Kerlikowske on Crowds and Police

Border Patrol Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske

Here is an insightful and deep interview this past week of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske by Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (NPR).

It covers use of force policies, criticisms of the policing subculture and Kerlikowske’s  time as Seattle’s chief of police. [To read a full transcript of the interview, CLICK HERE.]

I was most interested in Kerlikowske’s learning with regard to crowds and public protest and the use of force by police (topics I have written about extensively on this blogsite).


Steve Inskeep: I want to ask something else about your experience. And this is something I read a short description of, so you’ll correct me if I mis-remember or get any details wrong. I believe it was in about 2001 in Seattle. There was an incident of disorder on the streets and the account that I read said, “The police chief was fiercely criticized for not using enough force.” What happened in that case?

Gil Kerlikowske: So to try and collapse a long story: After the World Trade Organization riots, disturbances, I became the police chief. And in Seattle, they decided to hold the anniversary of WTO. The city was quite nervous given all that had occurred in the city and the damage and on and on. We went through thousands and thousands of demonstrators that November, when I first arrived in 2000, without any problems. Rather than have all of our officers in very hard gear, helmets and masks and on and on, I was with them in the streets in soft gear — and not that we didn’t have those resources available.

Meaning just uniformed police officers, looking like police officers.

Right. Exactly. And working with the public and by the end of the night, things had turned a little bit more difficult, but we had the support and the resources. So as the mayor said, he said, “Oh, this is great, you could run for mayor.” And four months later, we had a Mardi Gras disturbance downtown in which a young man died. And I was roundly criticized for not using enough force. I think the understanding is that any time a disturbance goes out of control, the police will be blamed, either for causing it by using too much force or by not enforcing the rule of law. And I stick by the decisions that I made that night.

In that case, what happened? Your officers got out of the line of not fire, but the line of violence, I suppose.

What had happened after the WTO anniversary was that the police guild did a survey and said, “You’re really putting these officers at risk because they should have helmets, pads, on and on, et cetera.” And that stuff was all available, and we had hardened officers available. So when the Mardi Gras issue came up, all the officers were in hardened gear. Well, to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you’re talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, “Look, let’s, let’s tone this down. Let’s calm things down. Let’s make sure that those people that need to be apprehended are arrested because of their intoxicated state or their level of violence, et cetera.” It’s pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you’re hardened up. I regret that today. I should’ve stuck by my decision earlier. I didn’t.

Wait a minute. Your decision earlier was …?

My decision had been, I listened to what the police guild had said, that the officers would be in danger if they weren’t in hardened gear.

So you hardened them. And so they were all in hardened gear. And usually, you don’t, you’re not all right out on the street, you’re back. Well, while you’re back, the crowd is brewing, things are getting out of control. This is an alcohol-fueled Mardi Gras — although it’s 40 degrees in March in Seattle. By the time you move in with all of your platoons of officers, things are already in a very, in a very bad state. I would’ve been smarter to approach it with officers dressed as I was, in soft gear, and deal with them.

Oh, this is so interesting. You’re saying because they were hardened up, they were standing back


like a military force …


ready to strike if necessary.


And so they weren’t involved.


And things got out of hand.

That’s right.

Wow, that’s really interesting. Now let me just does that experience inform what you’re doing today in any way?

I think the experiences over a number of years, whether it was in Buffalo or whether it was in Seattle. You know, it’s been my career, it’s been my life for four decades. I think all of that gives me an understanding, an appreciation…


Kerlikowske’s learning is similar to what I had seen in my studies on protest and how police respond. Before I became chief in Madison, Wisc. my learning made me confident that a soft initial approach was the best way to respond to protest.

That was 1973.

More recently Prof. Clifford Stott’s studies in the U.K. have supported that kind of police response. I wrote in “Arrested Development“:

“One of the primary reasons I survived in Madison was that the new (soft) crowd control measures I brought in worked. During the next 20 years, we never lost control of a crowd, and that included hundreds of protests and demonstrations at the state Capitol building, on the campus of the university, strikes by state workers, teaching assistants at the university, and local meatpackers.[1] The method we used has recently been called The Madison Method by police officers outside of the city.[2]

“This method is just as noteworthy today because [public protest movements] and the varieties of police response we have seen. What is it we should expect police to do in these situations? What is the role of the community and elected officials? Are the police to be mere instruments in the arm of government, or not?

“All things aside, how police handle public protest in our nation is one of the most noteworthy measures of the quality of a department’s policing. When police do this well and without violence they move from good to great…

“Now fast-forward to the present day. The British Home Office has been concerned about the behavior of their passionate football (soccer) crowds; a thousand people in the street and the confrontations that frequently occur between those crowds and police. Commendably, the British consulted academia for some help and found Dr. Clifford Stott, a social psychologist who studied crowd behavior.

“Stott is one of Europe’s leading researchers regarding crowd behavior. But he 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.[3]

“When a crowd perceives the police as overreacting or being heavy-handed, its members have a tendency to stop observing and start taking action. It is exactly what I had experienced early in my observational studies in Berkeley and Minneapolis. To prevent this from happening, Stott advocates 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. Even so, most police around the world have continued to use the traditional hard methods of the past when responding to crowds.[4] For the most part today, communicating, relating, or dialoguing with people who are protesting isn’t what police do. The soft approach is precisely what I developed and used years before during my time in Madison. It worked then and, as Stott suggests, it works now.”


[1]  For a general listing of those protests and demonstrations see references regarding the history of protests and social action from the 1970s to 90s at:

[2] In March and April, 2011, government officials in Madison effectively used many of these techniques in handling a multi-week demonstration and occupation of the state capitol building as a result of the governor-elect proposing to end collective bargaining in Wisconsin for most public employees. See: and; January 26, 1750 hrs.

[3] Clifford Stott. “Crowd Psychology & Public Order Policing: An Overview of Scientific Theory and Evidence” in a submission to the HMIC Policing. Public Protest Review Team. September 14, 2009 and December 27, 2010; 1101 hrs.

[4] This is most likely because of how Seattle police were caught off guard by protesters at the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. This seems to be the point in time when American police started to shy away from a “soft” approach.


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