plans for these events. While standing pre-plans lack the situational awareness for implementation, they are of extreme value in identifying resources, developing contingencies, and gaining insight into potential issues that can take place. While some might argue that plans are unnecessary because they never resemble what occurs, that indicates a failure to understand how the planning process provides awareness and understanding.

No standard format is required for a plan, but one that has stood the test of time is the military’s five-component SMEAC – Situation, Mission, Execution, Administrative and Logistics, and Command and Signal. SMEAC provides a quick and compact format for developing plans, especially when there are time constraints. Even in hasty situations, SMEAC gives planners a mental checklist for briefings, so nothing crucial is missed.

Shaping operations

An incident commander should never accept an operation on the terms offered. To that end, a shaping operation is a series of actions taken in anticipation of an engagement designed to achieve the strategic objectives. [2] In the context of a protest, officers should sweep the area where an anticipated event occurs for any missiles or other items that violent protesters can use against the police. Sanitizing the area of operations to the extent possible minimizes the ability of protestors to attack officers.

As a note, do not place metal fencing around protest areas because they are easily moved and used against crowd control officers. An alternative is to use water-filled pedestrian barriers that are not easily moved or used against officers. Work with your jurisdiction’s city works department to implement these resources. Shaping operations are usually multi-disciplinary and include departments not generally considered by law enforcement.

Rules of engagement

Rules of engagement (ROEs) enhance planning by describing the conditions under which officers may initiate and continue actions against adversaries. [3] They usually are written to be more restrictive than policy, but not always. One example is a ROE in a demonstration setting that restricts the individual officer from arresting for minor violations and vests it with a squad leader. This ROE stops one officer from committing the entire mobile field force to an undesirable course of action.

Consider the following ROE example for the deployment of chemical agents at a protest:

Chemical agents will be deployed only with the approval of the incident commander. Conditions that may require the use of chemical agents include but are not limited to:

  • When crowd control efforts are proving ineffective
  • The conditions have become too dangerous for officers to enter or remain in an area
  • The dynamics of the crowd demand immediate and forceful dispersal

One ROE consideration for chemical agent deployment during a protest is potential damage to businesses. The incident commander should conduct a risk vs. gain analysis because chemical agents can seep into businesses causing damage. Consider these businesses in the planning process. A clothing store damaged by chemical agents does not help an agency maintain its legitimacy with the community.


While this article does not focus on crowd control tactics, officers must be trained and educated in the fundamentals of skirmish lines, moving crowds, crowd behavior, communication and other tactics. In the last several months, news crews recorded unorganized skirmish lines and lackluster crowd control tactics by mobile field forces. With increased scrutiny, law enforcement agencies cannot afford a disordered response to protests.

SWAT deployment to protests

Several agencies continue to deploy tactical units and armored rescue vehicles on the front skirmish lines of protests. Departments should consider the optics of this deployment method and ask their tactical team if it is necessary. If the answer is “that is the way we have always done it,” then it is time to seriously reconsider.

One alternative is small response teams in vehicles near the protest, but not visible to front-line protestors. To avoid attracting unwanted attention, tactical team members can dress in regular police uniforms with plate carriers, helmets and gear inside the vehicles. If an adversarial event occurs, such as an active shooter, they can quickly respond to the scene. Also, consider deploying tactical medics with mobile teams.

Armored vehicles should be kept close but out of sight from the front protest lines unless there is a clear and articulable threat that necessitates their proximity.

There are alternative methods of intelligently deploying tactical assets in a protest setting so ensure you reach out to other agencies for ideas.


Law enforcement officers are under intense scrutiny and agencies must ensure their response to protests is within both the law and agency policy. The suggestions outlined in this article will help an agency in this matter and prevent further restrictions on the law enforcement protest response. Sound planning that outlines a response strategy coupled with rules of engagement, shaping operations, and quality less-lethal training and education will enhance an agency’s response to these ongoing protests.

Agencies must not stop planning for protests. Law enforcement is in the calm eye of the storm, and more protests, riots and looting events will likely occur in the future. Exploit this time to prepare and do not leave the response to chance.

NEXT: 7 tips for leading during the anti-police crisis of 2020


1. Hall J, Patrick U. In defense of self and others. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 3rd edition, 2017.

2. Heal S. Shaping operations. Tactical Edge, Spring 2008.

3. Heal S. Rules of engagement. Tactical Edge, Fall 2003.

Lieutenant Travis Norton is a 20-year veteran with the Oceanside (CA) Police Department. He was on his department’s tactical team for 14 years and is currently a watch commander, manages the Crisis Negotiations Team and is his department’s emergency planner. He teaches tactical science for Field Command and SWAT related topics and critical incident management for NTOA. He is on the CATO Board of Certification for SWAT operators and is the team leader for the CATO After Action Review Team. Travis also holds a master’s degree from Cal. State Long Beach in Emergency Services Administration and is currently working on his doctoral degree in Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.