Policing protests: building on recent lessons

By Bob Harrison, Richard H. Donohue, Jr., Pauline Moore and John S. Hollywood

This is the third in a series of articles exploring the history of mass protests in the United States and the various strategies police have employed in response. Using lessons learned from history and recent events, we offer a way forward for law enforcement officials to consider. We recommend that you read part one and part two to understand the full background of the discussion.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and other cities in the 2010s provides important context to what we see today between protesters and police.

Occupy Wall Street leaders deviated from previous models of protest leadership by not engaging in pre-planning with police and government entities.

Occupy Wall Street leaders deviated from previous models of protest leadership by not engaging in pre-planning with police and government entities. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Occupy leaders have deviated from previous models of protest leadership by not engage in advance planning with police and government entities; their tactic of choice was the occupation of public spaces to promote the movement’s goal of influencing change through civil disobedience. This strategy bears some similarity to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (“CHAZ”, later “CHOP” as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest) set up in Seattle in 2020.

Protests today are happening more spontaneously than in the past, often organized via social media. [1] Fifty-one percent of protests in major cities between May and July 2020 were peaceful and legal; 42% had “some level of ‘illegal but non-violent acts’, while 7% (574 of 8,700 protests) involved illegal violence. [2] Sixty-two percent, however, were victims of looting in at least one protest and 56% were victims of arson. [2]

The tactics used to control spaces and ultimately evict protesters in the context of Occupy protests stem from the strategic incapacity model of protest policing, and ultimately resulted in “police-protester relations [becoming] more adversarial with significantly reduced trust, cooperation and communication. [3] Additionally, the police’s use of heavy-handed tactics such as arrests during these protests has increased support for the use of violence. versus the police. [4]

Lessons learned from the police response to mass protest unrest in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland in 2014 and 2015, respectively, are also relevant to the current situation. After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality through both peaceful and violent means. The protests have further propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into action, with the organization leading a nationwide mobilization against police brutality in 2020. As in the killing of George Floyd five years later, Michael Brown was also killed by a police officer white and tensions between the community and the police in Ferguson, Missouri were already high even before Brown’s death. The police response to the protests and unrest in Ferguson also bears a striking resemblance to what has been unfolding since 2020, suggesting that police have yet to implement many of the lessons learned from previous events.

According to a 2015 study published by the Intergovernmental Research Institute (IIR), six themes characterized the police response during the first 17 days of protests in Ferguson: inconsistent leadership; an inability to understand the endemic problems of the local community; a reactive rather than proactive strategy; inadequate communication and information sharing; the use of ineffective and inappropriate strategies and tactics; and a lack of continuity in the law enforcement response. [5]

While the study published over 100 results, four in particular lend themselves to the current situation:

  1. The deployment of militarized units with their associated uniforms and equipment outside of the context of immediate tactical need, particularly during daylight hours, has strained police-community relations.
  2. Tear gas was thrown inappropriately by some units, threatening the safety of protesters and officers. This includes situations where there has not been a safe evacuation of people from the area or sufficient advance warning for people to clear the area.
  3. The study also highlighted the concerns of community members and police regarding nighttime and daytime protest tactics; while the protests were mostly peaceful during the day, some individuals exploited the situation at night and things turned violent.
  4. Last, but not least, the study also pointed out that the local Ferguson police department had weak, if any, relationships with the city’s black community.

Each of these major findings is clearly linked to the 2020 protests that continue to the present day. For example, the optics of various law enforcement in tactical gear in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere has drawn criticism from political leaders and the media. [6] The use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds has also become a significant issue in 2020. As of June 2020, bans and restrictions on tear gas have been put in place in Dallas, Seattle, Berkeley (California ) and Salt Lake City, to highlight a few. Further restrictions are being considered in state legislatures and Congress.

According to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) examining the unrest in Baltimore, the uniform/equipment worn by the police themselves can be a controversial issue. [7] While protesters may feel under heightened threat when police respond to a protest in full riot gear, there are also clear examples of instances where protective gear has protected officers from injury. For example, helmets have proven effective when officers have come under fire [8] or had projectiles thrown at them. [9]

These complexities highlight the need to carefully balance the lens associated with public safety at a protest while considering and preparing for the potential for violence. Not surprisingly, both the PERF report and the FOP cite leadership and communications as areas for improvement in the Baltimore context. Since then, incident planning, the use of an incident action plan and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) incident command structures have been consolidated as best practices in the police services for mass protests. [1]

PART FOUR: The way forward – considerations for change


1. Police Executive Search Forum. (2018). The police response to mass protests. Promising practices and lessons learned. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing.

2. Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), Intelligence Commanders Group (October 2020). 2020 Protests and Civil Unrest Report.

3. Gilman PF, Edwards B, Noakes JA. (2013). Strategic incapacitation and policing of Occupy Wall Street in New York, 2011. Sociology, 11.

4. Maguire E, Barak M, Wells W, Katz C. (2018). Attitudes toward the use of violence against the police among Occupy Wall Street protesters. Police: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 14(4): 883–899.

5. Intergovernmental Research Institute (2015). After-action review of the police response to the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. COPS Office Critical Intervention Initiative. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing, p. xiv.

6. Gurman S, Philips M. (June 6, 2020). Federal agents stripped of insignia at protests raise accountability concerns. The Wall Street Journal.

7. Police Executive Search Forum. (2015). Lessons learned from the 2015 civil unrest in Baltimore. Police Executive Research Forum.

8. Baker I. (May 31, 2020). Cincinnati police officer shot dead as protests drag on into day three. NBC12.com.

9. Parascandola R, Tracy T. (June 2, 2020). NYPD lieutenant hit by brick in George Floyd riots saved by helmet. New York Daily News.

About the authors

Bob Harrison is a retired police chief who is an associate researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is also a course leader for the CA POST Command College. Bob consults with police departments in California and beyond on strategy, leadership and innovation.

Richard Donahue is a policy researcher at RAND’s Boston office. His main areas of research focus on homeland security and law enforcement issues, including training, police-community relations, and recruitment/retention. Donohue led Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center projects and tasks on law enforcement firearms qualifications, manpower assessments, and data assessments on terrorism / targeted violence. He is currently a member of the Education and Training Policy Council of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and has recently published in Policing: An International Journal and International Journal of Police Science & Management. Prior to joining RAND, Donohue retired as a Sergeant with the MBTA Transit Police Department, where he received the George L. Hanna Medal of Honor and was recognized as a 2014 “Top Cops” recipient.

Pauline Moore is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor of policy analysis at Pardee RAND Graduate School. His research focuses on terrorism, insurgency, security cooperation and assistance to security forces, and targeted violence prevention. The regional focus of his work covers Africa, Europe and the Middle East. She is the author of The Politics of Terror (with Erica Chenoweth; Oxford University Press 2018) and her research on foreign fighters has been published in the Journal of Peace Research.

John S. Hollywood is a Senior Operations Researcher at the RAND Corporation, where he conducts decision science research in the areas of criminal justice, homeland security, and information technology. He is an internationally recognized expert on the use of machine learning in policing and criminal justice technologies more generally and is often interviewed on these topics.

Jennifer C. Burleigh