Crowds, Protest and Police

Crowds! Protests! Occupy Wall Street!

This past week we have seen a variety of police “methods” in handling protesters. Some have been orderly and others have been quite violent. Nevertheless, how government handles people (even those who protest) is very important – especially in a democratic government. After all, we are a nation that acknowledges and respects the right of the people to “petition the government” for redress of grievances and them acts that are protected by law.

In our country, this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It specifically prohibits the government from blocking, preventing or thwarting peaceful protest. It is one of our foundational rights as a people. And, therefore, a matter of concern when any government, federal, state or local, abridges that right with the explanation that they thought the protestors were “unruly” – or the unspoken reason that they disagree with the protestors.

And, as we have seen with recent economic protests throughout Europe (and our own mottled, confused, and often inappropriate responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement) the problem of handling protest in a democracy is a continuing one. In response to the G-20 protests in London in April, 2009, a former British police commander wrote this:

“The police say they acted appropriately in a chaotic situation, despite having officers with little experience in crowd control. But their arguments are not helped by the circulation of videotape taken by protesters and passers-by. The images — of police officers charging at and striking apparently peaceful protesters, among other things — have horrified lawmakers and members of the public and prompted demands for a review of police policy. ‘The attitude used to be that the British police acted more or less with the sanction of the public,’ said David Gilbertson, a former assistant inspector of the constabulary, who until 2001 helped formulate policing policy for the home office. ‘That attitude has been abandoned. The public is regarded as the enemy.’”  (New York Times, May 30, 2009.)

I think the same could be said of the more violent governmental responses to Occupy Wall Street. I have done a lot of thinking about this over the years. As a young training officer in the Minneapolis Police Department I was sent to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley to observe and take notes as to how police were handling protest. It turned out I thought they were doing it rather poorly! The idea behind my assignment was that we in Minneapolis would soon experience the same kind of anti-war protests on the campus of the University of Minnesota. We were right. Later on I studied crowd control methods when I was in Europe. I vowed that if I ever got to be a chief officer, I would do things very differently.

When I was a candidate to take over the chief’s job on the campus of the University of Minnesota I put my thoughts, experiences, and study of crowds into play.  So, when I got the chief’s job in Madison, I was ready to go. I had some very radical (yet empirically and experientially supported) idea about the best way to “handle” crowds and protests. It involved brain more than muscle. But I quickly realized that my job tenure is going to depend on how well I could manage protest in Madison.

And the method I developed over forty years ago is still effective as the British police recently found out through the research of Dr. Clifford Stott. In short, restraint works better than aggression. This is part of what I wrote in my book.

“One of the most important things police do is ‘handle’ people in crowds. In the long run, a professional police will ultimately be judged by how well they do this—that is, by how they do it fairly and effectively, without regard to whether they agree with the people in those crowds or not.  Overall, police officers should treat everyone they encounter respectfully, with courtesy, and without regard to their race, gender, national origin, political beliefs, religious practice, sexual orientation, or economic status. It’s a big job, but the primary function of police is relational, whether they are responding to a domestic dispute, investigating a crime, enforcing a traffic regulation, helping an elderly person cross a busy street, or handling a crowd. Once this is understood, it is a lot easier to figure out what it is police need to do and how they should do it…

“More recently, the British Home Office has also been concerned about contemporary behaviors of their passionate football (soccer) crowds… and the confrontations that frequently occur today between those crowds and police. Commendably, they consulted academia and found a social psychologist who was studying crowd behavior. Dr. Clifford Stott, one of Europe’s leading researchers regarding such behavior. Stott advocates a different approach for police to use when handling crowds. His studies found that:

“’[L]arge-scale disorder tended to emerge and escalate because indiscriminate, heavy-handed policing generated a group mentality among large numbers of fans that was based on shared perceptions that the police action was illegitimate. This had the effect of drawing ordinary fans into conflict with the police’.

“The finding here is that when a crowd perceives the police as overreacting or being heavy-handed, crowd members have a tendency to stop observing and start taking action. To prevent this from happening, Stott advocates using what he calls a ‘softly, softly’ approach—a low-key approach in which officers mix with and relate to crowd members on the basis of their behavior, rather than their reputation. If police approach a crowd with the expectation that its members are going to make trouble, it often turns out that way. This will not be unfamiliar to Madison residents or their police.”

In the late 60s and into the 70s in Madison, I began to develop what the Brits today call the “softly-softly” approach. If you watch television or scan YouTube, you know many protests and assemblies to protest governmental action do not receive a “softly-softly” approach. Instead, it is more like the charge of the Light Brigade – armor-clad police with shields, batons, gas masks liberally spray tear gas into the crowd and often randomly beat people – sometimes those just passing by.

Most recently we have seen it in many of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. On the other hand, earlier this year in Madison, we saw restraint and common-sense used by the Madison police who, interestingly, set the tone during the occupation of our state capitol building. What we learned together all those years has not been forgotten.

What the Madison police have continued to do throughout the years since I retired was the same method we used during my tenure. A method that was termed, “The Madison Method” by police throughout the country. It is as follows:

The Madison Method of Handling People in Crowds and Demonstrations

1: Always begin with a “soft” approach and plenty of dialogue. If possible, we begin speaking with the organizers of a demonstration before the event. A soft approach means that officers do not wear hats, appear relaxed and friendly, and openly talk with people in the crowd. Dialogue means two-way conversation, which also means listening to the unpopular opinions and suggestions from others.

2: Always be prepared to negotiate. We maintain continuous conversation with organizers and crowd members. We state our position up front: we are here to defend your right to demonstrate, but we cannot allow you to hurt others or destroy property. Whether or not we support your position, we will remain neutral. That is our job. We will not allow others to harm you if you hold an unpopular position. If you want to be arrested to make a statement, we will help you do that and will treat you respectfully and not harm you while in our custody. In turn, we expect you to cooperate with us.

3: Be able to protect officers working with the crowd. If the situation warrants it, we have a tactical unit (with full protective equipment) on standby in a location near the demonstration but out of sight. They are available as an emergency response to protect or rescue officers in or others in danger of being harmed. Their mission is to protect people first and property second. Deploying the emergency response team is a last-ditch tactic and will indicate that we have not been effective in managing the crowd with softer methods.

Use specially trained officers. The best officers to use in crowd situations are officers who are specially selected and trained for this kind of work, and who have the personality to use a soft approach under sometimes trying circumstances—self-control is essential. Not every police officer can do this kind of work.

5: Avoid using outside police officers. Police from other cities and locations usually do not have the training or ability necessary to work with us. Most of them do not have soft crowd management experience or knowledge of our city, nor could we count on them being responsive to our direction. It is extremely important to us that that we take personal responsibility for the handling of crowd events in our city and avoid relying on outside police agencies.

6: Avoid anonymity at all costs. Police officers assigned to handle crowd duty are to be easily identifiable, with their names and badge numbers clearly visible. We avoid any measures or practices that reduce the police to be anonymous agents. Anonymity or any depersonalization of police conducting crowd management encourages negative crowd behavior. It can also lead to unaccountable behavior on the part of the police.

7: Have visible leadership. During high-profile demonstrations, police command officers needed to be visible, communicative, and willing to take charge. There was no such thing as a “routine” large gathering of people without prior preparation and planning, and command officers being present.

You can read more of Dr Stott’s recent work in the U.K. at:

See also: and Wikipedia’s explanation:

Occupy Oakland video:


More on Stott’s work:

Also Chief Norm Stamper’s recent article in “The Nation:”


Occupy Portland video:

[And don’t forget to read my book when it comes out in January. There’s more about crowds in it and some examples of how Madison seemed to do it best!]


  1. You might enjoy this video from Portland — PD meeting with Occupy members to try to come to some common agreement on ground rules etc.


    1. Very good. Thanks, Gary. This is a great (but long) video that demonstrates there are ways to respond to protesters — like meeting with them. Chief Mike Reese is practicing what we learned in “The Madison Method.” Good work here but it shows the complexity of “organic” demonstrations/protests. This social dynamic reminds me of something that has stayed with me over the years about the “new” generation — “WE DON’T WANT TO BE BOSSES AND WE DON’T WANT TO BE BOSSED!”


  2. Your ideas twenty five years ago on policing crowds and leadership are just now getting the attention they rightlyfully deserve. Dr. Stotts and colleagues reserach in Britian are confirming the common sense principles you established decades ago. I’ve taken that foundation, coupled it with the research and my eight experience as Police Chief in another Capital City policing crowds and have written an aricle which will soon be published by the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.


    1. I am proud of what you are doing and have done in Boise. I am hoping folks around the country will not see Madison as some kind of weird exception to the rule that violence always works. What both you and Stott are doing will be a welcome addition to the limited body of knowledge existing in the police field. Remember the four obstacles that keep police from moving forward in my book — anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy. Finding a better way to handle protest will address at least three of the four!


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