IACP Quick Take: Crowd management lessons learned from Seattle, Minnesota and Boston

Three police chiefs discuss their department’s response to peaceful protests that became violent because of “bad actors”

For law enforcement, crowd management presents a dual and sometimes competing challenge to allow everyone their right to engage in peaceful protest while also protecting the department’s community from violence and property destruction. 

Three top police leaders participated in an IACP 2020 presentation on the evolving challenges of crowd management during these types of civil disturbances. The panelists discussed the tactical options deployed, countermeasures for rioters, media/social media coverage, and the impacts of political influence.  

The members of the panel were: 

Protests in Seattle often had bad actors embedded and dispersed in the crowd who initiated violence and destruction.
Protests in Seattle often had bad actors embedded and dispersed in the crowd who initiated violence and destruction. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Memorable quotes 

The presenters for the virtual session had a lot to say about crowd management. Here are six memorable quotes:  

“Protestor countermeasures made it more risky and dangerous for officers.” — Chief Best 

“It is critical that we have less-lethal munitions and we are judicious about when and how we use them.” — Chief Best 

“Officers were attacked with objects of destruction – bottles, bricks – plus Antifa had leaf blowers they used to attack officers with tear gas.” — Commissioner Gross 

“Be aware and observant to identify agitators early.” — Commissioner Gross.  

“We were faced with unprecedented levels of violence from the protestors. There was a significant number of people who would embed within the protest and they were intent on doing harm.” — Colonel Langer  

“The responsible and wise thing to do is to outfit our peace officers with the equipment they need to be safe. If you didn’t have the full mobile field force equipment from head-to-toe you weren’t able to be effective.” — Colonel Langer 

Top takeaways on crowd management 

The presenters covered a lot of material during the panel presentation. Make sure to register for IACP 2020 to view the full archived presentation. Meanwhile, here are three top takeaways from the presentation.  

1. Staffing is always an issue 

Chief Best described how easily law enforcement can quickly become outnumbered by thousands of protestors. Seattle has more than 1,400 officers, but nightly crowds were often 10,000 or more people. Police need to prepare to be outnumbered, activate mutual aid agreements and call for additional officers early.  

To maintain control, Commissioner Gross, discussed the importance of crowd control tactics and training, as well as local and state law enforcement agencies gathering and sharing intelligence about bad actors. In Massachusetts, Boston police and state law enforcement fusion centers had trained together and were able to work together to find and address agitators early. For Gross, the events in Boston were an important reminder that departments, working together, need to know “who to call, where to go and how to bring order.”  

Langer emphasized that in every situation he felt under-resourced and lacking enough officers to do crowd management well and safely. Keeping officers engaged, safe and cooperating with mutual aid partners is difficult and challenging. Cooperation, mass exercises that train mutual aid, unified command and resource allocation are especially important to prepare for incidents that require crowd control.  

2. Need better solutions for “bad actors”  

Chief Best discussed that a crowd of 10,000 people regularly gathered in Seattle. According to Best, about 9,500 of those people were peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, bad actors, often embedded and dispersed in the crowd, initiated violence and destruction that led to a police declaration of unlawful assembly and dispersing the crowd. Those bad actors, which police had difficulty identifying and intervening with early, infringed upon the rights of the lawfully gathered participants. Best called on police chiefs to find ways to identify those bad actors, remove them from the crowd and allow peaceful demonstrations to continue.  

Commissioner Gross discussed how quickly a crowd grew from 2,500 to 15,000 with lots of violent attackers, who he said were members of Antifa. Police should expect people to peacefully exercise their rights, but they should also anticipate bad actors within the crowd to be violent and destructive.   

Each presenter described incredible and unprecedented levels of violence aimed at police officers and state troopers. This violence was different than what they had previously experienced when responding to civil unrest. 

3. Care for officers' health 

Being on the frontline, outdoors and often subjected to vile, disparaging remarks is physically and mentally challenging. Chief Best discussed actions the Seattle Police Department took to frequently rotate officers, provide mental health counseling, hotel rooms for quiet rest or sleep and even massage to help officers stay healthy and recover.  

Commissioner Gross also worried that the combination of anti-police sentiment, civil unrest and the COVID-19 public health crisis will impact police officer recruitment and retention for years to come. He recommended the importance of peer support and remembering officers on the frontline have feelings and families that warrant regular attention and care.  

The danger and uncertainty of crowd management is a difficult situation for officers and troopers. Colonel Langer described the difficulty of the work and the importance of keeping troopers trained, equipped and supported.  


Best, Gross and Langer delivered more than an hour of crowd management lessons learned to IACP attendees. Their departments and personnel, like many in the U.S., lived the challenge of supporting the right to peaceful protest that was regularly disrupted by violence and property destruction. Each leader openly shared their lessons learned with other attendees and acknowledged that they have much to learn from other leaders to be prepared for future incidents requiring crowd management.  

Learn more about crowd management 

Police1 has dozens of articles, videos and resources for departments, leaders and patrol officers to prepare for crowd management incidents.  

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