We Can Do Better

Crowd Management 2020

24 June 2020

On 25 May 2020, the United States, indeed the World, was alerted to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer during an arrest. This tragic death, graphically captured on video, led to a maelstrom of violence as protests and riots swept Minneapolis, Lafayette Square in Washington D.C., and many other major cities. These protests were mimicked in Canada and even in Europe as the month of June dawned, causing injuries to police and protestors alike in many of the areas where they occurred.

Crowd Management, in fact the maintenance of peace and good order, has been a primary role for police since the days of Robert Peel, the “father” of modern policing. It was his mantra that the police are the public and the public are the police, meaning any measures taken must be equated with the simple fact that police are an extension of the public they serve.

Let us clearly understand that peaceful and lawful protests are the inalienable rights of all individuals, both here in Canada and the United States. The right to protest, to clearly espouse your beliefs to the state in a peaceful manner, is not only a democratic right but indeed can be seen as a civic duty. Those external to the cause may disagree with the protest goals, but as was attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”.  The right to peaceful protest is the privilege of living in a working democracy.

The role of Police, said in a myriad of ways, has always been linked to maintaining public peace and safety… the protection of the public and maintenance of good order.

Police response to protests was historically geared to a direct and aggressive response when peace and good order failed and violence and property damage commenced. The response available to police at this late stage is a full “riot” response, focusing on the deployment of helmets, shields, batons and even tear gas to quell a disturbance.

MIAMI, FLORIDA (31 May 2020) Police prepare for violence as protesters gather.
MIAMI, FLORIDA (31 May 2020) Police prepare for violence as protesters gather in downtown Miami for protests over the death of George Floyd by police officers. Peaceful demonstrations by day turned into violent riots at night in the immediate aftermath of his death.

During the latest protests (dubbed by some as the Black Lives Matter movement), this strong response in some areas has been further augmented by the deployment of military personnel to many of the affected cities at the behest of politicians. However, the augmentation of civilian police response with the military is a recipe for disaster in a crowd-control context. It can easily be said that the videos of the various protests have shown police in many U.S. cities have been using outdated crowd management tactics, and the military is ill trained to deal with civilian unrest. Increased violence, as was seen, is the end result of this disparity.

This was readily evident at many protest sites, when the violent protestors and looters were no longer on scene, and the police failed to deescalate their tactical response, despite the threat having left the area. 

DETROIT, MICHIGAN (30 May 2020) Riot police from Detroit prepare to push back protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Detroit, Michigan. (Photo: Nathaniel M Zorach)

In the mid 1980’s, the study of crowd dynamics led to a philosophy of crowd management and a change by police in protest response.

As crowd philosophy became more understood, response, training and tactics also began to adapt as more police services, including Toronto, began to focus on preemptive response to this final riot stage. It became understood that all protests have the potential to progress through various stages, and that each stage requires different types of response.

All initial response should be of the “soft” variety, usually performed by operational police units in normal police attire. These officers arrive on scene as the protestors gather, and can engage the crowd prior to any movement. They meet the organizers and any marshals and can begin to organize a plan that will provide safety to the protest. This tactic was not used in the Lafayette Square demonstration, where riot equipped officers ran at the crowd with little or no communication prior to this dispersal. Riot officers ran unchecked into a peaceful assembly seemingly without direction and with little regard to the safety of the protestors, or themselves. In other locales, police reacted differently. In California for example, bike patrol officers were used to first engage the crowd, and then at a walking pace and with verbal direction for the protestors to depart, moved the crowd back until all had virtually departed.

This use of bike patrol officers has been a staple in crowd management in Canada for years. The bike patrol/ community response officers who have ties to the areas they police can best understand the needs of the protestors within those areas. These officers must also be trained in crowd management tactics and crowd philosophy, to better understand the crowd dynamics throughout the duration of an event. With the help of such training, they are capable to adapt and convey information to the crowd, and alert the Public Order Commander if the tone of the protest begins to change.

The goal at this stage is to facilitate a lawful protest, assisting in the movement of the protestors along a route, or into a static protest zone agreed upon by both police and protestors. This allows the protestors effective access to the media that will assist in conveying their message, and also allows for marshals within the protest group to self-police. Facilitation of a lawful event allows the protestors to see the police as enablers rather than aggressors.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (30 May 2020) People in Washington D.C. march near the White House to protest for the Black Lives Matter cause. 

While a protest remains peaceful, no use of force is appropriate. However, if the tone starts to shift, the need for de-escalation tactics maybe required.

The potential for more strident response must always be gauged by the concept of gradual application of force – this must be understood by all officers involved in crowd management.

There must be no individual action performed (unless life threats or serious bodily harm are at risk), but rather a unified response by the entire crowd management team. All actions must be coordinated and executed under the direction of a highly trained Public Order Commander utilizing this concept, and escalating or de-escalating the force used based on the threat or application of force presented by the crowd present at the event.

DAYTON, OHIO (30 May 2020) Police and SWAT officers prepare to control crowds at a black lives matter protest.

During any protest, the police must never be seen as the sideshow or focus of the demonstration and all efforts must be made to humanize the officers present to the crowd on scene. In the latest series of protests this has been most difficult, as the police relationship to the community is indeed the cause of the protest to begin with.

At a time like this, dialogue and planning with the protesters becomes even more crucial. This humanization, or rather the creation of some affinity to the protestor needs, has been seen multiple times at the current protests, including Toronto, where bike patrol officers and the Chief of Police took a knee with protesters. Similarly, Command and senior officers on scene in other jurisdictions have been seen to “take a knee” with the protestors, reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick’s action during the National Anthem at NFL games. This simple act of solidarity is a powerful message for all to see and allows for further dialogue and discussion. 

Colin Kaepernick began protesting against racial injustice and police brutality in 1916 by taking a knee during the national anthem.

The coordination of proper planning prior to an event is crucial to effective crowd management. When available, dialogue with potential groups of protestors   PRIOR to any protest is the key to effective response. In recent memory, this tactic was best demonstrated at the XVI AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006.  Prior to this conference, dialogues with all potential protest groups were arranged, and some agreements reached between the police and these groups with regard to routes, protest locations, media scrums and locations for static demonstrations. The result of this collaborative approach was that this conference became the only one since its inception where violent protest was not an issue. Protestors were able to get their point across and achieve the media sound bites they desired, while the police facilitated their actions. Ultimately, this is the ultimate goal of all Police/ Protestor interaction. Legal protests must be facilitated!

demonstrators in Vancouver join the anti-racism Freedom March.
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA (19 June 2020) A large gathering of demonstrators join the anti-racism Freedom March.

The best tactic at all crowd events is to TALK to the protestors whenever possible. Known as “tactical communication”, this effort begins prior to the protest and continues throughout the event until final dispersal of the crowd. Making connections, unrelated to the reason for the protest is the key to successful crowd management. If one humanizes the contact between protestor and police, creating any link between the two, it will reduce the potential for violent confrontation at a later time.

This concept has been proven at multiple events, including the Serbian Protests of 2000 in Toronto. At that protest, which lasted 78 days, violence occurred for the first three days, including Molotov cocktails being thrown at the U.S. Consulate and Police, and the crowd being charged by mounted officers. After this initial phase, police engagement with the organizers created parameters for the remainder of the event, which occurred without violence. Each day after an initial “meet and greet” between police and protestors, massive crowds were moved peacefully to various sites in the downtown core where they wished to protest – and just as effectively dispersed without issue.

What had started as a violent riot had ended with crowd management officers being invited to Serbian social events after the protest ended. The tactic clearly worked as it became clear that human nature dictates that it may become difficult to attack someone you have engaged in conversation for the last few hours. Ultimately, this will reduce the number of individuals that the police may have to address at the end of the day if things do indeed turn violent. 

LONDON, UK (6 June 2020) Anti-racism protesters in London, UK “take a knee” at a Black Lives Matter demonstration to protest the death of Black American George Floyd by U.S. police in Minneapolis.

Ultimately, and despite all best efforts, the “soft” approach may be unsuccessful, and dynamic tactics will be required to move crowds safely from an area. This time, which can occur gradually or as a result of some police or crowd action, needs to be recognized by the officers on scene. At this point, a Public Order Commander will direct the transition from “soft” regular uniform response to a “hard” tactical response. During the latest protests in Atlanta on June 6, full riot police stood behind a tactical POU Commander who still continued to communicate to the protestors and organizers, urging them to disperse. As the Crowd Management Team advanced, at the walk, the crowd began to depart and no use-of-force options were required. Dialogue, supported by effective and trained support, was able to diffuse the situation without violence. This did indeed work, but was not maintained, and violence resumed. They clearly had the right response at this single protest, but did not learn from the efficacy of that approach as the protests continued.

Even at the final stage, when it seems that violence may be imminent, communication with the crowd is not precluded. De-escalation should still be the top priority. Bullhorns will alert the protestors to the police next stages. Banners can be deployed and are used to alert the crowd to the next stage of potential police deployment (arrest teams, horses, tear gas), so that those no longer wishing to engage the police can depart unimpeded. This stage will require the deployment of dedicated officers who are highly trained in crowd dynamics; effective de-escalation tactics; gradual application of force; and safe crowd dispersal techniques.  

NEW YORK (6 JUNE 2020)  Several NYPD officers stepped forward to take a knee during a protest in front of police headquarters, but while some call it "solidarity", others saw it as a "PR stunt." (ABC news)

The goal of effective crowd management at this stage is to “contain, isolate and disperse”. Police will need to contain a crowd (always with an exit available for those who choose to leave unimpeded); isolate individuals who incite violence or perform criminal acts by using trained arrest teams and arrest as required; and finally disperse the entire crowd from the immediate scene. This process works, but is resource intensive and has the potential for injury to both police and protestors. That is why this must remain as the final phase in any crowd response.

Training is the key for the successful and safe accomplishment of crowd maintenance. This training needs to be ever-evolving and be continually based on any new information or current studies, and always open to public input for enhancement.

It should be stressed that, in Canada and throughout North America, crowd management teams are drawn from across the service and are not permanently standing units. In Ontario, they must adhere to stringent training standards and mandated adequacy standards set by the Province, and if not maintained, the officer cannot be deployed to an event. For the crowd management officer to be effective, they need to be constantly adapting to current situations and always amenable to continuous learning. Crowd management officers need to be the best that a service can provide, drawn from various areas within the jurisdiction, and focused on community engagement. One could question, based on some of the images we have seen, whether these type of high standards are mandated in other jurisdictions?

TORONTO ONTARIO (,June 2020) A police officer walks ahead of a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters while they denounce law enforcement in Toronto, Canada.

The societal causes for protest will remain until Government and Society in general determines that we will no longer stand for the inequities that these protests can derive from. The events of the weeks since the death of George Floyd will ultimately change policing throughout North America. The rules by which an individual police officer affects an arrest will certainly change in jurisdictions that have been unwilling to change procedures based on appropriate standards designed to ensure life safety for those being arrested.

The initial changes have already begun, and will continue for the foreseeable future. This is truly the start of a genesis of change for police services throughout North America.

As society grapples with the inequities that precipitated these events, police services will have to address the way in which they effectively address ALL of those people they engage.

The continuum of societal change will take time, however the changes for police response, where required, will need to be immediate. It is well within the scope of all police services to adapt now, and initiate the changes required. It becomes not a question of budgets or existing police culture but rather the concerted desire to change to achieve the end goal.

Sergeant-Retired Stephen T. Sadler and Sergeant-Retired Jim McLean are Public Order / Crowd Management Trainers with the Toronto Police Service.