The difficult business of policing a democracy
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The shooting of five police officers in Dallas last week was a terrible reminder that securing a democracy is a challenging, sometimes dangerous business. Even when everything goes right, there is always a chance it could go very wrong. Law enforcement officers know this viscerally, but it’s not usually something the general public contemplates.

Over the last 50 years, there have been incredible changes in the way demonstrations are policed in the United States. Black-and-white photos from the Civil Rights era show images of African Americans hammered by streams from water cannons, police dogs biting at their limbs, and officers swinging wildly with batons, striking harsh blows to protesters bodies. 

Today, the law enforcement objective is to support a safe, secure and peaceful exercise of the First Amendment.

Demonstration security is a tough undertaking. Only a police officer can know what it is like to have someone screaming inches from your face, condemning you for any number of things, showing real vitriol, as if a uniform erases one’s humanity. That’s why effective training is paramount. As all law enforcement officers know, when you are under stress, you will perform as you train. Officers undergo countless hours of training for these very situations.

Yet, no matter how much one trains, law enforcement retains a persistent alertness, always on guard. During a protest, anyone in the crowd could be armed. Of almost equal concern is that someone could throw an object. Some might think that body armor protects officers from every projectile, but bricks, bottles, and other small objects can cause serious damage, particularly if they strike an unprotected area or are dropped from above.

And while a terror attack may not be the greatest concern, it is nevertheless always a concern. The rifle fire that erupted on the Dallas police officers was a clear example of just how dangerous it is to be in law enforcement—there is seldom warning of violence and it is almost always life-threatening when it occurs.

That’s one reason why the police presence at demonstrations can vary in its approach. There is no set profile for a protest. Images in the media often show officers clad in black body armor, helmets with face shields, and batons at the ready. It creates a sense that our police forces have become military forces. It conjures memories from a time when police trampled civil rights.

But the decisions on how to police a protest today are based on intelligence, not opposition to a community.

Police intelligence is the critical ingredient in planning for demonstrations. Routes are usually predetermined to limit disruption to traffic, guard against damage to private property, and establish routes for egress should the event have to be ended. There is also always planning for how to make arrests, if that becomes necessary, weighing questions like where to detain people and how to safely remove them from the area.

But demonstration leaders are as important as police field supervisors when it comes to planning decisions. It is not uncommon for police supervisors to meet with event organizers to advise what is permissible, what will not be tolerated, and how police will respond in different scenarios. That gives the protest organizers the information they need to lead their movement in a safe way.

Clearly, the Dallas Police Department had intelligence and community relationships that gave them the confidence to walk along with the protesters. Based on everything they knew about the protest and community, they were confident that positioning amid the protest would not compromise the safety of the participants or the officers. It actually helped build trust between the community and law enforcement.

Municipalities that deem it appropriate, in the interest of public and officer safety, to don protective gear do so with the understanding that the image is intimidating. Despite popular narratives, law enforcement does not seek to repress protests because they don’t like the message or because they do not respect the First Amendment. There are myriad considerations that police must take into account, and these considerations are not always obvious (or explained) to the general public.

It is essential that police departments and community leaders develop strong working relationships before demonstrations occur. Not only does this enhance collaboration for safety between law enforcement and demonstrators, but it also supports communication during an event, helping diffuse situations as they arise.

All of this is critical as protests across the nation continue. It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to predict the kind of attack we saw in Dallas, and now more than ever, police officers have their guards up. 


If we can build relationships and help communities understand the considerations that go into policing a protest, we can achieve the peace and safety all of us—police and citizens—desire.


Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE