On the afternoon of Saturday, August 12, as I sat on the couch at home watching CNN coverage, I began getting the calls.
“Are we ready?” they asked. “What will we do if it happens here?” “Chapel Hill is a lot like Charlottesville, you know.” “We have a monument to the confederacy, too.” “The community needs to know that we are ready.” As a small liberal college community with a major university, an embattled confederate monument, and a history of peaceful protest, Chapel Hill also seemed ripe for an eruption in these politically charged times.
As the police chief in a college town, I am well acquainted with protests, demonstrations, and marches. But I didn’t have an answer for these callers. The question wasn’t just about police tactics; the question was really about how we’d respond as a police department and as a community. Were we ready to handle a huge crowd like Charlottesville…one ready to harm others?
The callers were local activists. A retired criminal defense attorney, an active member of the local NAACP chapter, a university professor. Each asking what we would do if “hate” came to our community.
The four of us met a few times in the weeks after Charlottesville to talk about the questions they asked of me. We acknowledged that we didn’t have the answers and that we weren’t insulated from the fears, tensions, and pressures that have been observed in other communities. We agreed that the answers required community effort and consideration. We agreed to work on this together.
Police play a pivotal role in how community protests unfold. The actions of police (or sometimes our mere presence) can either heighten tensions or diffuse conflict. We saw this most clearly in Ferguson, Missouri, where citizens gathered in October 2014 to protest the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. While most of the gatherings were peaceful, conflict arose when police employed measures intended to keep protestors moving and to discourage loitering. News coverage showed these conflicts in real time, with police employing tactics and equipment not often seen in US streets. The result has been a protracted national dialogue about the militarization of police and the equipment and tactics that we deploy (an important and overdue conversation.)
While police have access to a host of model policies for crowd control, these policies have not necessarily adapted to the current environment of political turbulence and racial disharmony. Most do not adequately capture the philosophies of effective crowd management and response and fail to reinforce the notion that the police work for the communities they serve. Many policies do not consider that the participants have the most power; they only yield to police when they are willing to do so. Trust must inform that decision to yield. Any crowd control policy or philosophy must reflect the values of the community.
I discussed the questions that my activist friends had posed with a number of trusted colleagues, one of whom is a faculty member at the UNC School of Government, a local government training, advisory, and research organization. She strongly supported the idea of a larger discussion about developing a community response to peaceful protest. She agreed to help add an academic approach to our efforts.
This diverse group from the policing community, the community, civil rights groups, and academia agreed to roll our sleeves up and try to develop a contemporary policy of police response during political and civic protests. The result will be a model policy that can be taught to police across North Carolina and disseminated to police forces and community groups across the nation. During our first meeting last month, we had passionate and spirited debates as we considered the following questions:
- How can we establish the shared understanding that the free and safe expression of ideas is everyone’s responsibility?
- How can we move the discussion about protests from one of police tactics to one of community philosophy?
- How can we create community-driven policies for our police that enumerate a hierarchy of police/community interests?
- When we think about increasing activism, there are challenges that come with it. How do we socialize policies where citizens understand the role they have to play?
- How do we define what success means? We need to educate the police and the communities they serve about having realistic expectations about outcomes.
- Since many participants who protest the police don’t trust the police action, where can communities look for a liaison to help establish mutual understanding and cooperation?
- Can we provide information about crowd management techniques (the intended purpose and limitations) for interested demonstrators?
- How can communities reconcile racial justice work with free speech work?
- How do we make these discussions scalable to all communities?
Lots of questions and few answers just yet, but I look forward to continuing this work and the important conversations that inform it. We have an opportunity, during this time of turmoil, distrust, and division, to set up a framework for communities to engage in shaping the policies that apply to them. I am impressed by how many folks have agreed to be part of this effort. Stay tuned…