Police Group Calls for ‘New Model’ of Response to Mass Protests

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Los Angeles police face off against demonstrators, May 2020. Photo courtesy National Police Foundation.

The nation’s police forces are facing a “new protest environment,” requiring a response that involves a mastery of social media networking and community engagement rather than brute force, says the National Police Foundation (NPF).

In an analysis of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) response to the tumultuous demonstrations last May protesting the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, the NPF argued that mass protests in the COVID-era can overwhelm even the most experienced and well-prepared police departments unless they develop more flexible and less confrontational strategies.

The 109-page “After Action” report released this month amounts to one of the most searching examinations of police behavior during a year of national debate over the future of U.S. law enforcement.

“The nature of the…. protests that occurred in Los Angeles between May 27 and June 7, 2020 were ones that neither [the] LAPD, nor other jurisdictions across the nation, have previously experienced nor expected,” the report said.

The NPF, a non-partisan group that has conducted similar post-event analyses for police agencies across the nation, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners to conduct a study of the LAPD’s response to the two weeks of unrest, which resulted in more than 6,000 arrests, hundreds of injuries, and the destruction of countless businesses.

The lessons learned offer “a unique opportunity to develop a new model for law enforcement agencies and communities nationwide to resolve the crisis of trust, and enhance police and community response to First Amendment assemblies and protests,” said the authors.

The protests in Los Angeles and dozens of other cities during the summer of 2020 displayed characteristics that set them apart from similar protests in previous years.

Rather than being concentrated in one geographic area of the city, or a single march route, the protests were a series of “rapidly evolving and dynamic events, often co-occurring in various locations throughout the city,” which caught the police off guard and sometimes led to indiscriminate violence, the report said.

Moreover, the sophisticated use of social media allowed protest organizers to control the narrative of the event well before the police could respond.

“The use of social media has added a significant challenge to crowd management strategies utilized by police, as crowds have become more organized, more versatile, more nimble and fluid, and more strategic–with movements planned around countering police tactics, instead of the other way around,” the report said.

Pandemic Frustrations

Equally important, the protests took place at a time when the public, as well as police, were experiencing the strains and frustrations of both a pandemic and national anger over systemic racism.

The challenge faced by police was to support protesters’ constitutional right to assemble while preventing disorder “from persisting and intensifying,” the report said.

The NPF made 22 findings with recommendations it said could apply to other U.S. cities as well as Los Angeles in dealing with what the authors called the “new normal” of protest.

Key recommendations included:

      • Develop an overarching response to “fluid dynamic protests and civil unrest that incorporates critical thinking skills and offers decision-making models to guide at what points uses of force and relevant tools are permitted to be used by officers”;
      • Establish a citywide incident management team, comprising multiple agencies, to prepare for large-scale demonstrations;
      • Leverage “new and emerging technologies” to disseminate dispersal warnings and curfew notices, as well as provide advance intelligence of potential violent threats;
      • Deploy psychologists to debrief and counsel police in real time to mitigate trauma and frustration that could intensify the confrontational climate; and
      • Engage community members, particularly those community members and leaders likely to organize and participate in protests, well in advance.

What made last summer’s confrontation especially poignant was the fact that the LAPD was among the agencies best prepared and trained in the nation to cope with protests after years of hard-earned lessons and painful reassessments—starting with the 1992 riots following the beating of Rodney King, the report said.

“The LAPD and elected officials believed that they had developed and implemented an effective strategy to facilitate and protect First Amendment assemblies and protests, often in collaboration with activists in the LA community,” said the authors.

“Therefore, officials were surprised by the intensity and scope of the unrest, and while they were prepared for large First Amendment assemblies, they did not anticipate—or prepare for—the violence that erupted.”

That inevitably led to excessive use of militarized police tactics, the NPF said.

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Scene from Los Angeles protests, May-June 2020. Courtesy National Police Foundation.

Without advance planning, and deployment of sufficient resources, “officers tend to rely on the tactics they are most-regularly trained in to quickly regain and maintain control.”

For the first three days of the protests—from May 28-to May 30—as the crowds swelled in size, the LAPD was effectively neutralized, with no plan to coordinate, mobilize its forces to disperse the crowds, or stop the destruction of businesses and property.

The report pointed out that traditional methods of handling protests, such as singling out and extracting potential troublemakers, or “kettling” large groups of protesters indiscriminately to prevent their movements, were likely to be unsuccessful in handling more sophisticated protests—and were only likely to lead to violent confrontations.

A video of police body-camera footage released with the report underlined community members’ dismay at police tactics, which included the use of chemicals and rubber bullets, and hitting protesters with batons.

One community member told the research team that the LAPD response, “was no surprise to me although it was shocking,” and added, “I will never forget this incredibly scarring event in my life.”

The NPF said police forces will need to adjust to the “new normal” of angry and hostile protests, and make sure that there was a quick response to dealing with the trauma experienced by officers themselves—to avoid heating up the climate of confrontation.

“Families of LAPD members expressed that these events have taken a significant toll on LAPD members and their families,” the report said. “LAPD members and their families are exhausted; they and their families feel isolated; they are demoralized by the lack of support from public.”

The report also noted the impact of the pandemic on Los Angeles, which shut down much of the city’s economy, and left people “already feeling restricted, angry, fearful, anxious, and frustrated.” That in turn created the “impetus and opportunity” for many people to express those feelings through First Amendment assemblies and protests that went on around the clock.

But while the climate may be different post-pandemic, anger over police killings of civilians combined with the growing national reckoning over racism, is likely to intensify the climate of future protests, the report warned.

Police will therefore need more sophisticated tools to “balance the use of escalated force and negotiation management,” the NPF said. That includes setting up relationships with impacted community groups well in advance of any demonstration.

The NPF singled out efforts already made by the LAPD, such as the Community Safety Partnership, launched in 2011 to combat gang violence and recently elevated to the status of a bureau, as important steps that other cities could model.

Preparing for the Worst

At the same time, “police departments must be prepared for the worst, and in doing so, use strategies and tactics that support public safety by quickly responding to acts of violence,” the report said.

“Without community dialogue and explanation regarding the strategies, tactics, and equipment used by law enforcement to respond to violence and to disperse crowds, police actions are often interpreted as unnecessary, overly aggressive, and demonstrating a predisposition to the ‘warrior’ mentality.”

In the wake of last summer’s protests, at least seven LAPD officers have been reassigned to “non-field duties” and the city is fielding more than 50 complaints alleging misconduct, violations of LAPD policies, and excessive force. The National Lawyers Guild has filed a class action lawsuit against the City, the LAPD, and Chief Michael Moore alleging excessive use of force, and violations of First, Fourth, and 14th Amendment rights, on behalf of Black Lives Matter of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

The NPF report acknowledged that the lessons of last summer’s protests would be painful for police to acknowledge.

“The LAPD and police departments across the country must define a new ‘normal’ for policing,” the report said. “In doing so, the LAPD should acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by individual officers assigned to the First Amendment assemblies and protests, their families, the department, and the community.

“With the focus on reform and moving forward, the City and the LAPD should take the time to acknowledge individual, group trauma and community trauma.”

But at the same time, police should begin to put the “aggressive” tactics of the past 40 years behind them.

“Although the tactics were intended to reduce crime and keep residents safe, their use disenfranchised many of the residents they were meant to protect,” the NPF said.

“The ‘war narratives’ that were advanced during the past 40 years have proven remarkably durable. In fact, few observers of American policing would disagree with the statement that police-minority relations remain stressed, nor would they disagree that they represent the embers that burned just below the surface in LA and many American communities that accelerated protests following the death of George Floyd.”

The NPF report was overseen by Frank Straub, director of the NPF’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies (CMVRS), and a former police chief in Seattle,  Indianapolis and White Plains, NY; and Jen Zeunik, Director of Local Programs, with staff support led by Ben Gorban, Senior Project Associate.

Advisory members on the report were:

Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a co-founder of the Boston Ten Point Coalition and a national leader in gang violence reduction efforts;

Robert C. White, former chief of the Denver Police Department and the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department;

Charles H. Ramsey, former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, and co-chair of the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Additional reading: ‘Militarization’ Distorts US Policing: Paper”

The full NPF report, along with related materials, can be downloaded here.

Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report.

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