Passion and Control: Maintaining Public Safety in Times of Protest

by A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP

The past few months have seen political and moral discourse reach dangerous new boiling points on a variety of fronts, and now, a series of suspicious devices have been sent to politically prominent people, congressional offices have been vandalized and increasing amount of venomous, impassioned protests have created new threats to public safety. Increasing one’s security posture to meet the delicate balance between vigilance and respect for civil rights is a challenge that needs to be risen to by both the public and private sectors.  For instance, the US Capitol Police provided the nation with a shining example of this balance this month when they were recently placed in a particularly challenging position following the confirmation hearings of of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; which proved to be a contentious moment in American history met with fiery protests that could have potentially endangered citizens if handled poorly.

In looking at the history of our nation, which includes the protest-heavy decades of the 1960s and 70s when civil rights laws and the Vietnam war were at issue; these times, like those we are experiencing now, require a steady hand to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved. This means security personnel and law enforcement officials must be able to spread their efforts thin while continuing to do the best job possible to both prevent and address a multiplicity of threats occurring at will and without warning. Therefore, true public safety and security professionals must inject a blend of well-thought-out preparation and adaptive in-the-moment behavior to maintain order.

Preparation and identification  

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The DC Metropolitan Police Civil Disturbance Unit

For the laymen, it is next to impossible to predict what will transpire during a heated protest or similar public demonstration. However, as a former member of the nationally-recognized DC Metropolitan Police Civil Disturbance Unit, proper training and staffing can help any public or private entity prepared for these disruptions. Projections on expected crowd sizes, social media monitoring, protest incentives, and the types of ‘organizations’ involved can make it easier to plan for what to expect. This makes preparation one of the most crucial components of protest security. Knowing the elements and driving motivations behind the groups you will be working to manage, assessing how they might act in the moment through hypothetical exercises, planning in conjunction with your public and private stakeholders are all important steps. Whether a bank, public facility or even a restaurant frequented by prominent people; determining whether you have a security and safety plan that identifies these needs is key to the stability of your environment. Depending on what is generally anticipated, preemptive connections with additional local law enforcement, security professionals, communications and legal experts may be needed. Additionally, all relationships with professionals, like surveillance-based personnel should be established and honed in advance; if crowds are expected to be very large, for example, iron out the logistics of aerial vantage points at a prior moment. This foresight will all allow operations to be both organized and helpful.

Necessary division

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US Capitol Police controlling protests during Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.

If your property is at the center of a protest, an extremely important consideration is the necessary division of involved parties. I appeared on television and radio news media following the Charlottesville riots to illustrate the importance of this issue. In following media or social media rants on this issue, there is often a rush to assign blame to the more “evil” of the protest groups. However, this point misses the most crucial issue regarding the logistics of controlling a protest. The law enforcement and security contingent is not afforded the luxury of taking sides or assigning blame. Each group needs a permit. There should be designated areas intended for each groups or individuals serving as the major opposing “players” of the situation, and personnel should be deployed to assure legality within each faction. If a protest group arrives at the scenes with improvised weapons, shields, masks; then they should be stopped and stripped of these before entering the protests.

Similarly, avenues of access and egress must be controlled to assure a way to get people to safety if a crowd gets out of control. Of course, this can’t be the same route for rival factions. In Charlottesville; state and local authorities didn’t accomplish these simple tasks, and the results were fatal.

Achieving balance

One of our nation’s greatest strengths is our right to free speech. However, when the right to free speech is exercised in the form of public protest; certain responsibilities are applied. Exercising one’s 1st Amendment rights shall not infringe on another’s ability to exercise theirs. Therefore, all laws should be abided by regarding one’s personal space, the use of public space, private property rights and the obstruction of traffic. As someone who lives in a large, urban center; our city has endured vitriol and protest in one form or the other on a weekly basis for over two years straight. Add this to the urban congestion, construction and general crime in many of our big cities; and the result is a majority of working families that are having their lives disrupted regularly. Add this to the mental stressors of the threat of mail bombs, internet trolling and whether or not the meal you’re spending your hard-earned money on is going to be ruined by a roving protest group taking over the restaurant because of their ire of another patron; America’s public and private institutions need to evaluate their security plans now.

If you want to evaluate your personal or organizational security, safety and emergency plans to assure you’re prepared for what may come in our volatile times, please contact Mannes & Associates for a consultation.