May 14, 2020


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


For today’s COVID-19 Report, PERF interviewed big-city chiefs about their planning for demonstrations and protests stemming from the COVID pandemic.


Key Takeaways:

-- The nature of protests varies by city:  Some of the most difficult demonstrations are those in which protesters and counter-protesters disagree about whether states should immediately reopen businesses. The major challenge there is to keep the two groups separated, because they can be very antagonistic toward each other.  Los Angeles has had demonstrations led by tenant rights advocates calling for moratoriums on evictions and freezing rent payments. 

-- Most cities are well-prepared for protests:   For 20 years or more, police departments have been learning the lessons of how to prepare for protests, with clear policies, training, command and control systems, and equipment to respond appropriately to various scenarios. Agencies should ensure that all patrol officers, not just those in specialized units, are prepared for demonstrations.

-- Communication with community leaders is essential:  One major lesson is the importance of engaging with community leaders, in order to have a finger on the pulse of a city and know when protests are being planned and how they will be conducted.

-- Creativity is called for when COVID-19 changes the patterns:  In Seattle, protesters concerned about maintaining social distancing held May Day protests in their cars. To protect protesters’ First Amendment rights while also ensuring public safety, police brought in tow trucks, which helped to ensure that cars didn’t completely stop and block streets.


Baltimore Commissioner Mike Harrison:

We Are Well Prepared for Demonstrations

We’re not seeing protests in Baltimore, though it’s happening pretty regularly at the state capital in Annapolis. People there are protesting the governor’s stay-at-home orders.

When I first came in last year, I made an assessment of what necessary training, personnel, and equipment for  disturbances we had and didn’t have. Our members were well-trained and equipped with the appropriate gear. In early March, we did another assessment and provided refresher training to about 250 people. Everybody who goes through the academy receives training on changing between “soft” uniforms and heavier gear, bringing in relief teams, and securing multiple areas. We now have a mobile field force of about 250-300 people and a command structure that is ready.

There’s a scarcity of food and access to certain necessities and resources in Baltimore, so we’re concerned about people acting out of desperation and out of character. There are a lot of philanthropic organizations trying to fill the gaps to keep that from happening.  I’ve stayed in communication with all our community groups, including the Urban League, the NAACP, and faith leaders. I have a coalition of faith leaders and activists at the ready to help us.


Seattle Chief Carmen Best:

We’ve Had Extensive Experience with Protests, and We Try to Learn from Each One

Seattle has learned over many years from a lot of trial and error, including the World Trade Organization protests in 1999 and several years of May Day protests. While we’re not perfect, we have the proper training and equipment for when issues arise.

We have about 80,000 N-95 masks stockpiled, after learning from our response to H1N1, the bird flu, and wildfires.

One of the mandates of our consent decree was to train for civil unrest, so we train every year to make sure everyone understands and can follow orders in the field.

We’ve had great success communicating early and often. We set expectations and limits. We keep counter-protesters separated, which has been more of an issue lately. There was a time when protests often focused on the police department, but these days most protests involve opposing groups that are highly antagonistic toward one another. Our main function is keeping those groups separated using fencing and bicycle squads.

Last year we had 78 staffed protests, which gave us a lot of experience. Many crowds were hostile, sometimes with police but often with each other. We look at time, place, and manner restrictions on all our protests. We set clear limits on issues like how long a street can be blocked, and make sure demonstrators and commanders understand the steps we will take if those limits are violated.

We had a group protest by circling an area in vehicles to maintain social distancing, so we had to staff a little differently to respond to that. We brought in tow trucks in case anyone stopped moving. So we need to be flexible in our responses. We want to protect people’s right to freedom of speech without unduly impacting others.

The people who run our operations center and our mobile field force have a lot of experience, and we tend to reward their good work by asking them to do more. But we’re trying to make sure that we train others as well. We bring in our newly-promoted people to shadow those with more experience throughout the planning, the execution, and the after-action. 


LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos:

Protesters from Outside LA Are Coming in to Agitate for Reopening California

We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from our department’s history, including the importance of relationships, preparation, training, and a steady hand for command and control.

We’re seeing a couple protests a week. We’re seeing a lot of tenants’ rights groups that are seeking an extension of a rent moratorium. Those protests are getting a bit more heated. We also have more people coming from outside the city to agitate for reopening the state. At our May Day protests, we had a confrontation between a couple of groups. We handled it well and had the resources on hand to keep people on their sides.

The real work at hand is constant communications with different groups. Chief Moore often extends invitations to speak with different groups, including those who may disagree with police.

We have plenty of equipment to handle any kind of unrest, and we’ve had an outpouring of support to keep us supplied with PPE. We have 500 officers assigned to our Metropolitan Division who specialize in crowd management and crowd control. They are our trainers on those subjects, and we train regularly.

None of us have been down this COVID-19 road before, so we’re all trying to adapt and be flexible. We’re trying to figure out what the new normal of policing looks like.

Wexler: Would you generally deploy your specialized Metropolitan Division rather than local patrol officers?

Deputy Chief Arcos:  20 years ago, I think our default would have been to deploy the Metropolitan Division. We had an overdependence on that division. We weren’t developing our rank-and-file and giving them the confidence to respond. We’ve moved away from that to make sure that our patrol officers can handle any crowd management issues that arise at any time of day. We leverage the Metropolitan Division’s expertise to provide training across our 21 divisions.


Chicago Chief Eric Carter:

We Aren’t Seeing a Lot of Demonstrations

Our biggest challenge right now is our gang homicides, not protests related to the stay-at-home order.

We’ve only had one major protest related to the coronavirus. About 2,000 people protested the business shutdown at our state building in Chicago. There were also cars and semi trucks circling the block. No one was violent, so we let them protest.

We have a good rapport with most of the protest organizers. We all pretty much know the protest “playbook.”

We haven’t seen any tension in the city due to the economic shutdown and the loss of jobs. Chicago Public Schools are providing breakfast and lunch to all the kids. Our food banks are working overtime. People are trying to help each other out.

Our governor’s social distancing order isn’t being adhered to in some of our communities. We’ve had quite a few large gatherings. When we see social media posts about large parties or gatherings being planned, we  shut them down as quickly as we can.

We don’t anticipate this summer being any different from a normal summer in Chicago, which means that our biggest issue is violence related to gangs, guns, and drugs.


Detroit Chief James Craig:

I Believe Our Good Relationship with the Community Makes Violent Protests Unlikely

As you’ve probably seen, there have been many protests in Michigan’s capital, Lansing. Protesters there are not wearing masks; they’re carrying firearms; some are carrying Confederate flags; and during one protest, they stormed the Capitol.

Detroit is very different. We’ve historically done pretty well with protests. We’ve enforced the governor’s stay-at-home mandate since April 4, with $1,000 citations when necessary. We’ve issued almost 5,000 warnings and 2,300 citations. Most Detroiters have been very responsive. If we come on a scene and there’s an issue with social distancing, people disperse without a problem. I don’t think Detroit will see protests like in Lansing, with guns and Confederate flags.

Wexler: Do you feel like you are prepared with the proper training and equipment in case of any major disturbance?

Chief Craig:  We are prepared with the right training and equipment, if necessary. But I think our relationship with the community would prevent any violent protests. We have had protests about controversial shootings by other agencies, and those were peaceful because of the trust-based relationships we have in place. I won’t say that it could never happen here, because Detroit had large-scale civil unrest going back to the 1960s. But this is a very different police department today. We keep our local activists aware of everything we’re doing. We keep lines of communication open and let people know about anything that might be controversial. 


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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