Your duty gear does not include personal political opinion
When a rally can become a riot, police officers are the men and women in the middle, protecting demonstrators’ right to assemble and maintaining peace in the community
If you look around America today you will observe a polarization occurring — you will notice an uptick of contrasting demonstrations occurring at the same place and time. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself these ten questions, and then tell me you don’t see schisms in our land:
1. How do you feel about the mosque near Ground Zero?
2. What is your position on abortion?
3. How do you feel about the Tea Party Movement?
4. What do you think about PETA?
5. What do you think about Code Pink?
6. What do you think about the Ku Klux Klan?
7. What do you think about the Black Panthers?
8. What is your opinion on the Arizona Immigration Law?
9. Are you a Democrat, or a Republican?
10. Are you a Packer fan or a Viking fan?
Shelving Your Opinions
It is quite possible that you feel so strongly about one or two of these issues that your blood pressure just went up a bit as you read each those questions. Most police officers are well versed in — and have strong opinions on — the issues of the day. Those opinions — and the feelings they inspire — need to be shelved in your locker as you strap on your duty belt each shift.
An example of this is happening in New York even now. The New York Police Department has shined at demonstrations over the mosque proposed by the Cordoba Project two blocks from Ground Zero. They have found themselves right in the middle, where police officers need to be, when working a crowd.
Violence and ROE
As an officer, you will find yourself preserving the peace, while protecting the right of speech and assembly for even the most unpopular philosophies in this nation. With this being said, there are types of speech that are not protected. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained that it was not lawful to yell, “fire!” in a crowded theatre. The Supreme Court has described “opprobrious,” or fighting words as not protected.
Every officer who has worked any of the events demonstrating for or against the issues mentioned earlier can describe hearing some pretty uncomfortable chants, taunts, and challenges at these events. It is important before working these events to know what the rules of engagement are. If an arrest must be made, what kind of actions, or dialog will be sustain an arrest. The last thing an officer wants is for an obnoxious arrestee to not only walk on a charge, but also turn around and drop a federal lawsuit... Not fun!
In the White Noise
Any team of officers — and a crowd control situation should be handled by a team — should have an understanding of what speech is protected and what crosses the line. They should arrive at the scene of the event realizing they are walking a fine line — the line between protecting the demonstrators’ right to assemble and maintaining the peace of the community.
The rules of engagement should be made clear by commanders at any pre-event briefing. The District Attorney should be consulted in advance to make certain that the arrests made are defensible (and will be prosecuted). This will ensure that arrests will be made with confidence. There is nothing that riles a crowd more than officers making an arrest while visibly lacking confidence in what they are doing.
There will be different standards for each event. Not a single eyebrow would raise at hearing the words “kill him!” as a quarterback scrambles in the backfield during at a football game. However, the same two words would cause an officer to move quickly and with resolute purpose when shouted in a crowd at a political rally.
When an officer can put themselves ‘mentally in the middle’ and shelve their own opinion, they will be much better able to determine when someone has said or done something that warrants arrest at a demonstration. An officer with a clear understanding (in advance) of the rules of engagement will be much better able to discern between what is simply rude, offensive, bizarre, and what is actually unlawful. Just because it is rude, offensive, bizarre and sometimes not your cup of tea does not necessarily mean it is illegal.
While working the event officers will have thousands of voices to listen to. If they have properly shelved their personal opinions, protected speech and behaviors will have a tendency to become like the white noise on a radio as you are using the dial to search for a channel. With an understanding in advance of what constitutes unprotected speech, at the particular event, that speech will come into focus like your favorite country station on the radio. The officer then can get the assistance needed and form a plan to deal with the situation decisively and legally.
Making Arrests with Efficiency
When an arrest is necessary, it should be made with efficiency. When an event is approaching, departments should allow for officers that will be working the event to come in beforehand to practice their team arrest skills and hands on control techniques. When opinions are shelved, skills are sharp, and rules of engagement are clear and defensible, officers will look like the professionals they are.
Nothing says, “We’re the good guys/gals,” like two officers taking an obnoxious, screaming, threatening protestor, quickly and calmly into custody while using identifiable technique.
Opinions are Like...
Someone said once, “Opinions are like belly buttons…everyone has one.” As a police officer in a crowd situation, it would serve no purpose to expose either to the assembled masses. It is imperative to effectively police these volatile events in a way that reemphasizes the perception police officers are the men and women in the middle.