Managing Civil Unrest & Protests in a New Environment

Those in law enforcement can attest to the continuous changes in the profession. In the 1960s, it was inconceivable to have predicted where time and technology would transport the country by 2017. The media provides instantaneous news via social media, so a small demonstration can be multiplied in an instant with a simple tweet. Law enforcement must adapt.

Closed-circuit television cameras are almost everywhere, along with cellphone video, and now, body-worn cameras. As both society and law enforcement continue to advance, one thing has become abundantly clear. Law enforcement officers are operating in a new environment, and there is a requirement for both tactics and leadership to be flexible and adaptable.

Civil Protection – 1960s to Present

The management of demonstrations is a notable example of this transformation. Managing civil unrest and protests is perhaps the most vivid proof to the change in surroundings and to the necessary adjustment in response style. The law enforcement response during the 1968 riots in cities across the country was focused on militaristic control of the environment. There was little emphasis on public relations concerns. Terms such as “negotiated management” were unheard of in the arena of protests during that era.

Before the unrest in Baltimore in 2015, the city’s protests were fully handled by operational commanders. To the credit of those commanders, they regularly attempted to communicate and often negotiate with protesters before taking enforcement action. The unrest taught Baltimore law enforcement valuable lessons in communication. In some instances, it taught that it was necessary to separate the enforcement arm of policing from the community-collaboration function.

Operational actions and decisions are now formulated collaboratively based on a working partnership between community-oriented officers and traditional operational officers. Although public safety will not be compromised for public relations, there is certainly some space between the two for negotiated management. These changes are the “new normal” for law enforcement agencies, which are rapidly learning that the “good old days” might not have been as good as memory recalls when placed into today’s context. In terms of public relations, the previous strategy has not necessarily always served communities well.

The Baltimore Police Department, like many others, has managed a plethora of demonstrations since the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012. In the beginning, the agency managed these protests with primitive planning tactics and sincere optimism that protesters would exhibit favorable conduct. The department’s experience consisted of basic crowd control concepts, on-the-job training and adjustments, and some luck. Over time, skills developed based on experience, and officers networked with law enforcement peers to incorporate other best practices. Skills developed from repetition and lessons learned from previous experiences.

Lessons Learned in Public Relations

Now [as of February 2017], the Baltimore Police Department has established best practices of its own, with an artful balance between community engagement and enforcement. Sometimes, this balance becomes unsteadied, and officers struggle to not overreact. However, the agency continues to learn and evolve with each event.

It is critical to recognize the importance of an image or a visual during these protests and public events. For example, a single photograph of a police officer over-equipped in gear or of a publicly perceived overrepresentation of visible officers for the context of the situation could be misinterpreted by many. Commanders must take care in selecting the gear worn by visible personnel during events. Despite considering this, there were over 165 injuries of police officers during the unrest in Baltimore. That should not happen to officers anywhere, ever again. Agencies have a responsibility to keep their officers safe. The skillset lies in balancing fears and the need to act appropriately while controlling the urge to overreact.

Public information officers understand the importance that communication plays in terms of public relations. One of the critiques regarding Baltimore’s response during and following the unrest led to the development of a Joint Information Center (JIC), which provides the ability for the agency to rapidly disseminate information, diffuse rumors, and clarify facts. The current speed of instantaneous communication and technology makes it incredibly important for the agency’s swiftness of information sharing to match that of the rest of society.

As law enforcement agencies continue to move forward, many aspects in law enforcement will continue to change. Technological advances dictate the need for new computers, radios, software programs, and other related equipment. Society demands a different response from law enforcement than it required during the 1960s. Agencies must focus on image management, public relations, and the impression that appearance and actions make on the general public.

Modern law enforcement agencies need flexible and adaptable police leaders. Those who are still committed to “doing it like we’ve always done it” are rapidly becoming dinosaurs in a constantly evolving profession. The same is true for those managing civil unrest or protests. This new environment requires flexible and forward-thinking individuals to continue to transform with the times.

Successful public relations are a critical piece to be managed during protests or civil unrest. After an incident ends, public relations damage can take years to rebuild, and public trust can take even longer to restore. The challenge lies in handling incidents appropriately, without compromising the safety of citizens or police officers. Therefore, law enforcement officers must balance the priority of public image while also protecting lives and property. There is a space between public relations and public safety.  In this zone lies the balance between the extremes that all must strive to maintain.

The author’s father was a police officer during the 1968 Baltimore City riots. When the author entered the law enforcement profession in 1997, after decades of listening to her father’s stories of his days on the street, she quickly learned that she was operating in a new generation of policing, and her tactics were quite different from the ones utilized by her father in the 1960s.

Melissa Hyatt

Melissa R. Hyatt was sworn in as Baltimore County’s 14th Police Chief on June 17, 2019, bringing with her over 20 years of law enforcement experience with the Baltimore Police Department. She served in that role for almost 4 years, bringing transformative change to the agency. While at the Baltimore Police Department, her assignments included chief of staff to the police commissioner, chief of patrol, and chief of the Special Operations Division. In 2018, she retired at the rank of colonel to accept a position of vice president for Security for Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hyatt holds a Masters in Management Degree from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Delaware. She is a graduate of the 250th session of the FBI National Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Executive Leaders Program, and the Major Cities Chiefs Police Executive Leadership Institute (PELI). Hyatt is a 2021 Aspen Institute Civil Society Fellow. She has been honored with numerous awards and citations, and holds memberships in several professional organizations, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association for which she serves as the chair of the Human Resources and Emerging Issues Committee. Hyatt is also the immediate past president for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. She currently serves on the board of directors for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and as a board member for both Special Olympics Maryland and the Baltimore Humane Society.



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