Handling Protest: When Will We Ever Learn?

Wisconsin Protest
Protester at the Wisconsin state capitol rotunda.

Since the days of the the labor and civil rights movements and through the era of the protests against the war in Vietnam, we seem to have learned very little about the best way for government officials to respond to those who disagree with them.

This is a sad situation in a country such as ours which professes the values of freedom and justice that it does.

I extensively wrote about the lessons I learned in Madison handling all of those kind of protest events having to do with labor, civil rights, student, and foreign intervention issues. In the meantime, my old town of Madison, Wisc. has been engaged in a series of protests which sought to recall an elected governor (it didn’t), access rights to the state capitol, and whether or not assembling (and even spectating) is an illegal assembly. Is it illegal to watch those deemed to be illegally assembling by police? [To view YouTube videos concerning these protests CLICK HERE.]

In my BOOK I talk about how police should approach and respond to these protests:

“In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems  have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process. “This is never more evident as when a totalitarian state responds to public protest. In this instance, the goal of the police is to prevent or repress, not facilitate, protest. We see that in today in Syria, China, and other less-than-democratic governments. In these instances, the very act of disagreeing with the government is illegal and subject to police action.

“A democratic state and its police ensure its citizens the right of speech, public assembly, and the airing of grievances. This is essential in a democracy because citizens are ultimately in charge through their elected representatives and must have the right to speak out and organize to make their desires known. While the state itself has the monopoly on the use of force, that monopoly must be used sparingly in a democracy and only in accordance with the rule of law—there are no sovereign rights except those held by the people. In fact, as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. How police in a democracy respond to public protest is a key indicator of their competency” (p. 49-50).

If in a series of protests against England our nation was founded, what does that mean for us today? What is the role of public protest? And who determines when it is illegal? Why is many governmental officials seem to continue to repress protest rather than facilitate its exercise as guaranteed in our nation’s Constitution? But most importantly, why can’t police approach protest in a more controlled way and, at first, attempt to dialogue and negotiate the situation rather than quickly resorting to arrest as the only suitable response?

Early in my police career, I began to re-think the role of police and protest after I had witnessed and participated in too many that had gone wrong:

“I was beginning to see that proximity mattered, being close was safe—just like on the beat. Get close, talk, stay in contact. The further the police positioned themselves from people in the crowd, the greater the chance the crowd would depersonalize them; to see them as objects and not people.  Therefore, getting closer to the people, whether in managing crowds or patrolling neighborhoods on foot, seemed to be a good basic strategy that needed to be experimented with” (p. 75).

So, that’s what I did when I came to Madison. For over 20 years, we in Madison responded to anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations, student block parties, and other mass gatherings without substantial incident. How did that happen? We developed what today is being called the “soft approach” (see the recent work of Dr. Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool. What Stott and others found is that dialogue and liaison are effective police strategies in crowd situations because they allowed for an on-going risk assessment that improved command-level decision-making. Using this strategy, there was a better outcome because it also encouraged ‘self-regulation’ in the crowd and thus forestalled the use of unnecessary force by police during moments of tension. (For more, also READ THIS.]

As I found out during my career, physical force is not always the best first response. Thinking people know that. So should police and their leaders.

[See more of my blogs on the subject of protest and police on this blogsite in October and November, 2011 — “Crowds, Protests, and Police,” and “More on Protesters and Police.”]


  1. This topice of handling protests goes farther back than just the 1960s. The police have not learn a thing from dealing with all kinds of protests in the 19th and 20th centuaries.


    1. Chief, I’m extremely disappointed in your response to him (or her, since it’s clearly a nom de plume). If you allow that sort of post to remain here without challenge, it implies agreement. I’m not suggesting you ban the poster, or even put forth a strong negative response. But allowing gratuitous insults is disrespectful to us all, and certainly not in keeping with the standards of your blog.


      1. I stand convicted. I am always a bit conflicted by the borderline comments. The real bad stuff, that which does not make a case for what has been said, I have simply deleted. To that, Oscar’s comment should have been because it failed to reach that standard. Thanks for calling my attention to this.


  2. Oscar,

    I share your frustration with the state of policing, but I think you miss the point when you make this about “intelligence.”

    Most police officers I know are certainly capable of reading, writing and comprehending. Indeed, more and more recruits are college graduates. I was involved in recruit testing on and off for about ten years and I have a B.A. So the whole “cops are sooo stooopid” approach is counterproductive and, frankly, juvenile.

    But an increase in college-educated cops has not solved the problems we have had in US policing from the start. If you said that many policemen lack the ability to think critically about their role and criminal justice policy, then I would have agreed with you. A little nuance goes a long way!


  3. Chief, I am a follower of your blog. You bring a valuable and unique perspective to the challenges facing modern day law enforcement. I live in Las Vegas where the issues you discuss are at the forefront of our news (http://goo.gl/KsGCBe) I’ve read your comments in other local media and your keen insight would be both helpful and welcome in the comment section of our local paper which our local leaders acknowledge reading.


    1. Brooke, I will see what I can do. And I thank you for following my blog and alerting other to it. The improving our police should be the quest of all of us who are privileged to live in this great nation.


  4. David, I strongly support your approach to crowd management and believe you saved Madison from many difficult days. I am however somedays haunted by the comment of a local political activist complaining to me that the police were most oppressive when they were tolerant. His point to me was that he believed that many important political movements would have been slowed by a tolerant police force. I continue to believe that the soft approach is the best approach but it can be a double edged sword. Would LBJ have intervened in Alabama if you had been the Chief of Selma?


    1. Good to hear from an old colleague. Well, Bill, you are absolutely right — that is one of the problems social activists have with the police. Good police slow the social change process… It reminds me of a conversation I had with an S.D.S. member in the 60s. He reminded me that if I were to arrest him for protesting he knew I would not abuse him he would still end up in the same place — jail! Are the police to be mere pawns in the process of improving our society or do they have a higher role? A role to think-through their actions and recommend improvements to the court or legislature? I have always taken the higher road and I know you have, too. But your question is a valid one and one worthy of some discourse. Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.