April 17, 2021

What If the Police Shared Ownership for Managing Demonstrations with the Community?


Dear PERF members, 

Sometime soon, maybe as early as next week, all of us will get a text message or news alert: “Jury in Derek Chauvin trial has reached a decision.” We will be glued to our television or computer screens as the verdict is read.

This will be one of those moments that will be etched in our memories. It will feel eerily similar to other highly anticipated courtroom verdicts, like the conclusions to the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995 or the 1992 trial of the LAPD officers accused of using excessive force against Rodney King.

For police executives and officers, the Chauvin verdict will have special significance. As I wrote last week, it was not just the former Minneapolis police officer who has been on trial the past few weeks. The entire profession of policing has been on trial too.

The verdict will come after a year of tremendous upheaval and large-scale demonstrations (and sometimes rioting) that followed the death of George Floyd last May. These protests happened not just in Minneapolis, but in communities across the United States and around the world.

In Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, the reaction to the verdict in the Rodney King case was intense and violent, but it was confined primarily to the LA area. The response to the verdict in the Chauvin trial will be national and international in scale. And we can anticipate that the reaction will be visceral, and police agencies should be thinking now about how they will respond.

What can we learn from the past year?

On Thursday, PERF hosted a webinar to review the lessons learned from the demonstrations of the past year and to try and chart a new path forward. (You can watch the full 90-minute program by clicking here.)

Prior to the meeting, PERF staff reviewed nearly two dozen after-action reports examining the police response to protests in cities around the country. We identified ten major issues that cut across almost all of the reports – everything from planning and training to tactics, less-lethal munitions, mutual aid, and officer safety and wellness. (The 10 key findings can be found here.)

I asked the eight panelists on the webinar to comment on those findings and discuss their impressions of this past year’s protests. They offered a diverse and thoughtful range of observations. Baltimore Police Commissioner Mike Harrison, DC Metropolitan Police Assistant Chief Jeff Carroll, Columbia (SC) Chief Skip Holbrook, and Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr brought the perspectives of both large and mid-sized agencies, as well as international policing. (DCC Kerr previously served as commander in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a hotbed of protest activity in the past.)

Tara Murray, a civil and human rights attorney, has represented demonstrators who have sued the police over their response to demonstrations. Brian Castner of Amnesty International is a former explosive ordnance officer in the U.S. Air Force and an expert on the use of tear gas and less-lethal munitions. Dr. Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studies crowd behavior and the police response to demonstrations. And Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer provided the important perspective of a municipal leader who has to balance both police and community concerns.   

Breaking new ground

After looking back at the past year, our discussion turned to how we might rethink our approach to demonstrations moving forward. And this is where I think we broke some important new ground.

When you read these after-action reports, they inevitably talk about what went wrong with police planning, tactics, and use of less-lethal equipment. The assumption here is that the police – and the police alone – “own” the management of these events and the outcomes as well.

But wait. Where is the community in all of this? When the peaceful demonstrations end and the violent outbreaks begin, why do we assume that the police alone can restore calm? 

It’s clear that something has to change if we want a different outcome.

And then it hit us, and we came to this profound insight: The police need to share ownership and responsibility of these events with the community. If we are to improve how demonstrations are managed, then police and community need to approach these events as partners, not adversaries. This is particularly true when the demonstrations are about the police, because those situations can quickly turn confrontational.

How it can be done

Just what does this mean practically?

It means the police reach out to and encourage members of the community to observe and even participate in training on demonstrations and use of force. We invite the community to sit in on table-top exercises and other planning activities. We give trusted members of the community a seat in our command center during the event, so they can see how and why decisions are made.

I know that at this point some of you are thinking, “Wexler has really lost it this time – invite the community into the command center during a demonstration?” But hear me out….

We get the community engaged on the streets as well. We recruit and train community members to serve as mediators during the event, even giving them identification credentials as Commissioner Harrison has done in Baltimore. We form joint teams of community representatives and police, and ask them to document both citizen and police actions and prepare a report for the public. And we have the community participate in our debriefings, when we “Monday-morning quarterback” what went right and what didn’t. 

We ask both the cops and the community what they have learned and what they might do differently next time.

We share responsibility with the community for managing demonstrations. Under this arrangement, the police give up some authority to gain both authenticity and transparency.  And in the process, everyone ends up having an ownership stake in the outcome.

It’s not too late to start now

Many of you are probably thinking that this may be great advice, but it comes too late. That something bold and visionary like this takes time and the current environment is too hostile to even try.

To that I say, start the process now.

Move quickly to identify those leaders who are respected in the community and are willing to help. There is a new breed of community leader out there, and it is incumbent upon police executives to find them and engage them. People who are respected and reasonable, and who will stand alongside police officers and help mediate these challenging situations, if given the chance. And we keep trying to reach those who don’t want to engage with the police, in incremental steps if we have to.

We also need to recognize that there has never been a time when the police have faced as significant  challenges in the minority communities of America. But we need to ask for the help of those communities because we cannot be successful without them.

Over the past year we learned that the police could have the best training, tactics, and equipment but still not see different results.

We need to turn traditional thinking on its head. We need to change the current dynamic. We need to make this a community-wide response, not just a police response. And by doing that, we will show the very highest form of leadership.

So let’s get started.

Have a great weekend.