FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
The Occupy movement that began on Wall Street and swept across the country has presented a variety of challenges to law enforcement. A mixture of well-meaning citizens and radicals looking for a fight, the groups have confounded more than a few departments as civil liberties run up against legitimate public safety concerns.
Even if your area hasn’t been impacted, there’s a lot to be learned from these protests.
1. Social Media Is a Game Changer
Social media has enabled protestors to organize large groups with little or no advance notice. Such online organization is here to stay, so if your agency isn’t actively engaged with social media, you’re working at a distinct disadvantage. Forward-thinking departments are actively engaged and communicating through all means possible. Remember: Social media postings to organize protesters are made in the open, which means you can be involved and informed as events are coming together. To quickly get up to speed, I strongly recommend you check out the great tips offered by Lauri Stevens, a social media guru. You can find her articles at www.LawOfficer.com/authors/lauri-stevens.
2. The Whole World Is Watching
A day before I wrote this, the news was alive with the story of a well-dressed journalist on her way to an evening function. While walking down a sidewalk in the middle of an Occupy protest, she was confronted by a police officer. Without debating what happened next (the accounts vary), the correspondent ended up on her way to jail instead of the planned engagement.
I understand that a reporter going to jail probably warms some hearts among our audience, but there’s a price to pay when something like this happens. Keep in mind that everyone has a cell phone and therefore the ability to take photos and/or videos for worldwide distribution. Any officer who goes on the street thinking they can act with impunity is on a fool’s mission. Remember the way your thought process changed when you knew there was a video camera in your patrol unit? Well, that’s exactly the policing mindset you need everywhere today.
(Note: If you’re thinking that you’ll confiscate the camera or cell phone, you should probably get another plan. Some cops have found themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit when they do this. For some legal insight, take a look at November's Legal Eagle.)
3. Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail
So what do you do if several hundred uninvited overnight guests show up in the center of your downtown with no intention of leaving? Demonstrations can be political flashpoints. Some city leaders have chosen to embrace these groups, while others have tried various forms of eviction. A few have started with a welcome sign and then tried to change it to “no vacancy.” Unfortunately, it’s the street cops who get caught in the middle. If you’re in charge, get a read on the political climate ahead of time and then plan accordingly.
4. It’s Time for Policing, Not Politics
Hopefully, every cop knows that you sometimes have to put aside your personal feelings. Regardless of how much you may empathize with or outright despise those who are demonstrating, your fundamental obligation is to uphold the Constitution and protect the basic rights of everyone, even those with whom you might disagree. If it means protecting the protestors, do so. If it means clearing a path for the public and making some arrests, then do it in a way that leaves no room for questioning your motivation.
5. Engage & Educate
Assign someone with good communication skills (and a lot of common sense) to interact with the protest leaders as early as possible. Believe it or not, many of them understand that law enforcement has a legitimate role and they (the protestors) want to know what the “rules of the game” are. No one is more experienced with protests than the U.S. Park Police, and they make it a practice of establishing clear lines of communications before an event even unfolds—something that happens several dozen times every year in D.C.
The takeaway: Develop intelligence. Get legal guidance. Check your equipment and practice crowd-control techniques. Finally, act as if you’re always going to show up on the nightly news—and there won’t be any surprises when you do.
—Dale Stockton, Editor in chief
Follow Dale on Twitter! www.Twitter.com/DaleStockton