Denver’s police chief told officers not to intervene, but to stand by and watch, as protesters threw red paint on a memorial for fallen officers during a weekend march against police brutality.
The stand-down order upset some officers, who said it sends a message that protesters can get away with increasingly brazen crimes.
But at a time when some police departments have been criticized for using military-style methods of crowd control against protesters, Denver’s approach of restraint is being shared by agencies across the country, as experts say police interference can actually escalate violence and erode trust.
“We have learned that providing route security at a distance and intentionally avoiding direct confrontation prevents injury to officers, limits liability, and minimizes the criminal actions of many protesters,” the chief wrote in the email to officers, adding that police should take “immediate enforcement action” only rarely. In Saturday’s case, police arrested two protesters for vandalism, but only after the demonstration.
“There’s a lot more emphasis today on de-escalation,” said policing consultant Joe Brann, a former chief and founder of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing program. “It provides more confidence, with these protests, when you see signs that the police are being very reasonable and calculated when they do have to take enforcement action and they’re not jumping into the fray willy nilly.”
Aggressive police tactics drew criticism in Ferguson, Missouri, where officers with riot gear and military-grade equipment clashed with protesters after the police shooting of Michael Brown. The response renewed questions about how best to respond to protests and caused many departments to re-evaluate their own policies.
Denver Police Chief Robert White told officers the department’s policy of restraint had proven effective in earlier protests over killings by police, including Brown’s and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City. Protests flared again when officers involved in both deaths were not indicted by local grand juries.
“We always have to weigh, what are we getting in the middle of? If the situation deteriorates because of the police action, it’s not always the best action,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, whose officers watched as a man defaced their headquarters with a marker during a recent protest. They arrested him later. “I understand the frustration. But we’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”
That’s a departure from a time when officers would rush in and make arrests, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “You’re not going to let them off the hook. It just isn’t necessary to wade into a crowd and create more conflict,” he said.
Police chiefs in Chicago, Boston, Nashville, Tennessee, and elsewhere have taken a largely hands-off approach to demonstrations, shutting down streets for marches and opening lines of communication with protest groups. Attorney General Eric Holder urged police restraint to “minimize needless confrontation” ahead of November’s announcement that the Ferguson officer who shot Brown would not be criminally charged.
Dealing with protests starts before demonstrators even hit the streets, said Maj. Max Geron of the Dallas Police Department, speaking in his capacity as a security studies scholar who wrote his master’s thesis on policing and protests. He studied the responses of the Dallas; Portland, Oregon; New York City and Oakland, California, police departments to Occupy Wall Street protests and found that a hands-off approach works best whenever possible.
Portland Police, for example, assigned specific officers to patrol Occupy encampments so protesters could become familiar with them, Geron said. In Salt Lake City, police made arrangements with Occupy protesters so they could be arrested on their own terms.
“I’m convinced that if the police’s first response to a gathering is riot shields and helmets, then that says, throw rocks and bottles at us, we’re expecting this horrible confrontation,” Burbank said. “What you try and do is meet and say what do you need how can we facilitate your free speech?”
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