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How police can work more effectively with protest groups

Setting the tone for collaboration – not conflict – will make your life much easier come protest day


What do glowing goldfish, bumblebees and chemical trails have in common? They have all ignited passionate protests in Dallas and, as a detective in the Dallas Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, I had a front-row view.

My squad served as the primary liaison with activist groups and monitored all incidents of significant public disorder. High-profile groups like Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers received the most publicity, but protests occurred on every issue imaginable and individual motivations varied widely.

There were genuine advocates, professional paid protestors, lost souls searching to belong and random walk-ons who just wanted to get in on the action.

Protestors at a 2016 Trump rally. (Photo courtesy of author)
Protestors at a 2016 Trump rally. (Photo courtesy of author)

About seven years ago, I arrived at one of my first protests to find an angry mob planted in the front yard of a prominent Dallas politician. When we tried to get them to disperse, they yelled, “F—k you, police!”

I believe every law enforcement officer experiences the same reaction to those words that I did. Captain Doug Kowalski must have seen the thunder clouds brewing on my face as he intervened with words of caution: “Rich, they have a constitutional right to say that.”

He was right. It wasn’t about my indignation; it was about the supreme law of the land. Most protestors know as much or more about the U.S. constitution than the average police officer. They keep a copy in their pocket, they know their rights and they’ve studied our limitations. I may not agree with their viewpoints or their methods, but I do support freedom of speech. Like all other police departments, Dallas PD has a duty to ensure everyone’s safety, which includes foul-mouthed protestors hurling obscenities in our direction.

3 keys to working with protest groups

I found the following three steps highly effective when working with protestors:

  1. Establish and cultivate solid relationships with the leadership of protest groups.
  2. Keep the lines of communication open from pre-event to post-event.
  3. Study their causes so you can anticipate potential issues from the opposition (counter-protestors).

Before the event, follow the pre-protest checklist below to help ensure a successful police response to the event:

  1. Gather intelligence.
  2. Identify the protest leaders.
  3. Identify potential counter-protestors and their leaders.
  4. Attempt to meet with both sides separately and develop relationships with both.
  5. Inform them of your police department’s protest guidelines.
  6. Make them aware of state laws and city ordinances.
  7. Exchange contact information.
  8. Encourage protestors to assemble in designated areas that do not violate city, state and police guidelines.

Set the tone for collaboration, not conflict

Our Fusion Center monitored social media sites daily for potential threats. If certain words such as protest, kill and police were flagged, this intelligence was intercepted and routed to my squad for further investigation. Once it hit my desk, I researched the group in question and acquired contact information for its leaders. My goal was always to start a relationship with the police department on a high note.

The initial call went something like this: “Good afternoon, I’m Detective Rich Emberlin with the Dallas Police Department. It looks like you have a protest coming up next week at the immigration office. We want to make sure your voices are heard, your rights are not infringed upon and your group stays safe, since there will likely be counter-protestors. I’d like to invite you to our office to review the details so we can do the best job of keeping you safe. Is there a convenient day and time you can come in?”

My calls were often met with stunned silence. It’s important to understand that these relationships are built over multiple protests; they won’t believe you the first time anyway. After working with me several times, the leaders understood I was genuinely trying to support freedom of speech while keeping people safe. In doing so, I set the tone for collaboration instead of conflict. It made everyone’s lives easier.

When you invite protest leaders to the police department, you legitimize them. I invited four people from the Dreamers to our office in advance of a scheduled protest; they were young kids who were flattered that we actually cared. We discussed the day, time, location and number of expected protestors. The 10 percent rule applies in most protests. If they said 10,000 people were coming, 1,000 would show up. Not surprisingly, they usually picked high-traffic venues such as public parks or popular tourist spots. I’ve probably handed out hundreds of diagrams of Dealey Plaza and advised protest groups on how to avoid obstructing traffic. If they didn’t have a location in mind, we always recommended areas that allowed us to have a response team nearby – just in case anything went wrong.

Be fully transparent when communicating with protestors

From the law enforcement side, we offered full transparency in these meetings. I presented paperwork containing our protest guidelines, city ordinances, state laws and federal laws.

We went over all the pertinent details:

  • Don’t block roadways and sidewalks;
  • Don’t violate noise ordinances by being too loud;
  • Apply for a permit 45 days in advance if you plan to construct a stage or use large-scale sound amplification systems in public places.

The objective of this discussion is to provide clear instruction on how the protestors can follow rules and abide by the law.

A proactive approach also anticipates the opposition. I called counter-protest leaders to feel them out and met with them separately. The Dreamers knew that opponents of illegal immigration were likely to show up. It made them feel better that the police would have a presence on site to keep them safe. Ironic though it sounds, groups such as Black Lives Matter were also happy to have us around during their protests for the same reason.

At the end of these meetings, we exchanged contact information and told the leaders to call if they needed anything. I have the cell phone numbers of numerous Black Lives Matters leaders, and they have mine. They knew they were free to call me anytime with questions, and they did. These types of relationships paid huge dividends on game day.

At the time when the Dreamers’ protest took place, a Dallas city ordinance existed that prohibited carrying signs within 75 feet of a major freeway. I spotted a man with a sign who was standing too close, in violation of this rule. When I asked him to move further away, he became belligerent and got in my face. One of the leaders we met with the previous week came running over when she saw this. “It’s okay, it’s okay! This is Detective Emberlin, he’s working with us. He told us last week that we couldn’t be this close to the freeway.”

The protestor turned to me, apologized and extended his hand. The relationship I established with the Dreamers’ leadership had a direct impact on my safety that day.

Protest day tips

On protest days, plainclothes officers from my squad would walk with and among protestors, basically to keep an eye on things. Uniformed officers and response teams were always nearby, but not necessarily visible. If you have a bunch of helmet-wearing, shield-carrying cops facing off against protestors, it introduces a new element that doesn’t typically need to be there.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach and public perception should never supersede officer safety. For example, open and concealed carry of rifles is permitted in Texas. When you have a militant group such as the New Black Panther Party marching in Dealey Plaza carrying AR-15s, I fully believe our officers should also be carrying rifles. The balance of firepower is too skewed in favor of the protestors at that point, should any skirmishes break out. Policing strategies vary from protest to protest, and your department will have to make a judgment call. In most instances, we found it reasonable to keep the cavalry nearby.

Officers should be careful how they address protestors. You’re always being filmed and recorded in this digital age, so there’s a high probability you’ll end up on social media sites. Protestors will try to engage you in conversation, convert you to their cause or goad you into a confrontation.

During protests, be mindful of the gap between freedom of speech and disturbing the peace. It’s a delicate balance, but protestors cross the line when they break the law. This can range from noise ordinance violation and traffic obstruction to serious cases of unwanted physical contact and violence.

Pay close attention to splinter groups. These smaller factions are often unaffiliated with the official groups holding the protest, but they try to blend in and ride on their coat tails. For this reason, splinter groups are highly unpredictable and problematic. During multiple Black Lives Matter protests, the leadership would identify people they didn’t recognize. Our detectives would make contact with the splinter groups and keep a close eye on them during the remainder of the protest.

It wasn’t uncommon for protest leaders to shake my hand and thank me at the end of the day. We would typically end with a quick debrief. I informed them if they violated any guidelines and also pointed out the positive, acknowledging areas where they did a good job of following the rules. It didn’t mean we were buddies, but we were not at each other’s throats.

Police departments and protest groups have to work together. That will never change. The benefits to officer safety and public safety that result from non-combative, mutually cooperative relationships are invaluable. If I’m on a first-name basis with the protest leaders, and they feel comfortable providing me with information, it creates a safer environment for everyone involved.  

It’s important to remember that the current protest craze is not going away. Social media use – combined with anti-police rhetoric and general political and socioeconomic unrest – will continue to drive people to take to the streets. As police officers, we will continue to protect protestors’ rights to freedom of speech – even when we’re the ones they’re protesting.

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