Charlottesville! What Now Should Police Do?

“Commonplace instant, mass, and social media provide an opportunity to highlight and improve the public's view of law enforcement legitimacy. Using communication and best practices in crowd management, officers reinforce their position as peacekeepers. Police, the most visible form of government, must continue to ensure that the First Amendment rights of the public they serve are protected and guaranteed” – Chief Mike Masterson, FBI Bulletin, August, 2012.

When I see what happened in Charlottesville, two things immediately pop into my mind: 1) this is outrageous and unacceptable behavior, and 2) how can police best respond to incidents like these which are sure to follow?

Charlottesville was thrust into the national spotlight and what I am going to say here is not about what they did right or wrong, but what police can learn from Charlottesville and other places about how to effectively respond to the protests that are coming; that are on the horizon – and can happen in your town. Charlottesville may very well be a harbinger of our future. Police would do well to start thinking and preparing.

Years ago we established what has come to be called “The Madison Method.”

TheMadison Method of Responding to Protest

  • Facilitate and protect the right of people to assemble and petition their government.
  • Always use restraint and care in the use of force.
  • Dialogue before, during, and after the event.
  • Be effective and noticeable peacekeepers.
  • The focus should be on the protest, not the police.
  • Be open and communicate with the media.
  • Continuously improve this method.

It’s all about communication links between police and protestors. We have some experience in policing these hate events from Skokie, IL and Denver when American Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen attempted to exercise their First Amendment Rights. But in most every case, Charlottesville excepted, the Nazis and KKK were few in number and the protestors many. In these instances, the job of the police was to protect the hate group from an angry counter-protesting crowd. But now let it be said, this was before the open carry of firearms was permitted or protesters allowed to assemble with sticks, clubs, helmets, body armor and shields!

I predict that Charlottesville has ushered us into a new era that is now desperately in need of regulation and even federal court oversight. It is one thing to promote a disgusting set of values and another to prepare to fight (and possess weapons to do so) to use against those who oppose your rights.

My advice to police is that they need to get prepared, have adequate staffing and equipment, be strongly committed to set up an avenue of communication with protesters, and articulate to both “sides” what the boundaries and rules will be. In the past, we in Madison used “dialogue” officers to go into an anti-apartheid crowd assembled at our state capitol to discuss our role in being there and what protesters can expect from us: fairness, understanding, respect, control in our use of force with an overall goal of keeping the peace and assuring everyone's safety.

This will be a major test for police in our society. As difficult as it may appear, the time now is to set boundaries, both physical and moral, between those who articulate “protected speech” and those who are opposed to it. (By protected speech think of the USSC 1919 decision in Schenck v. United States. The Court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment, though it protects freedom of expression, does not protect dangerous speech.) There are limits to the First Amendment, citizens don’t have the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, because to do so would be extremely dangerous.

Police need to be informed as to what the British police do with regard to separating rival football fans. Police stand nearly shoulder to shoulder in two lines separating the potential for physical contact between the rivals – the fans can shout obscenities, epithets, and hand gestures to one another but are physically kept out of contact with one another. Yes, it is a large drain on police resources, but it prevents the mayhem that often follows such sporting events.

What would that look like post-Charlottesville? As I mentioned earlier, prior, on-going contact with both sides is essential. Thinking of assigning a liaison officer whenever possible. Make full use of social and news media. Nevertheless. the position of the police is to assure BOTH sides that they are present to protect the group’s right to “petition the government” and assure them they will be fair and impartial. At the same time, the police need to draw up a set of rules/boundaries/expectations that they will fairly enforce.

Additionally, police need to solicit support from the office of the prosecutor and/or judiciary. Can a “no weapons zone” be enforced? What about prohibiting other “combative” equipment: clubs, chemical agents, and shields in the area of protest? How can the court help police protect rights while ensuring the safety of all who are present?

The next step is a very delicate one. If all the rules are in place and understood, and the groups “de-militarized,” police presence initially should as “soft” as possible; that is, not gearing up in riot gear before the situation demands it.

I cannot stress strongly enough that communication between the various groups present (and on the internet) is essential and that a physical barrier separate the demonstrators and keep them out of each other’s grasp as much as possible.

In Madison, we developed the following strategy in the 1970s in response to student anti-war protests at and around the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. Then-captain, now chief of police, Mike Masterson of Boise, ID was a command officer during these times and recently wrote the following. It should be instructive for police in today’s post-Charlottesville era and how police can share their "best practices." This is what we learned together over two decades and Chief Masterson carried with him for another decade in Boise.

The Madison Method of Handling People in Crowds and Demonstrations

Chief Mike Masterson, Boise, Idaho

1: Define the Mission: it all starts with clearly defining the mission and safeguarding the fundamental rights of people to legally gather and speak out. This position should already reflect the organizations core values in viewing citizens as customers. Being customer focused is not situational and it cannot be turned on and off as a strategy or tactic depending on the crisis.  We facilitate and protect the public’s right to free speech and assembly.  When officers realize that they are at the scene of a protest to facilitate the right of speech and assembly it guides and shapes the law enforcement response from planning to the implementation of the plan. It is imperative to have a well-defined mission, like this one, that encourages the peaceful gathering of people.

The Department’s mission is to work in partnership with the public to ensure that the First Amendment rights of all who have gathered are protected and guaranteed by our personnel.  We have a responsibility to the public to protect the lives and property of all people.  This will be accomplished through the fair and impartial enforcement of laws.  It is imperative that when faced with both crowd management and crowd control incidents, those Department personnel utilize planning, communication (negotiation), openness and leadership to accomplish our mission.

“During this event, it is the intent of the Los Angeles Police Department to facilitate the peaceful removal of all people and their belongings from the City Hall Park Area.  After everyone has been given a reasonable amount- of time to leave a dispersal order will be given.  Anyone remaining in the park that refuses to leave will be subject to arrest[1].”

Many colleagues agree that the National Incident Management System (NIMS)[2] is a good model in defining the mission, clarifying roles, arranging for logistics and getting police planners talking.

2: Always begin with constructive engagement, plenty of dialogue and a “soft” approach.  The Brits are calling this the “softly-softly approach”.  It is designed for officers to mix and relate to crowd members in a low-key approach based on their behavior rather than their reputation or our pre-conceived notions of their intent.  If possible, we begin speaking with the organizers of a demonstration before the event.  When events are being planned it can be extremely beneficial for law enforcement to speak with the organizers before, during and even after that event. This re-enforces the police role as facilitation rather than confrontational.  By maintaining a dialog it allows for the opportunity to encourage peaceful gatherings and minimize sources of conflict. Don’t resort to donning the hard gear as a first step.  There’s a time and place for it but usually not now.

“We shouldn’t forget the lessons learned in the 1960s during the civil   rights movement and Vietnam protests. We shouldn’t simply rely on our new equipment and force tools[3].”

A soft approach means that officers do not wear hats, appear relaxed and friendly, and openly talk with people in the crowd.

3. We dialogue with participants before, during, and after demonstrations. Dialogue means two-way conversation, which also means listening to the unpopular opinions and suggestions from others. There may be just one crowd, but it is important to realize that crowd is made up of individuals. As long as the event is peaceful officers should remain approachable. They should be open to give directions if asked to the nearest ATM, the phone number of taxis, and directions to the parking ramp where their car is located or the hotel they are staying at. They say talk is cheap, but experience shows that “dialogue” can be priceless when used as a primary tactical option in public order policing. The importance of dialogue cannot be overstated:

“The more the police fail to defuse confrontations but instead help create them- be it with their equipment, tactics or demeanor – the more ties with community members are burned.  The effect is a loss of civility, and an erosion of constitutional rights, rather than a building of good will.” (Lynch, 2011, para.13)[4]

4: Always be prepared to negotiate. We maintain continuous conversation with organizers and crowd members. We state our position up front: we are here to defend your right to demonstrate, but we cannot allow you to hurt others or destroy property. Whether or not we support your position, we will remain neutral. That is our job. We will not allow others to harm you if you hold an unpopular position. If you want to be arrested to make a statement, we will help you do that and will treat you respectfully and not harm you while in our custody. In turn, we expect you to cooperate with usIt’s tough with groups like OCCUPY who espouse no formal leadership and seek consensus decision making through their general assembly meetings.  Tough…but not impossible. It just takes more time, effort and patience. One elected official had this to offer:

“I've observed in my conversations with some of these people that they tend to misinterpret police approach. While officers may be engaging in a reasonable, steady conversation, some may see it as uncaring. I think they become used to a passionate environment. So, some of the early dialogue should include education as to why police interact as they do.  Just because the police are calm and pragmatic doesn't mean they don't care.” 

5: Be able to protect officers working with the crowd. Police in Stockholm, Sweden employ highly visible and identified "dialogue police" while our British colleagues use "communication police."  If the situation warrants it, there exists a tactical unit (with full protective equipment) on standby in a location near the demonstration but out of sight. They are available as an emergency response to protect or rescue officers in or others in danger of being harmed. Their mission is to protect people first and property second. Deploying the emergency response team is a last-ditch tactic and will indicate that we have not been effective in managing the crowd with softer methods.

6: Show leadership in preparation and training for special events.Use specially trained officers. The best officers to use in crowd situations are officers who are specially selected and trained for this kind of work, and who have the personality to use a soft approach under sometimes trying circumstances — self-control is essential. Not every police officer can do this kind of work.  Rarely is there an opportunity for so many officers to look so good — or so bad — in front of the public as during a crowd-control event. When those assigned to the event are a trained to operate as a team, the crowd will see confidence and a level of professionalism that rises far above a uniformed presence.

7:  Use restraint in the use of force. There is a very real possibility that force may have to be used at any large gathering, especially one born in passion. Those officers working such a large event have to realize that all arrests will be widely watched and recorded. These officers should be welled trained at making team arrests and that training should be updated just prior to the event, whenever possible, to insure the arrests can be made efficiently.

8: Avoid using outside police officers. Police from other cities and locations usually do not have the “police knowledge,” — philosophy, training and ability necessary to work with your agency. Most lack soft crowd management experience or knowledge of the community. It is extremely important to us that we take personal responsibility for the handling of crowd events in our city and avoid relying on outside police agencies. Sometimes that can’t be avoided.  A recent event in Boise required the participation of five large agencies (State, county and local) which was well planned, well-coordinated and carried out extremely well.  The success of this effort came from everyone clearly knowing the mission.  It also helped that the agencies involved shared the same philosophy for crowd management and expression of First Amendment rights.

9: Avoid anonymity at all costs. Police officers assigned to handle crowd duty are to be easily identifiable, with their names and badge numbers clearly visible. We avoid any measures or practices that reduce the police to be anonymous agents. Anonymity or any depersonalization of police conducting crowd management encourages negative crowd behavior and can lead to unaccountable behavior from some within the agency. Videotape the event. Typically, these events are well documented by a plethora of videos made by event participants, bystanders as well as the media.  For example, the policy of UC Berkeley states:

“Normally all demonstrations or crowd situations will be videotaped to ensure complete documentation of the event. During periods when there are actual violations, police actions or other significant activities occurring, there should be at least two video cameras being used”[5].

10: Have visible leadership. During high-profile demonstrations, police command officers needed to be on scene, visible, communicative, and willing to take charge. There should be no such thing as a “routine” large gathering of people without prior preparation and planning, and command officers being present.  Police leaders should have interactions with crowd members as well as officers policing the event.  Not only is it a good way to access the mood of the crowd; it’s also a great way to make sure the chief’s message on how we are policing the event is reinforced down to the cops who are doing the work.  This tenet is emphasized in several recommendations that came out of the PERF Executive Session report, “Managing Major Events: Best Practices from the Field.”

11:  Keep your message alive. In the age of 24-hour news, cell phone cameras, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and hundreds of other social media connections, it is important to prevent potentially dangerous rumors from being reported as fact. Riots have been triggered after police use of justifiable force, because journalists have run witness accounts of incidents, even though those witnesses were nowhere near the incident, when it occurred. Law enforcement is not responsible for irresponsible reporting of events, but getting facts out, continuously can often be beneficial to the police, the public, and the media.

12. Develop a media plan proactively. NYPD recently had to do it reactively in regards to officers arresting reporters for covering an Occupy Wall Street event. The New York Police Department's commissioner sent an internal message to officers ordering them not to unreasonably interfere with media access during news coverage and warning those who do will be subject to disciplinary action, after several journalists were arrested covering Occupy Wall Street demonstrations last week.

“The police commissioner's letter makes clear that journalists are entitled to cross police and fire lines, unless it is unsafe or a live crime scene and officers have a duty to provide access and information to the extent they can.”[6]

Don’t forget, while social media is a good way to get your message out; it is an equally important way to get information back on the event you are policing.

13. Have a plan to de-escalate conflict situations should they occur. If an arrest must be made it should be an individual who threatens the peace of the event. There may be a time when a decision has to be made to disperse a crowd in order to preserve peace and prevent injuries and property damage. This is best accomplished by officers possessing the specialized skills and equipment to disperse a crowd.  It is imperative also to prepare for the people and circumstances that may dynamically and suddenly turn a crowd confrontational.

14:  Remember we are peace keepers – always!  This is our primary function at any large demonstration. The legitimacy of our actions will be perceived by those involved by the manner reach out to them before, during and after the event.  We need to communicate our expectations (what behaviors will and won't be tolerated) as well as the consequences for a lack of compliance.  Don't confuse the actions of the few with those of the group.  Be firm, fair, and professional with violent troublemakers.


See also Mike Masterson’s August, 2012 article on Crowd Management in the FBI Bulletin.


[1] ICS 202, Commander’s Intent, Occupy LA, November 29-30, 2011.

[2] https://www.hsaj.org/articles/221

[3] Reiter,L. (©2011). Occupy & Beyond: Practical steps for reasonable police crowd control. Public Agency Training Council, LLRMI, E-Newsletter: 800.365.0119.  Retrieved on December 13, 2011 from http://www.llrmi.com/articles/legal_update/2011_crowd_control.shtml.

[4] Baker, A.  (2011, December 3).  When the police go military.  The New York Times. Retrieved on December 5, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/sunday-review/have-american-police-become-militarized.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=When%20the%20Police%20Go%20Military&st=cse.

[5]University of California Berkley Police Department. (2001) Crowd Management Policy. Retrieved on December 12, 2011,from http://administration.berkeley.edu/prb/PRBCrowdPolicy.pdf

[6] Long, C. (2011).  Occupy Wall Street: NYPD orders officers not to interfere with press.  Huff Post.  Retrieved on November 28, 2011, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/23/nypd-orders-officers-not-interfere-press_n_1111232.html.