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Saturday, September 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Make space for protest but stay in control: Experts say police must balance both in situations like the one that erupted Sunday in Spokane

Police in riot gear advance on protesters on Main Avenue between Stevens and Washington Streets on Sunday. Hundreds of protesters were forced out of the downtown core by riot police using non-lethal projectiles and tear gas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Police in riot gear advance on protesters on Main Avenue between Stevens and Washington Streets on Sunday. Hundreds of protesters were forced out of the downtown core by riot police using non-lethal projectiles and tear gas. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The best method for keeping a protest peaceful is often the same one that works for interpersonal conflicts – open and constant communication.

Experts in policing and crowd management say large demonstrations like Sunday night’s peaceful protest that devolved into rioting by some and the use of force by police in downtown Spokane are more likely to remain peaceful when law enforcement and protesters are on the same page.

Dale Willits, assistant professor of criminal justice at Washington State University, said research on protests and riots often focuses on the protesters, not the police. But studies have shown that when police make an effort to understand the beliefs, values and concerns of demonstrators– an approach known as facilitated policing – protests are far less likely to turn violent.

“Those open lines of communication between police and the crowd are central to a safe protest,” Willits said. “If police are this monolithic, intimidating force that looks other to protesters, it leads to more feelings of distrust and of unjust intervention.”

If law enforcement positions itself as being present to facilitate a safe protest for demonstrators and the surrounding community, rather than being there to fight back against them, protesters are more likely to cooperate, Willits said.

A key tenet of the facilitated policing approach is to contact protest organizers and other community leaders ahead of time to discuss the protest’s goals and needs, ensuring police can help direct the protest as needed.

For example, if organizers tell police they plan to march in a certain area of the city, police can more easily plan to direct traffic away. That openness serves to minimize miscommunication in the heat of the moment as well as helping law enforcement contain the protest to one safe area, Willits said.

“In this situation where police are themselves the out-group of a protest, they are well served to avoid conflict any way they can,” Willits said. “You want to give those protesters the space to protest, because that is their right, but you also want to be positioned to respond without exploding the action and stoking the fires.”

Willits said images of Spokane police officers kneeling in solidarity with protesters Sunday night were a great example of mutual understanding between the two groups, showing police understood where their rage was coming from.

Law enforcement, in a sign of respect and understanding, kneel to the cheers of protesters gathered at the Spokane County Courthouse. Thousands marched in Spokane on Sunday to protest George Floyd’s death and police brutality. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Law enforcement, in a sign of respect and understanding, kneel to the cheers of protesters gathered at the Spokane County Courthouse. Thousands marched in Spokane on Sunday to protest George Floyd’s death and police brutality. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Those crucial lines of communication become more complicated when a protest is spontaneous, Willits said, because it’s less likely there will be a single figurehead through which law enforcement can talk to the crowd. In those situations, Willits said deploying plainclothes officers into the crowd to represent law enforcement in a “positive yet authoritative” way may help establish relations between the groups and avoid conflict.

If a protest does begin to turn violent, Willits said law enforcement ultimately have two options: either pull back, or confront the situation. Pulling back from a potential confrontation is often useful to diffuse the tension, but it can sometimes serve to “embolden” members of a crowd who are not protesting so much as waiting for an opportunity to provoke, according to Willits.

“That’s when you see cars on fire and windows broken,” Willits said. “You can think of it like a forest fire – sometimes the only option is to contain it off and let it burn.”

But the decision to confront an increasingly destructive crowd is just as fraught. Officers must take into account the “collateral,” Willits said. If they choose to crack down on protesters, law enforcement may just prove their point for them. If things take a turn for the worse, Willits said police should maintain the principle of “procedural justice” – essentially, always treating protesters with respect and civility, even if arrests must be made and tear gas fired.

Tear gas cloud Main Street deployed by police in downtown Spokane, Wash. on May 31, 2020 following what was a peaceful protest for George Floyd. The rioting started when Nike was looted, and this particular hot zone ended up at Main and Bernard after hours of agitators being pushed back by a very large law enforcement presence. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Tear gas cloud Main Street deployed by police in downtown Spokane, Wash. on May 31, 2020 following what was a peaceful protest for George Floyd. The rioting started when Nike was looted, and this particular hot zone ended up at Main and Bernard after hours of agitators being pushed back by a very large law enforcement presence. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

“But when things turn towards a riot, dispersing that situation is almost always the right call if it can be done without hurting people,” said Stephen James, assistant research professor at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane.

James’ research at WSU focuses on the dynamics and performance factors that drive policing, including in deadly force encounters and crisis intervention. Prior to entering academia, James was an officer in the British Army. He was deployed in Northern Ireland, where he was involved in “dozens and dozens” of riots and instances of civil unrest.

James agreed that when a protest remains peaceful, the best thing officers can do is maintain open and honest communication with the crowd. As long as that’s happening, protesters are more likely to help police in identifying destructive opportunists in the crowd, and officers can step in to contain the “bad side” of a protest. But there’s very little police or protesters can do to keep those opportunists out in the first place, James said.

Those factors, when combined with agitating factors like the imposition of a curfew, can lead to a “peak of emotions” where violence and vandalism are more likely to occur. And ultimately, James said, the core duty of law enforcement is to maintain order and protect the community.

Protestors and police clash in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020.  The afternoon saw previously peaceful protests prior to the looting of Nike and subsequent street riot. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Protestors and police clash in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020. The afternoon saw previously peaceful protests prior to the looting of Nike and subsequent street riot. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When that peak is reached, police often reach for tools like tear gas or rubber bullets to contain the situation. James said tear gas is most often used to disperse crowds from one concentrated spot, or to drive them away from the scene of looting or violence. Projectiles like rubber bullets and bean bag rounds should be used only if police are facing physical threats, but James said that isn’t always the case.

American police officers are often not trained specifically for riot control, both because of limited resources and because most cities simply don’t deal with riots frequently. So, they fall back on the tools they have available.

Adding to that, police typically are vastly outnumbered and exhausted from hours or days of continuous work during a period civil unrest, James said.

“If you have 10 officers to 100 protesters, it’s often just a waiting game until a flashpoint happens,” James said. “And the longer civil unrest goes, the more it’s just a human factors issue – risk processing changes with fatigue, and officers can lose the ability to think clearly and respond correctly.”

James said police forces must be mindful of such human factors and plan accordingly to avoid problems. But he said protesters also have a responsibility to help maintain the peace, which they can do by cooperating with police to identify issues before tensions reach a breaking point.

James said he felt Spokane police did well communicating with protesters from the start and were thoughtful about using force. He pointed specifically to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl praying with protesters before the protest began.

“That was the best start I could hope for,” James said. “They didn’t just throw up the blue wall, they kept things open. I hope the first thing the chief did (Monday) morning was reach out to those leaders again to see how they could do better next time.”

Willits echoed James’ sentiment, saying the dialogue between police and protesters was promising, but that it would be naive to think there wouldn’t be more challenges in the future.

“These strategies like facilitated policing and procedural justice are so important, but ultimately they are band-aids on a much larger wound we’re ignoring,” Willits said. “It’s ultimately very short-term, because this will cool down, but in three weeks if another officer kills another black man, what have we learned? A longer-term dialogue is needed to avoid these things in the future.”

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