The Role of Police at Protests in a Democratic Society

David Couper, former chief of the Madison, Wisconsin, police department had some insightful things to say about protests at the Capitol in his book, Arrested Development.  I was especially impressed by his philosophy that the police, among their other duties, were there to ASSIST the people in exercising their rights of protest.

Couper, Arrested Development, pp. 193-5


"Large Protest Regarding Public Policy at the StateCapitolBuilding"


The second major example of the department's new and evolving crowd-control methods occurred years later in April, 1985, when a large, organized protest was held on the grounds of the Capitol protesting public investments in South Africa.  In the years since the Mifflin block party, we had handled hundreds of protests, demonstrations and large crowds such as the annual Halloween celebration downtown that at its height had more than 100,000 revelers in attendance without noteworthy incidents.


This protest was against also the apartheid policies of South Africa.  While the Madison police normally don’t have jurisdiction over state property, we were called in to assist the Capitol police.  Governor Tony Earl had called Mayor Joel Skornicka for aid, who then called me.  By the time I arrived on the scene to make an assessment, many of the demonstrators, who now filled the Capitol grounds, had begun constructing wooden shanties; symbols of the segregated townships outside the larger cities in South Africa.


I saw that a large number of the demonstrators were not from Madison but had come from other cities in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest.  The initial attitude of the demonstrators wasn't friendly toward the presence of police.  They were not the usual protest people we had worked with over the years.  At first, neither of us knew what to expect from the other.


I needed to talk to the governor before we got involved in this emotionally charged situation.  I told him that it would be preferable if we kept things low-key and didn't make any immediate demands on the protesters.  I asked that my department be the lead agency in handling the situation.  The governor agreed.


I wanted to avoid a confrontation for as long as possible, but even as I spoke, protesters had entered the Capitol building and staged a sit-in in the central rotunda.  The Capitol chief and I had agreed that his officers would handle the inside of the building and we would handle the outside.  At the end of the day, the Capitol police would follow their standard practice of locking down the building.  When that happened the demonstrators would be asked to leave. And some did.  Those remaining were carefully escorted outside and the doors locked behind them.  This happened without incident or arrests.


While we had used our soft strategy effectively during numerous demonstrations and sit-ins during the past decade, this crowd was by far one of the largest and most diverse we'd ever dealt with.  I saw this as another opportunity for us to put into practice and highlight what we had learned about handling crowds and how police in a democracy operate.


I presented our plan to the governor.  We would assign uniformed police officers, without hats, batons, or any riot control gear, to enter the crowd and dialogue with the protesters.  But this time we went beyond merely talking with them and calming them down -- we instructed these officers in some of the alternatives to divestment and how divesting might severely impact everyone in South Africa, blacks and whites.  We encouraged protesters to form discussion groups in the crowd.  Those assembled came to see the police as not trying to prevent protest but rather to facilitate it; they soon realized that the police who present (sic) were informed, smart, and willing to engage in political discussions.


This protest was an occupation and, literally, a massive sit-in and campout on the Capitol grounds.  This meant that a large number of the protesters were doing more sitting than protesting.  The point of contention, I knew, would be when some legislators got tired of all this and ordered us to expel the protesters from state property.  If that happened, the businesses and government buildings on the Capitol Square and downtown area would be vulnerable to damage and vandalism.  It was a waiting game on both sides.


We briefed our officers on these issues and reasserted to the protesters that our role was to facilitate the protest, not prevent it.  We also let them know that we, too, were against racism and any system of discrimination.  The presence of our diverse workforce in terms of gender and race also spoke a clear message that day.  The protesters knew we were here to stay and not in any hurry to end things.


Our strategy was always to keep us from becoming the issue, and to keep talking.  The protest went on for six days.  As time went on, we started negotiations with the leaders concerning dismantling the scores of illegal shanties that had been constructed on the lawn of the Capitol building.  The presence of the shanties was, of course, an issue of enormous contention, as people are not generally allowed to build structures on the grounds of a state capitol and many members of the community believed the police needed to do something about it.  We often heard, "Look at this mess, who's going to clean it up?"


Everyone expected that if we moved to dismantle the shanties, it would create the issue that could ignite the crowd.  It never happened.  We were able to negotiate a smooth withdrawal and permitted a few symbolic shanties to remain standing for a few more days.  It was a win-win ending.  A positive ending brought about by police willing to be patient and withhold action.


I believe the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators went home feeling that they had made a powerful. and well-heard protest against apartheid, petitioned their government for redress, been heard by that government, and witnessed a democratic police in action; police who served as facilitators and protectors, who acknowledged their right to assemble and protest the actions of their government.


Now, you may ask how you get police officers to enter a potentially hostile crowd without protective gear.  One of the strategies we used was having a reserve force in readiness.  A few blocks away, out of the view of the public and media, was a team of police officers kept in reserve with helmets, batons, and tear gas.  They were on standby in case any person, including police officers, in the crowd was in danger of harm.  That was how I could justify asking officers to enter such a large crowd.  Again, speaking softly and carrying a big stick works effectively for police when the stick is out of sight.  The difference here was our big stick wasn't our first or only strategy.  It was only one of our strategies -- and only one of last resort.

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