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Policing Strategies To Keep Protests Peaceful

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Law and order - we've heard those words a lot in recent weeks, most recently on the debate stage Tuesday night. President Trump tried to paint recent demonstrations over police brutality as the work of the radical left, while Vice President Biden condemned violence, reiterated his support for peaceful protests and for law enforcement.

The conversation didn't get much more substantive than that, given the president's own repeated interruptions, which is why we wanted to take some time today to see if we can add more substance to the question of, what should happen when demonstrations erupt across the country? Are there best practices to prevent harm while letting people express themselves?

We've called two people who have thought a lot about this. Ronal Serpas is the former police superintendent in New Orleans, La. He has also served as police chief in Nashville, Tenn., and as chief of the Washington State Patrol. He's now a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Chief Serpas, professor, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

RONAL SERPAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Edward Maguire is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, and his research focuses on policing and violence, including police response to protests.

Professor Maguire, welcome to you as well.

EDWARD MAGUIRE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Chief, I'm going to start with you because as you look at what's been happening at protests around the country in the last weeks and months, instances of destruction of property, vigilantism, violence between groups, violence between police and protesters, do you just have some top-line thoughts about how police departments are handling this moment? Is there something that they've been doing right, and is there something that they could be doing better?

SERPAS: As a police chief in three different places, as a state police chief which was responsible for protecting the state capital and the police chief in New Orleans during the Occupy New Orleans movement, the question of protests follows very much along the lines is the way police prepare. As Professor Maguire and others have said, there's a lot of work done in the front. There's a lot of agreement on terms and conditions of what's expected of both sides of a protest.

So, candidly, Occupy New Orleans went on for about 10 days, as I recall, and there was never a conflict. There was agreements. There was understanding. There was talking. There was the belief that everybody was there to achieve the same goal. All of that, though, I'm afraid to say to you, is distinctly different from when people choose to behave in a way that puts others at risk - their body, their persons, their property.

So that, I think, should be the delineating difference. A protest is not the same as a riot. And to deal with protest is not going to be essentially always the same way that you have to deal with criminal behavior.

MARTIN: So, professor Maguire, you know, I think maybe the public might be surprised to know that there is a deep body of research about this very question. But taking in the chief's point here, is there some data about the best way to handle what he's calling a riot? I mean, obviously, some protesters would disagree. But for the sake of sort of our public understanding, is there some research on this?

MAGUIRE: You know, I think when a crowd event has turned into a full-blown riot, police largely know what to do in these events. And police know how to handle peaceful protests. The harder part is when you have that gray zone in between, where you have protests that are largely peaceful, but you have people who are behaving in a violent or destructive manner. And that's where we see these events as being much more difficult.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that in a minute. But, chief, I want to go back to you. Talk to me about that negotiated management approach that you were speaking about there. I'm not sure a lot of people know about this. You're saying that the negotiation management approach means what - that you're connecting with - you're talking to the people who've organized the protest...

SERPAS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...And discussing in advance, like, what's going to happen? Does that still happen?

SERPAS: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Because I think a lot of people feel like these protests are organic. They just kind of happen.

SERPAS: Oh, no. In fact, if you think about the Occupy NOLA protest, I was the chief. It was literally almost twice a day the police leadership and the leadership of Occupy NOLA would have brief meetings to discuss the day's events and the night's events. And it went without injury. It went without incident. It went without arrest.

What I'm suggesting to you in the audience is, there is a group that infiltrates these well-managed protests who are not interested in what the protest wants or not interested in what the police want. And they are very good at infiltrating, striking out, melting back. I think that disturbs protesters. And if you listen, you'll hear them complain about it as much as it disturbs the police and citizens and business owners.

MARTIN: Professor Maguire, I want to - does that comport with your research? I would imagine that that's a difficult area to do research on. But do you have any knowledge or sense of that? Like, why do people do that? Like, what's their story?

MAGUIRE: You know, we've talked to a lot of these folks who are (unintelligible) on the more peaceful side of crowds and folks who would be considered agitators. You have really hardcore people who believe to the core of their being that it's morally justifiable to use violence against police officers or other forms of violence or property damage.

And really, you know, we need the criminal justice system. We need to arrest and prosecute those people using just conventional criminal justice system. You have the peaceful protesters who are never going to throw a rock or a bottle, who are never going to light anything on fire.

The problem is that when the police come in and start behaving in a way that the crowd perceives as unfair, there are people in that crowd who will start to, instead of siding with the peaceful protesters, will side with the more radical protesters who believe in the use of violence. And so what I always advised police to do at these types of events is to think hard about those people in the middle because you want to win their hearts and minds because you don't want them joining the radicals. You want them to stay moderate.

MARTIN: And, chief, you know, police officers want to go home, too. So I'm thinking that, on the one hand, responses that seem provocative to protesters, I'm imagining from the - your standpoint as the leader of the folks who are on the frontlines that their safety becomes important, too. So a lot of the tactical gear and a lot of the equipment and the techniques that I think civilians find intimidating and overbearing from the standpoint of your officers seems just like common sense, right?

SERPAS: I think that's a great question because it strikes to the point that the professor just made and you just made, and that's the ability to see things in a broader context. Procedural justice relies on a two-way communication that's at least reasonable between one another. So here's the thing. If we saw the pictures of protests that go on throughout the country, even in the post-Floyd world, where nobody wore tactical gear, the police wore their uniforms, the people protested, everybody went home - that actually happens. It happens quite a bit.

But if you're in Portland, and every night, it turns into a conflagration - if you're in places where every night, people are throwing glass bottles and bricks and explosive devices - the police are going to obviously have to protect themselves differently than if you have a community where this happens in the country every day, but it doesn't get any notice. And then they go home, and the police go home.

But if you're in Portland at 2 o'clock in the morning, and people are throwing things, the chances of the police wearing protective body gear that might look offensive is 100% certainty.

MARTIN: OK. And I'm going to just ask the question - what role is President Trump playing in all of this? Professor Maguire.

MAGUIRE: You know, I'm concerned about giving a license to extreme right-wing groups to come out and potentially have a repeat of what we saw in Charlottesville. And so, you know, I'd like to see those groups not feel like they're operating with permission from the president.

MARTIN: What about you, chief?

SERPAS: I would hope that the groups that create havoc, damage, injury, no matter what their political stripe is, is not supported by anybody, you know? I mean, to kill a retired police officer in front of a building that he was working at is wrong no matter who pulled the trigger. So police chiefs are best served when they're able (inaudible) political because they have to protect both sides of the equation.

MARTIN: That is Ronal Serpas. He's the former police superintendent in New Orleans, La. He's now professor of practice criminology and justice at Loyola University in New Orleans. Edward Maguire is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University.

Thank you both so much for talking with us today and taking the time.

SERPAS: Thank you.

MAGUIRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.