Arguably the greatest collective accomplishment in all of human history is the creation of representative government.

From the ballot box springs every advancement of human liberty; individual civil rights, the right to religious expression, free speech and free association, property rights, and the right of self-defense. That form of government, democracy, has been described as “revolution at the ballot box every four years.”

It is the responsibility of police in a democratic society to ensure that revolution is peaceful by enforcing the basic rules that keep citizens safe from each other’s worst impulses. Maintaining a representative government and its attendant freedoms requires that the public vote, that elected officials translate their wishes into policies and laws, and that police enforce those laws fairly and impartially even when everyone else descends into partisan hysteria.

The media now has demonstrated that they have a side; politicians have always had sides; and an increasingly polarized public follows the siren call of their champion to sides increasingly hostile to each other.

Rachel Maddow

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow – courtesy: Flickr

Police in a democratic republic don’t have a side. Our side is the law, applied fairly and consistently to everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, or political affiliation.

Every time in our history we have deviated from this ideal it has been at the cost of our most sacred ideals – those of equal liberty, justice, and fairness, for all Americans. This makes us a target for agitators and enemies on all sides.

The hard right and hard left differ violently on how to remake America, but they share one objective and that is to delegitimize law enforcement. Assistant Chief Ryan Lee of the Portland Police Bureau shared this thought during planning sessions earlier this year and his insight is crucial to understanding the behavior of hardline groups and their promoters.

Extremist activists pursue descent into mob rule where they can attack enemies with impunity unfettered by the restraints of law, or to manipulate police into attacking their enemies for them. 

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They are abetted in their aims by activist journalists in traditional and new media. Who, even when they report accurate information, curate both the selection and presentation of those facts to paint a picture that is often profoundly misleading to favor a specific perspective. After every confrontation that has even slightest inference of a political angle, bizarrely conflicting coverage erupts where one set of voices claims police over-reacted and the other claims they didn’t do nearly enough.

Video will be posted on social media in near real-time accompanied by inflammatory claims. Opposing sources release edited or condensed video that shows only the purported victim engaging in earlier violence or provocation. Multiple iterations of this cycle follow, accompanied by inflammatory punditry touting whatever affiliated perspective or political objective.

These selectively edited videos are used by all parties to cultivate influence by attacking police. They will, alternatively, claim that omnipresent and overly powerful police are a threat to their liberty and unalienable rights, then turn on a dime and claim that police are too weak and inept to protect their safety. Both arguments include the implicit message that the protection of an extrajudicial mob is needed, either against enemies or against the police.

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Protesters march in the streets during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Flickr)

The Pacific Northwest, always a hotbed of both peaceful activism and civil disobedience, has been roiled in recent years by conflict between protest groups and other violent incidents. In 2019, a strong coalition emerged, forged in the fires of these protests, that has been successful in preventing serious violence and improving outcomes during protests.

This coalition is a testament to teamwork between the state, local, and federal law enforcement and government entities and their effort to work within their specific jurisdictional boundaries. 

The coalition formed to mitigate civil unrest that has been growing in the Portland area included, the Portland Police Bureau, Portland Mayors Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Oregon, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, Port of Portland Police, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police, Federal Protective Service, and other agencies.

Here are some actions that have improved outcomes at recent violent confrontations between protest groups in the Pacific Northwest since 2018.

No Bias

Emphasizing fair, impartial, and consistent application of public order policing without regard to political affiliation during operational planning and supervisory oversight. This is critical when the groups involved express hardline political sentiments that inflame public emotion and draw vigorous counter protest.

These groups are looking for any reason to claim they are being mistreated, intentional or not, real or imagined. A strong body of case law and oversight hearings that followed law enforcement actions in the 1920s and 1960s are a clear guide to the liability and risk to reputation that agencies face if they bow to outside pressures and fail to enforce impartially.

Agency Teamwork

Teamwork between state, local, and federal agencies. Confrontations between armed groups have historically demonstrated the increased likelihood of violence and serious disorder that can escalate quickly and overwhelm any single agency’s resources. Recruiting and fund raising on social media enables groups to recruit support from all over the country. Most agencies have neither the resources nor the expertise to address complex, high-risk events alone.

A mutual commitment to impartial enforcement of the law and conformity to best practices regarding civil disturbance policing, use of force, and prosecution is critical to maintaining strong coalitions. Partner agencies must use consistent tactics and equipment or risk the perception of favoritism by groups who encounter officers from an agency which has more aggressive posture.

A united front and adherence to best practices also gives partner agencies the strongest position when communicating with stakeholders and elected officials on appropriate strategies.

Freedom of Speech

Prioritize the protection of free speech, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association when policing protests while taking a zero-tolerance policy towards violence. The constitution guarantees Americans the right of freedom of assembly and to petition government.

While disorderly conduct type statutes must sometimes be used to ensure that businesses and government operations stay open and the public can use streets and sidewalks, patient efforts should be made to obtain voluntary compliance from individuals conducting civil disobedience.

Nonviolent subjects should be informed multiple times what law they are violating, told that they will be arrested, and allowed tovoluntarily comply when practical. Perceptions of overly aggressive policing empower police critics and extremist groups by adding fuel to their claims of persecution and prosecution for these offenses are difficult.

Separate Enemies

Keep hostile counter protest groups separated to the extent possible. Members of violent groups build stature, recruiting power, and fundraising potential by participating in fights and disseminating pictures and videos of these on social media.

A cycle of violence ensues where both sides plot and antagonize each other on social media, plot revenge, and recruit additional fighters to come to the next event. Keeping them separate reduces the attractiveness of a site as a future conflict location. The best law enforcement can hope for is to be equally despised by all sides.

Real Time Communication

Use proactive, joint, real time communications and invite multiple credible news outlets to cover events. Violent protests will be covered by activistreporters who will disseminate accounts tailored to appeal to factionally aligned audiences. These misleading stories are often repeated and used to attack your department.

Multiple alternative accounts including video from these events can be a powerful corrective to false or exaggerated claims. Proactively scan for, identify, and counter false narratives as soon as possible prior to, during and post event. Be prepared for seemingly minor events to explode into controversy. Police actions should be communicated early and explained to build public trust.

Relentless Support

Support your own and partner agency law enforcement officers while upholding standards of discipline and honor and do both in partnership where possible. In recent years we’ve seen individuals and groups go from making legitimate complaints of police misconduct, to making exaggerated claims, to making claims that are blatantly false and designed to pander to anti police forces. Collectively addressing both real misconduct and false accusations can help. 

2020 Election Is Coming…

The 2020 election cycle is anticipated to include intense protests and counter protests as political ads and rallies begin and debate escalates around key issues. These events are likely to continue the pattern in recent years of being accompanied by confrontations between armed groups.

They will be covered, often inaccurately, by sympathetic television, print, and social media personalities. If chaotic streets brawls occur, they will be followed by angry voices that send out the siren call of tribalism and attempt to recruit even larger mobs and influence police to deviate from the path of fair, consistent, and impartial enforcement.

It’s finally happening. Two Republican senators are pushing to label the anti-fascist group Antifa as “domestic terrorists”.

History shows that allowing violent political mobs to form is a grave mistake that can grow, fester, and explode into greater violence.

To paraphrase one of the greatest philosophers of human liberty in my opinion NAME:

“The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their constitution.”

I’m confident that American law enforcement officers, our prosecutors, and elected officials do have those qualities. At the end of the day, patience, partnership, good planning, and a mutual commitment to constitutionally sound, legally defensible policing is the key to success in these situations. Let’s take care of each other out there.

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Gabriel Russell is a Regional Director for the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service and a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major with Active Duty and National Guard experience. He has a Master of Science Degree from Central Washington University. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the position of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Army, or the Army National Guard.