May 13, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


Protests and Civil Disturbances in the COVID Environment

Today’s COVID-19 Report is the first in a two-part series about the potential threat of civil disturbances stemming from the pandemic crisis.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, police chiefs have told PERF that they are focusing almost entirely on encouraging the public to comply voluntarily with social distancing rules and other public health orders.  Agencies are trying to avoid any need for enforcement actions – in part because enforcement may require arrests or hands-on tactics that put officers at risk of contracting the virus.

But we are beginning to see scattered protest actions, such as a restaurant in Castle Rock, CO that defied public health orders on Sunday and served customers in a packed dining room, and gun-carrying protesters at the Michigan State Capitol Building

There are concerns that in the coming weeks and months, protests may increase in number and size, and become more dangerous.

For today’s COVID-19 report, we interviewed police practitioners and experts about the general principles of the police response to protests and civil disturbances during normal times.

In tomorrow’s report, we will present comments by police executives who have been considering these principles as part of their response to the very different COVID-19 environment.


Key Takeaways

--  Why COVID-19-related protests are inherently problematic:  In normal conditions, police see their role as protecting the First Amendment rights of protesters to free speech and assembly, while also protecting public safety.

But the right to assemble may conflict with public health orders designed to prevent people from gathering in close quarters.  

So existing police strategies for facilitating public protests need to be modified, to prevent demonstrations from endangering the nation’s health and well-being.

--  It’s important to build strong communications and trust with communities in the “good times,” so the relationships will be established during a crisis: Best practices on demonstrations recommend that police continually develop clear and open relationships with community groups , so they will be in a good position to communicate with each other about any planned protests. That remains a best practice. Relationships of trust are difficult to create on short notice during a crisis.

--  There are almost always opportunities to communicate with protesters. Even groups that call themselves “leaderless” have informal leaders. Police should reach out to these leaders and attempt to build relationships with them.

--  Arrests are generally to be avoided, but targeted arrests can be useful. Long before the COVID crisis, PERF guidance on demonstrations published in 2011 called for avoiding arrests if at all possible. This is even more important today, because arrests put officers at risk of contracting the virus.

However, if one or a few protesters are instigating lawless behavior, targeted arrests may calm a situation and give other protesters an incentive to remain calm and disperse.

--  Proper training and equipment for officers are essential. When officers are properly trained and equipped for all possible scenarios, they will feel more comfortable engaging with demonstrators to de-escalate a situation.

--  Officers should be prepared to adjust their gear, depending on circumstances. Depending on intelligence information and the demeanor of a crowd, officers may need to don additional protective equipment for safety. Once the threat has passed, officers can gradually shift back to normal protective equipment.


William Evans, Boston College Police Chief and former Boston Police Commissioner:

Police Have Developed Tactics for Managing Large Crowds

My biggest challenge was in 2017, dealing with the free speech march the week after Charlottesville. The whole world was watching us. We had 100-200 right-wingers coming in. We told them they couldn’t carry guns, and we set other parameters. We had 40,000 people on the other side marching against that group. We met with that group too and set the ground rules. The key was keeping them 50 yards away from each other.

We use barriers and road closures to avoid confrontations.  Sometimes we funneled everyone down to the Boston Common, where there are no cars to flip and no poles to climb.

Earlier, back in 2011, I had learned from policing the Occupy protests that there are informal leaders who you get to know. Those are the people who you have continuous dialogue with.  We’ve gotten very good at coming in low-key and having great communication. We didn’t show up at protests with our helmets and batons visible. It’s all about the tone your officers set.

Wexler:  How should departments train for these incidents?

Commissioner Evans: De-escalation is key. The majority of people are there for a purpose, but you have to train officers to see the troublemakers and pull them out of the crowd. You train your officers to be respectful, light-handed, and show the least amount of force. But if protesters start to loot or set fires, you have to take it up a notch. Supervision is key, because you don’t want officers overreacting. If you have one officer looking out of control and caught on video, that’s what’s going to run on the news.

Wexler:   When do you have to move into heavier equipment?

Commissioner Evans:  Once there’s a possibility of your officers getting hurt. We always have a public order platoon on buses hidden away, and they’ll come out if there are bottles or bricks flying. It all depends on the behavior of the crowd.


Salt Lake City Chief Mike Brown:

A Good Response Is the Result of Training, Equipment, and Intelligence

The best time to have conversations with community groups is during good times. The second-best time is in bad times.

In other words, you should be meeting and talking with these folks regularly. Give them an avenue to talk to you and develop relationships. In 2011, I was overseeing our response to the Occupy protests, and even though they said they were leaderless, there was always a leader. You can build relationships, exchange telephone numbers, and they’ll call you to discuss what they want.

Wexler:  What training should officers have?

Chief Brown: Every agency should have a public order training plan. We bring in an outside expert, and we’re committed to having a great training program.

You also have to be committed to the equipment. Public order equipment is expensive, but you need to commit to it, because it will protect your officers and allow them to put themselves in position where they can de-escalate or defuse situations.

I think planning for protests and rallies is part of policing in the 21st century. We should be training and equipping our officers to handle these situations, and the better trained they are, the better they’ll be able to handle any types of incidents.

Often intelligence will determine how you staff and approach these situations. Intelligence will tell you who you’re dealing with, and who you can actually communicate with. 


Arizona State University Professor Ed Maguire:

COVID Protests Are Difficult, Because Assembling in Large Groups May Violate Social Distancing Orders

My book about policing protests describes a framework for handling these types of events, much of which comes from the work of our colleagues in the UK.  A key part of that framework is regular, routine communication with protesters and protest leaders, to the extent that there are any leaders.

Ordinarily, we recommend that police see their role as facilitating people’s First Amendment right to assembly and free speech, not as controlling people.  

But that becomes much more difficult when demonstrators are trying to do something that is illegal or violates executive orders on social distancing or other public health measures. How do we facilitate First Amendment rights during a global pandemic? How do we communicate? The typical model we recommend is much more difficult to implement now.

Chuck Wexler:  And what happens when there aren’t any leaders?

Prof. Maguire: We often hear that there are no leaders in demonstrations, but there’s usually somebody in some sort of organizing capacity who you can communicate with. So I think it’s still possible.

Wexler: What happens when a situation escalates out of control?

Prof. Maguire:  My major concern is to prevent situations from escalating.  Often we see police taking actions that escalate these events rather than deescalating them. For instance, mass arrests are almost always a bad idea. But I’m a fan of the very targeted use of arrests. When you’ve got somebody who’s really out of control and leading the charge to turn a protest into a riot, I think that’s a targeted arrest situation.

I think you need to use training to prepare officers to make targeted arrests of people who are escalating a situation, while still communicating with the peaceful elements.

The principle is to allow protesters to remain focused on their issues, and not focused on the cops.


Retired West Yorkshire, UK Chief Superintendent Owen West:

People Have Long Memories, So Aim for Public Trust and Legitimacy

I think it’s important to take a few steps backwards from the point where people are beginning to protest on the streets, and look at what the relationship ought to be like between communities and the police.

The message I’ve been putting across to colleagues over here in the UK is to remind our officers that the pandemic we’re dealing with is temporary. These are temporary laws and restrictions. For me, the overarching end of this for police ought to be to emerge with a sense of goodwill, legitimacy, and as much support from the public as is possible. COVID-19 is a crisis, but it’s also a huge opportunity for the police to be seen playing a public guardianship role.

In the UK, we are using the “4 E’s” as a model: engage, explain, encourage, and enforce. Engage is about talking to communities, holding virtual meetings, and doing as much as we can to engage with communities to find out what the tensions are. Secondly, explain the need for restrictions on people’s activities. Third, encourage people to comply with restrictions. Lastly, enforce. So there’s a continuum here, and the last thing the police ought to be doing is moving to enforcement.

Wexler:  What did you learn from the 2011 disturbances in London?

Superintendent West:  What I’ve learned over my 30 years in policing is that there is always an opportunity for dialogue. Even when things are particularly difficult or there is ongoing serious disorder, there’s always an opportunity to re-engage. There will be community groups or individuals who want to listen. And there will be times when things quiet down a bit and then, in my view, the onus is on the police to increase the dialogue.

People have long memories, and people will characterize a relationship between the public and the police for generations if the police get it wrong. This is as much about what police do in the years before a civil disturbance as it is about what police do during a disturbance. It’s about community policing and doing everything you can to show respect to communities. You need to be proportionate, lawful, and, above all, maintain a sense of legitimacy and trust in the police.

Wexler:  Do officers wear heavy protective equipment in the UK if violence seems possible?

Superintendent West:   I’ve seen many incidents where bottles and bricks have been thrown, and officers have quite rightly moved to protective equipment. But once things start to calm down a bit, it’s important for the police to calm down as well. In the UK, if we’ve had to put on full protective equipment and things start to quiet down, we make sure we reflect that in our own posture and equipment.


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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