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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

March 2020 | Volume 13 | Issue 3

In the past few years, there’s been a rise in student movements. Young people galvanized by environmental threats, school shootings, civil rights violations, and other issues are taking to the streets. And with the megaphone effect of social media, news of these gatherings can quickly attract tens of thousands of participants.

Though usually held in large metropolitan areas, smaller cities have been the locale for large rallies in the past few years, as have a few communities where school shootings happened. Mass gatherings of various kinds can pop up almost anywhere.

Crowd Control on the National Mall or a Small Town Square

Washington, D.C. has been the site of thousands of such events, from inaugurations to peace rallies, going back well over a hundred years. The Special Events Unit of its Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which coordinates and develops operational orders for parades, demonstrations, and other large scale events, has fine-tuned its management methods to the point where incidents are rare.

According to MPD Assistant Chief of Police Jeffery Carrol, who previously served as Commander of the Special Operations Division, this is the result of thorough planning, collaboration with all other service providers, good communications with event leaders, and training officers in positive crowd management methods.

Moreover, he believes these activities are essential to successfully handling large events in any community.

Leverage Partnerships and Share Resources

“Especially with smaller departments, creating partnerships to share resources is critical. Department leaders should include city, state, and local counterparts, services such as EMS, fire, parking, transportation public works, etc., so you can share resources. Make sure you are on the same page and agree on who is responsible for what.”

“We work with medical personnel, for instance. . . there can be cases of hypothermia or sunstroke, as well as accidental injuries. We also have a planning meeting to coordinate with other district agencies—waste management for trash removal, public works for removal of bike racks and things like that, and parking enforcement, to name just a few.”

As in any other location, the MPD has to maintain its other operations while the event is going on and continue to respond to calls for services. In D.C., the department must coordinate with the Capital Police Department, which secures the capital grounds, and the Park Police, who oversee the National Mall and monuments, as well as with the Secret Service to provide security around the White House and elsewhere for dignitaries.

But every law enforcement department has its own needs and jurisdictional issues to deal with. An Incident Action Plan with a unified command strategy can streamline the decision-making process and help keep track of activity and resources.

Work with Organizers Right from the Start

Carroll says it’s equally important to speak with organizers as soon as the department receives notice that an event is to occur, and critical that the department maintain these communications throughout. He also notes that for most student-initiated or -led demonstrations, operations are usually manned by adults who work behind the scenes.

In addition to obtaining the permits, these individuals arrange transportation and lodging, order microphones and other equipment, determine locations, and make the other necessary arrangements. Most organizers set up Facebook pages or web sites with all necessary information and arrange chaperones for young students.

Says Chief Carroll, “Communication is very important. We need to help facilitate these events, by helping the organizers plan a safe meeting site, route, and wrap up point so there aren’t overcrowding or traffic problems, for instance. MPD has many roles during these events, from helping protestors get to their locations to directing their buses to parking locations and ensuring that the city’s transportation system is prepared for the crowds.”

“And especially with large groups of juveniles, who can get separated from their group, a department needs to have a visitors’ component or missing persons detail, so they can find those who get lost.”

Well Trained Officers Make All the Difference

As for maintaining peace and order during the event, Chief Carroll says “A lot goes back to how you train your officers. They need to know that interactions don’t have to be confrontational—that they need to be friendly and helpful, treat people well—which actually works better for us. And they are dressed in soft uniforms too, not body armor, which can give the wrong message.”

This approach has also proven successful in other agencies over the years. In an April 2013 article in Huffington Post, David Couper, a former Madison, Wisconsin police officer, noted that over his 20 years at the home of the University of Wisconsin, the department responded to antiwar rallies, civil rights demonstrations, student block parties, and other mass gatherings without substantial incident.

Asked how his department pulled that off, Couper said they used what is called the “soft approach,” based on the research of Dr. Clifford Stott. A social psychologist at the University of Liverpool, in the United Kingdom, Dr. Stott studied the underlying causes and psychology of riots, with a focus on the effects of intergroup interaction on the development of violence. Stott found that dialogue and liaison are effective police strategies in crowd situations because they allow for an ongoing risk assessment that improves command-level decision-making. It also encourages self-regulation in the crowd, forestalling the use of unnecessary force during tense situations.

It’s known that the behavior of police has a powerful effect on the behavior of the crowd, and Dr. Stott warns that no matter what cause originally brought the masses together "the indiscriminate use of force would create a redefined sense of unity in. . . opposition to the actions of the police, which could essentially draw the crowd into conflict despite the initial hesitancy of the individuals in the crowd.”1

This sentiment was echoed by former Washington D.C. Police Chief Jerry Wilson, who has said that an intimidating police presence doesn’t prevent confrontation, but invites it.

Motorcycles, Bicycles and Horses Move Crowds and Traffic

But problems can arise in any group, and Chief Carroll says that separating opposing groups or violent individuals is usually the best way to tamp down unrest. “Our officers can call for back up when tempers get heated, and put on body armor or other protective gear if necessary. But as a general rule, we keep groups with opposing viewpoints separate right from the start.”

To accomplish this or to keep marchers on the planned route and out of traffic, the MPD uses motorcycles. “When groups march from the White House to the Capitol, our motorcycles ride ahead and disperse traffic, keeping pedestrians away from cars. We can also ride parallel to the group, pushing out and rerouting the traffic around them.”

Bicycles are also very effective for managing crowds, and in addition to appearing less threatening, but can be put to good use as barriers as well as crowd control tools.

Officers on bikes can react quickly to subdue an unruly group, and by riding outside the group, can create a mobile field force to move them. They can also position their bicycles to make a stationary bike fence by overlapping their tires.

Horses are a time honored crowd control method, and for good reason. “Horses put cops up above the people, where they can be seen,” says Chief Carroll, “and are good for moving crowds. But they have to be well trained for this environment; you don’t want to put an untrained horse in the middle of 50,000 people.” In the end though, the most important aspect of crowd control will always be the demeanor of the officers, who are ambassadors for the city or community as well as keepers of the peace. Says Chief Carroll, “In Washington, we get people from all over the country, and we are here to work with them, to help facilitate the events. We want our officers to be helpful and friendly. Crowd managers, not enforcers.”

1.Clifford Stott, Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing: An Overview of Scientific Theory and Evidence (Liverpool, UK: University of Liverpool School of Psychology, 2009), p. 4.

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