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Social Protests in the 1990s: Planning a Response

By Editorial Staff
Published January 1, 1996

By Captain Garry Allgeyer

During the 1990s, many communities have witnessed resurgence in protests and civil disobedience demonstrations reminiscent of the civil rights and antiwar movements of earlier decades. Major issues today include abortion, nuclear proliferation, environmental protection, service and access rights of the physically challenged, and continued civil rights concerns. Any community with product- or service-oriented businesses or military installations may be targeted for action, either by local activists or national organizations.

Captain Allgeyer serves with the Melbourne, Florida Police Department.

The City of Melbourne, located on the southeast central coast of Florida, has been the focus of such actions in recent years, primarily due to the presence of the only abortion clinic in a county with almost one-half million residents. In addition, the clinic’s highly outspoken owner makes her home in Melbourne, as does the leader of Operation Rescue, a national pro-life organization. These factors have made the city a hotbed for the abortion issue.

The intensity of pro-life and pro-choice sentiments and the multitude of proponents on either side required the Melbourne Police Department (MPD) to meet this challenge head on. Yet, despite hundreds of arrests, lengthy trials, lawsuits, and attempts by both sides of the issue to challenge the department’s neutrality and professionalism, the MPD continued to maintain a positive public image, as demonstrated in television coverage, press reports, and editorials.

The department has learned a great deal since its first encounter with activism several years ago. Agency administrators have identified and established methods to address several issues common to the protests they faced. In many ways, these issues represent features typical to most contemporary activist movements, regardless of where they operate or what causes they support.

NEW CRUSADERS

For the most part, the general public’s perception of social protests has focused on the fringe-a picture of activists as a few misguided malcontents driven by extreme viewpoints. Images of barefooted flower children dressed in tie-dyed shirts and old jeans usually come to mind.

Protesters today are more likely to arrive at the scene conservatively dressed, some even wearing designer clothes. They are committed to a cause, but operate from what would appear to be a less radical position. Whereas the old school proclaimed to Middle America, “We’re different,” the activists of the 1990s claim, “We are Middle America.”

Activism, once the domain of extremists, now is viewed as a valid form of creating social change. Christian activists, in particular, come from conservative backgrounds and depend on, the belief that most Americans share their basic values to build their ranks and project an image of legitimacy onto their activities. Protesters who once would have been considered reactionary now may be seen as courageous proponents of a cause. This change in public perception creates some particular challenges for law enforcement.

CHALLENGES TO LAW ENFORCEMENT

Intelligence Gathering

Florida law allows law enforcement to collect and maintain intelligence on persons and groups if the surveillance is conducted with “a reasonable, good faith belief that it will lead to detection of ongoing or reasonably anticipated criminal activities”1 (emphasis added). Unfortunately, incidents of past abuse create a negative public perception of police efforts to gather intelligence information on activist groups. Nevertheless, the necessity for intelligence gathering cannot be over emphasized. To cope successfully with a major incident or a series of announced protests, the police must collect information about the leaders and members of the sponsoring group(s). The Melbourne Police Department assigned a full-time detective to intelligence duties with the advent of large-scale abortion protests. The detective and the department met the challenge of intelligence gathering in a very direct way.

Every issue has two sides, and law enforcement can use this fact to its advantage with regard to activist groups. For the MPD, much of the intelligence information gained on pro-life organizers came from their opposition. Private investigators contracted by pro-choice groups tracked, photographed, and collected data on pro-life activists, and then offered much of this intelligence information to the police department.

By accepting this information, the department could have opened itself to criticism from the pro-life side. But such protests have not materialized, largely because pro-life organizations have their own intelligence groups in operation, gathering similar data on clinic employees, doctors, and patients.

The police department uses this intelligence information to plan its response to demonstrations and other protest activities. Much of the success of this effort can be attributed to the approach taken by the MPD investigator.

During the first critical months of the intelligence-gathering initiative, the MPD investigator remained open and approachable to both sides. After, introducing himself to pro-life leaders, he began to attend their groups’ public meetings. Although he remained steadfastly neutral on the issue of abortion, pro-life organizers accepted the detective in his official role.

Some of the Christian activists even saw his personal conversion to the cause as a special challenge. While he may have gained little critical information from these contacts, the personal interaction enabled him to provide the department’s command staff with his intuitive assessment of the pro-life leadership. His close involvement with the groups also minimized the effect of an anticipated disinformation campaign against the police department as the protests and demonstrations grew,

In contrast, efforts to infiltrate pro-life groups with undercover officers produced little benefit. Because of the successful application of racketeering statutes to their organizations, pro-life leaders avoided discussing any law-breaking activity in rallies or other public forums. Therefore, it became difficult for the police department to anticipate the number and identities of participants in trespass and civil disobedience incidents prior to the actual events, Police staffing for the events became a combination of “best guess” decision making and trial and error.

Staffing and Financial Concerns Protests and mass-arrest situations are labor-intensive events that often require more staff than departments can schedule for regular duty. Thus, staffing becomes a financial challenge for any agency faced with such events.

In 1993, the MPD spent $51,000 in overtime for peacekeeping and enforcement duties. Most communities accept such costs as a natural consequence of the rights of citizens to engage in peaceful protests. However, in the abortion rights battle, public funds can become a propaganda tool for both sides.

Pro-choice leaders decry the need to devote tax dollars to protect abortion clinics. They attempt to influence public opinion by claiming that if not for the antiabortion activity, police could be out fighting crime. Pro-life leaders attack local governments, questioning why they spend public funds to protect clinics that perform abortions. For law enforcement, the obvious need for overtime staffing does not justify a carte blanche approach to personnel allocation. Indeed, agencies should plan their staffing levels carefully. Overstaffing can be interpreted as overreaction and can erode public and political support for the police as expenses build. At the same time, understaffing delays an appropriate response to a fast breaking event, opening an agency to accusations of favoritism and lack of preparation.

The MPD approach uses past experience, current intelligence data” and ‘consensus building among the command staff to determine the department’s response on daily basis. Contingency plans, such as callout lists and mutual-aid requests, complement the daily plan and allow for a quick escalation of personnel levels as the need arises.

Use of Force

During a demonstration, the arrest procedures and defensive tactics employed by police become high-visibility-and potentially high-liability-issues. The public perceives how well an agency responds to incidents based on the level and type of force used in restraining, moving, and arresting nonviolent protesters. Antiabortion protesters usually employ passive resistance techniques when engaged in trespass activities and civil disobedience. Department administrators decided that officers should not use takedowns, come-a longs, and pressure point control techniques in response to the protestors’ passive resistance. After reviewing news videos, newspaper photographs, and media accounts, the command staff concluded that these techniques produced fewer benefits than their associated costs-images of overreaction and the appearance of unnecessary cruelty. Thus, training becomes a focal point for any agency tasked with responding to such incidents.

Training

Recognizing the hazards of overreaction, the MPD command staff developed a thorough training plan, and from the outset, communicated to officers both the policy and philosophy of the department’s response strategy. Instructors briefed officers on the respective beliefs and positions of both sides of the abortion issue and juxtaposed this information with the MPD’s operational plan:

The morality of allowing (abortion) is unquestionably the most passionate issue of today, and undoubtedly, the personnel of the Melbourne Police Department hold as varied a collection of outlooks on the matter as does the general public.

However, our code of ethics requires that we never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence our decisions and that we will enforce the law courteously and appropriately, without fear of aggression. .

Professionally, then, we cannot and will not, collectively or individually, take sides on the issue of whether abortion is moral or immoral. It is therefore our intention to safeguard the rights of holders of both convictions to the best of our ability, by enforcing the law firmly but compassionately, while respecting the constitutional rights of all persons.2

This foundation set the tone for more specific training in perimeter security, crowd control, arrest techniques, and booking procedures.

Advised that both sides of the issue often try to provoke personal responses from police personnel on the scene, officers were briefed on deflection responses and the importance of maintaining neutrality. Instruction also included handling press inquiries, complaints from neighbors adjacent to the clinic, and comments from passing motorists. Training also focused on methods of response to a frequent tactic used by pro-life groups-individuals’ and groups’ chaining or locking themselves to doors, fences, and one another to impede entry into abortion clinics. In these attempts, the protestors generally use steel bicycle locks or heavy chains. Therefore, when responding to pro-life demonstrations, the MPD always comes prepared with a variety of cutting tools, protective shields, and specially trained personnel.

The emphasis of the department’s philosophy and the depth of officer training paid off when the level of protests increased in the spring of 1993. An injunction granted in April 1993, restricting activities within a buffer zone around the abortion clinic, led to over 140 arrests in the ensuing weeks. During that time, no arrestees were injured, although one officer received a back injury while attempting to catch a protestor who suddenly had gone limp.

Logistics

Preparation for events likely to result in mass arrests entails tremendous effort. The wide range of potential scenarios forces agencies to prepare numerous contingencies. In other words, they must have a plan for personnel and equipment to respond to a small protest that could easily either expand or fizzle.

Implementing a response plan involves considerable risk, especially in financial terms. The MPD spent over $7,000 during the first week of scheduled protests in spring 1993, but made no arrests. As the protests grew, the need for more flexibility in response became clear.

The MPD command staff brainstormed the logistical process by asking a number of questions. What resources are necessary for the arrest function? How many arrests should be expected? What are the best- and worst-case arrest scenarios? How many officers are needed per arrestee? How long should the booking process take? What special” equipment should be on hand-or quickly available each day? The command staff compiled the answers to these questions into an operational plan for the continuing protests.

The plan outlined job descriptions for all personnel. Many jobs were combined for small events, but remained separate in the plan to allow for easy expansion. The plan identified eight command and logistical positions: Incident commander, field force commander, tactical commander, arrest processing supervisor, logistics officer, traffic and security supervisor; supply officer, and tactical supervisor.

The command staff also compiled a list of equipment that might be needed during large demonstrations. These items were gathered for quick issue to officers. Flowcharts and checklists provided incident commanders with an easy method to evaluate and control the police response.

Interagency Coordination

The police department supplemented its efforts by coordinating mutual aid with other local and State agencies. An interagency agreement for mutual aid in emergencies had long been in place. In addition, the MPD made arrangements with agencies to provide personnel in the event of a major disturbance. To date, the police department has not found it necessary to invoke the agreement.

However, as arrests mounted in the spring of 1993 and beyond, police coordination with the Brevard County Detention Center (BCDC) assumed particular importance. Operated by the Brevard County Sheriff, the BCDC holds over 800 prisoners serving county jail terms or awaiting trial, sentencing, or transfer to other institutions. A large-scale protest easily can produce arrest numbers that equal 10 to 20 percent of the current jail population.

Many of the tactics employed by activists- such as refusing to identify themselves upon arrest are designed specifically to land them in jail and thus heighten the impact of their protests. To reduce booking time at the jail, the police department’s command staff developed an on-scene arrest procedure. Police personnel photographed arrestees (full face, with no hats or sunglasses) with the arresting officer. Officers then restrained the arrestees using flex-cuffs marked with indelible ink. This procedure simplified the paperwork process once the officers had positively identified the arrestees.

Department administrators also conducted advanced planning with the county prosecutor’s office. With input from police administrators, the prosecutor’s office predetermined appropriate charges for given actions and prepared sample narratives for officers that include all elements of each separate offense. For major events, an assistant State’s attorney provides on scene legal advice to the incident commander.

Because pro-life groups often allow, and even encourage, children to engage in protest activities, the police department also included the Youth Services Division of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in the planning process. During demonstrations, this agency assumes responsibility for safeguarding children who are in custody due to a parent’s arrest. Policymakers decided to take all juvenile violators into custody, but to file criminal charges only against those 16 or older. Younger children are transported from the scene and held until their parents come to get them.

PLANNING FOR PROTESTS

Communities of all sizes face the potential for demonstrations and acts of social protest. Even when peaceful, these events challenge the resources of local law enforcement agencies.

Because demonstrations can escalate quickly into more menacing assaults against public order, agencies must prepare for a full range of response options. Agency administrators should use specific planning methods to determine appropriate responses. In the face of potential protests and demonstrations, agencies need to scan, plan, train, respond, and evaluate.

Scan

Police administrators should scan the environment. Does the community have protest potential? Are there abortion or family planning facilities, nuclear plants, military bases, or defense contractors in the area? Is economic disparity an issue? Are there civil rights concerns or racial unrest? What types of protests have occurred locally and regionally?

Plan

The size and type of potential protests should dictate the response. Police administrators should contact their counterparts in jurisdictions already affected by protests. Law enforcement agencies must coordinate their planning with related agencies and offices.

Local law enforcement agencies must predetermine task planning, personnel allocation, and deployment plans. Adequate supervision of the field force and booking facilities is essential. Police administrators also should arrange contingency funding through the local government if current funds appear insufficient.

Train

Effective training cannot occur on the day of the event; personnel must be trained in advance. Agencies should review and address use-of-force issues related to nonviolent or passive resistance. Officers should train in arrest, transportation, and confinement techniques. Administrators should use training sessions to assess employee readiness, both on emotional and physical scales.

Respond

When an event occurs, the established reaction plan should be implemented in increments, according to need. This measured reaction will enable the police department to escalate or scale down its response in a more controlled way. Incident commanders should scan for new tactics, attitudes, and actions of all participants. Supervisors should monitor personnel closely for compliance with established policies. When responding to volatile situations, officers must avoid the temptation to become over involved or to allow emotion to overtake reason.

Evaluate

Agencies should conduct after-action debriefings and report their findings in detailed post incident reports. The reports should answer basic questions about the police response. Was the plan effective? If not, why not? How do command officers, supervisors, and line officers feel about their performances? What needs to be changed? The evaluation stage also includes the tabulation of costs. Agencies should count on various groups-including the press, politicians, local government administrators, and even the protesters themselves- to ‘ask how much the police response cost taxpayers. Of course, each of these groups has different needs and motives for acquiring this information. No matter how well executed its response, the police department should expect criticism to come from one or more camps.

PREPARING FOR THE NEXT EVENT

After completing these stages, the agency faces additional tasks. Scanning, planning, and training for the next potential incident must begin anew. Unexpected questions should be answered, and old ones revisited.

Administrators must remember that despite the nonviolent focus of most social protesters, fringe elements still exist that use firearms, bombs, and chemical agents to accomplish their goals. All aspects of the planning process should incorporate a response strategy for such contingencies.

CONCLUSION

Social protest-sometimes honorable sometimes inglorious-has a long history in the United States. The role of law enforcement is not to impede legitimate acts of social demonstration but to enforce court mandated restrictions and to ensure individual and community safety. By following a methodical plan and anticipating problems before they occur, law enforcement can meet the challenges of contemporary protests successfully.

Endnotes

1 FLA. STAT. 119.01l, d. 2.

2 Melbourne, Florida. Police Department Abortion Protest Operational Plan, January, 1993. 1.

This article appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Click to enlarge.


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