April 22, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


For today’s COVID-19 Report, we interviewed police officials who have been handling a wide range of demonstrations in the COVID-19 context.  Many of the protests are being in held in state capitals, because they are about calls to rescind Governors’ stay-at-home orders and closings of businesses.

Some of the issues these officials raised are similar to general principles detailed in PERF’s 2018 report, The Police Response to Mass Demonstrations: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned.  These issues include the need to work with protest planners to set ground rules and share information; strategies for avoiding arrests when possible; the benefits of mutual aid agreements; and the challenges of managing “leaderless” demonstrations.

However, demonstrations in the COVID environment create additional challenges, particularly the need to avoid unnecessary physical contact between police and demonstrators, in order to protect the officers’ health.

Key Takeaways

  • A wide range of protests are occurring, not always about stay-at-home orders:  While most of the demonstrations are ostensibly about stay-at-home orders, they are attracting other groups, including especially gun rights advocates, white supremacists, and prisoners’ rights advocates. Rallies are becoming increasingly partisan.
  • Counter-demonstrations are not very common:  Most cities aren’t seeing many counter-demonstrators yet, but agencies are preparing in case opposing factions show up at the same demonstration.
  • Police are not looking to make arrests:  Police are generally taking a hands-off approach, stressing voluntary compliance and not making arrests unless there’s a threat to property or life. This is a longstanding principle for effective management of demonstrations.
  • Officers’ health is at risk:  In the COVID-19 environment, there’s an additional reason to avoid arrests or other hands-on interventions: the need to protect officers against coming into contact with people who may carry the coronavirus.
  • Try to work with demonstrators:  Police chiefs recommend doing advance communications with protest organizers, and using the permitting process for demonstrations to establish ground rules. Some organizers have protested in the past and already have relationships with police.
  • Some demonstrations are conducted in cars:  Some demonstrations are traffic-based, with people staying in their cars. This eliminates social distancing concerns, but can make it challenging to manage traffic.


Saint Paul, MN Police Chief Todd Axtell:

We Don’t Want Our Officers to Engage with People Who Might Expose Them to COVID-19

Last Friday, we had approximately 1,000 people in front of the Governor’s residence. It was more of a celebratory, patriotic atmosphere, but I fear that could change with counter-protests and other issues that may come up. A lot of these folks are from groups like the Veterans Party of Minnesota and the Patriots of Minnesota. I’m concerned about white nationalists coming in with the ARs over their shoulders. We haven’t had that yet, but open-carry folks have been showing up.

These protesters are not wearing masks, and they’re not practicing social distancing.

We have not engaged at this point. Our approach has been hands-off, allowing free speech and allowing people to occupy streets for short periods of time.

We don’t want our officers engaging with 1,000 people who are violating the order and potentially exposing each other. We don’t want them exposing our officers.

We have pairs of officers monitoring from a distance. We’re not going into the groups at this point. Unless there’s a threat to someone’s safety, property damage, or the potential for violence, we will not engage.

I think it’s important to articulate a good public message about our approach to protests in general. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which protests we agree or disagree with. As long as our community is safe and secure, nobody is getting injured, and property isn’t being damaged, our approach is always going to be the same. We need to articulate that well to the media and to our community partners.


Lansing, MI Chief Darryl Green:

We’re Concerned about Protesters Carrying Automatic Rifles

We’ve had a number of militia members. We’re seeing hate groups become involved, and a lot of anti-police sentiment on social media pages. We’re seeing that the protests aren’t really about opening businesses; the commentary is partisan protests against our Democratic governor.

We typically handle our protests like Saint Paul does. We allow people to take the street for a little bit of time, set up some barricades, let them get their photo ops, then move them along. That’s the approach we took this time.

We are definitely seeing counter-protesters. We saw a small contingent of Antifa. Some of our liberal students have started to come in.

Some community members and elected officials have asked why we aren’t enforcing the social distancing orders. But the thing about these governor’s orders that makes our police officers nervous is that they’re very vague.  And our prosecutor has made it clear that officers, before they take any action against protesters, should explain the order that the person is violating and try to get voluntary compliance from them.

Neither our agency nor the Michigan State Police wrote any citations at the most recent protest, because officers don’t feel comfortable writing citations when the prosecutors basically told us that there’s not much they can do to enforce them.

Our officers are also concerned about situations escalating if they approach some of these people who are armed. We’re relatively used to open-carry here in Michigan, but it does present some issues in contacting those groups. We probably had about 100 people carrying automatic rifles this past Wednesday, and officers have to think about whether it’s worth it to approach them over a $1,000 violation of one of our Governor’s executive orders. So we’re proceeding cautiously.

A lot of people are coming from the southeast corner of the state – Detroit, Wayne County, Macomb County. That’s the epicenter of COVID-19 in our state. If 4 or 5 of my officers are exposed, they’re off the street for 14 days. Is that a risk we really want to take?


Annapolis, MD Chief Ed Jackson:

Courts Are Only Handling Violent Criminal Cases, So We Can’t Really Enforce COVID Orders

We had a protest Saturday afternoon, but it was primarily vehicular traffic with very little pedestrian traffic. Thousands of cars drove in to protest the restrictions put in place by our Governor. Other than the traffic jams, we had no real problems with the protest. People were hanging out of their windows with placards, and officers had to order them back into their cars for safety. One or two people got out of their cars and tried to incite other people, but we were able to get them back into their cars with the threat of arrest.

Our strategy was to let them air out what they want to air out, reroute traffic when we can, and then hope they burn out. And that’s exactly what happened Saturday. Eventually participation started falling off, once they made their point.

We’ve been put in this awkward, sometimes precarious position of having to enforce things that are unenforceable. Courts are only hearing a limited number of cases right now. They’re reserving their dockets for murder, rapes, and serious crimes, not citations.

We have to be very judicious in how we approach this, because we don’t want to take any actions that might lead to civil unrest. I’ve ordered my officers to be very judicious in how they approach people who have potentially violated the social distancing order and related orders.


Washington State Patrol Assistant Chief Rob Huss:

We’ve Had Various Demonstrations by Opposing Factions

We’ve had a few demonstrations, and in the last week or so they’ve ramped up a little bit. On Thursday we had a rolling motor vehicle demonstration about releasing prisoners who are deemed lower-risk or are close to their assigned release date. That lasted about two hours and went off fairly well. The demonstrators were honking and waving signs, but they were well-behaved and respectful to our personnel.

Over the weekend, we had a different demonstration by people who want the Governor to rescind the stay-at-home order and associated proclamations. We estimate that on Sunday, 2,000 to 2,500 people came together at the Capitol campus. They came from different groups, but effectively had one organizer. We didn’t have any issues. A large population was openly carrying firearms. My captain noticed that many of those weapons didn’t have magazines in them or had open bolts, so they were clearly about demonstrating.


Washington State Patrol Captain Randy Hullinger:

Use the Process for Issuing Permits for Demonstrations to Gather Information

The visitors’ center on our Capitol campus is responsible for permitting and managing demonstrations. We reach out to all organizers so they understand what we expect from them, and we let them know what they can expect from us. That works really well, because we have a good relationship with many of the frequent organizers. They know what we’re going to want, and they know that if they work with us, the permitting process will be easier the next time around. So we reach out to everyone every time. This way we can also get notified about any threatening language people might be hearing. That helps us determine what our response will be, while keeping it fair for both sides.


Columbus, OH Chief Tom Quinlan:

We’ve Seen Anti-Semitic and White Supremacist Protesters

Our protesters figured out where Governor DeWine and the health commissioner do a daily press briefing, and they make enough noise so that they can be heard inside during the briefing.

We also have had protests at the Governor’s mansion, which is in a Columbus suburb.

For a protest, we typically use bikes. But because of social distancing, we’ve been using cars to create a barrier, and we only step in if we need to.

We work with groups in advance and let them know what to expect. We stay out of sight, because we’re not seeing any counter protesters at all. We’re just seeing 40 to 80 people at the statehouse. That’s a much smaller group than in many other cities. They’re generally just shouting at cars driving by.

We’re not charging people who are just exercising their right to protest. For the most part, they’re staying 4 to 6 feet apart.

If we’re present and visible, they turn their attention to us, so we try to stay out of sight. We have plainclothes officers in the crowd to monitor what they’re talking about.

We do have some demonstrators practicing open-carry.  They don’t really seem to be calling for opening up the economy as much as pushing other agendas. We’ve had anti-Semitic and white supremacist views out there. So this has been used for purposes that aren’t really related to the economy or the stay-at-home order.

We have not seen any counter-protesters. Cars are driving by and just ignoring them.


Madison, WI Chief Victor Wahl:

I Don’t Advocate Arrests, But I’m Concerned About Protesters Encouraging People to Disobey Social Distancing Rules

Thus far we’ve had very small groups protesting up near the Capitol. A pretty large demonstration, with thousands of people, is being organized for this Friday. There’s a lot of overlap with the open-carry Second Amendment demonstrators. Those are people who have protested before, so we have decent relationships with them and they sort of know the routine. They generally don’t direct their anger toward us, and we hope that will continue this Friday.

We haven’t seen any counter-protesters yet, and we don’t have any information about counter-protests this week. When we’ve had counter-demonstrators in the past, we’ve set up separate locations for them with some physical barriers. We make an effort to reach out to both sides and plan ahead with them as much as possible.

I don’t think anyone should be taking a pro-enforcement philosophy with these protests, but I’m concerned about how that spills over to people’s behavior in other contexts. We’ve started to see less cooperation with the Governor’s orders in other contexts – businesses starting to push the envelope, and people having parties. I worry that when they see protests where the officers are appropriately keeping a distance, that will further water down the voluntary compliance that we’re seeing so far in other contexts. When we go out to some block party or gathering of 20 people and tell them to break it up, they might be less inclined to do so. I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s something to watch out for.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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