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The evolution of protest policing: Article series shares lessons from the front lines

Police should understand that protesting is no longer relegated to a lone spot on the map, but could emerge almost anywhere

Israel Palestinians Campus Protests

Texas state trooper create a barrier in front of protesters at the University of Texas during a demonstration over the Israel-Hamas war, Monday, April 29, 2024, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Jim Vertuno)

Jim Vertuno/AP

Reacting to large-scale unrest throughout the country in recent years, police agencies have refined their action plans, learned either through experience or observation, purchased added safety equipment and supplies, and taken other steps to be ready. Lessons can be learned, but heated political discourse like that seen today on college campuses across America can take on a life of its own. Police can, though, adapt existing plans to specific events and then deploy them successfully.

Marches, protests and public disruption for political means are deeply embedded in the story of America and other democracies where a majority may rule, but where the minority has a constitutionally protected voice.

No matter what the cause, the police are inevitably thrust into the conflict. Responsible for keeping the peace or restoring order, law enforcement now faces the reality that large-scale protests and heated discourse will undoubtedly fill the remainder of 2024 and beyond.

How will law enforcement respond?

Recent history is replete with protests on a wide range of topics — from calls to defund the police, to efforts to occupy this or that, to opposition to pandemic restrictions, to complaints about geopolitical activities. These demonstrations have caused public disturbances, shuttered businesses and educational institutions, and disrupted traffic on bridges and main thoroughfares.

Now, college campuses across the country are experiencing unrest over the Israel-Hamas War. Will the outcomes look like those from the Vietnam era, from the social and political protests of the 1960s, the rioting in the aftermath of the beating of Rodney King and similar racial charged incidents involving police? Or will the police employ strategies that work, those that have withstood the test of time?

In July 2022, Police1 published a four-part series on protest policing during a time when protests against the police themselves were at their peak. Although the specific issues in the conflicts always change, lessons of effectively responding to political protests, sit-ins, occupying public buildings and violence remains the same. That means the police can draw on lessons from the recent (and distant) past to form their strategies:

  • Part one of the series presents the four dominant models of police response to unrest, from a show or force, an escalation of force, a negotiated management model, or strategic incapacitation model each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
  • Part two discusses the history of mass demonstrations in America and ways the police responded to them.
  • Part three seeks to help the police build on recent lessons learned during the Occupy Wall Street and other demonstrations occurring in the social media age.
  • Part four presents nine steps for police leaders to develop a well-rounded protest policing response.

These steps draw from history and lessons learned and rely on one inalterable fact — all policing is local, and solutions to the most difficult problems must emerge from the relationships created and sustained by the police and their communities.

As difficult as policing vigorous dissent may be, and as objectionable as the officers may find the conduct of those they face in protests, having a flexible and adaptive strategy that draws from best practice and lessons learned will be the most effective way to plan, execute, adapt and resolve the scenes to which they are called.

With national political conventions slated for later this year, police should understand that protesting is no longer relegated to a lone spot on the map, but could emerge almost anywhere. Police agencies large and small should be planning now in case unrest visits their door.

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
Police responses to public protests and unrest have varied over time
Law enforcement agencies must carefully balance the optics of providing public safety during protests while preparing for the potential of violence
Nine steps to develop a well-rounded and holistic protest policing response

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. He holds a Postgraduate Degree in Business Strategy & Innovation from the University of Oxford, and master’s degrees from two U.S. universities.