There are instances in crowd management situations where force is appropriate, but simply because it’s a crowd management situation doesn’t mean that force is automatically appropriate. The University of Maryland incident last month wasn’t a riot; it was a celebration, but a college student was severely beaten by police officers nevertheless. The long-term implications of the ongoing investigation must be a rethink of crowd management in the United States, because the current systems predispose police officers towards violence and the abrogation of First Amendment rights where neither is appropriate. The most urgent capability gap is an understanding of, and means to manage, people who are non-violent and non-compliant.
Four Prince George’s County Police officers have been suspended for the misuse of force on a University of Maryland student. While I wholly believe that such abuses by police must be investigated, it is a critical failure to concentrate just on the officer(s) rather than the system; the officers involved are not unlike many officers placed in similar situations, where police officers assault assembled students who are non-compliant but non-violent.
There are myriad examples over the past ten years of police officers conducting activities that if conducted by civilians would have been construed as assault or worse. For some reason, because students are assembled or people were protesting they somehow “deserved it” when police used violence against them.
This incident highlights a moral failure among police departments and city leaders to execute their duty of care, not only to property owners but to those seeking to protest or celebrate. Someone not acting as police wants them to is not a justification for violence, let alone baton strikes to the head. There is every justification for those causing damage to be arrested, and those clearly threatening violence to be arrested; force is appropriate where it is necessary to subdue a suspect demonstrating a threat.
Every arrest must be followed by a prosecution, just as every use of force absolutely must be followed by a prosecution. To use force, there must be imminent danger and a crime. Effective crowd management is achieved by targeting individuals and successfully prosecuting them for their crimes.
It is regrettable that this event is being investigated because one of the victims is related to lawyers; an outraged family with the clout to achieve an investigation should be the last reason that a use of force is investigated. This incident and the many others like it should spark outrage and a top-to-bottom review of the systems in place that drive crowd management among most police forces in the United States. Often, the students simply did not deserve it, regardless of what the police department spokespeople say afterwards.
The other implication of this incident is that the likelihood of protest-related violence being challenged by the public, and particularly by those upon whom violence was used, is rising exponentially. As of today, police departments must be sure that their accountability chain for use of force is rock solid – the value of a police officer’s word in a crowd management situation has dropped dramatically in the last 24 hours.
The firm that I have the pleasure of leading, The Densus Group, publishes a Demonstration Report and Threat Analysis every two weeks. We described the incident and accurately predicted the likely fall-out at the time in this way:
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND – DISTURBANCE AFTER SPORTS EVENT
SUMMARY OF EVENTS. On March 3 students from the University of Maryland gathered in the street after watching a basket ball game in local bars. The crowd grew until approximately 1,500 people were blocking a major street. Some elements of the crowd became unruly, a street sign was pulled down and there were reports of trash cans being set alight.
Police deployed to disperse the crowd using horses, batons, pepper spray and pepper balls. 27 arrests were made
COMMENT. Police actions have come in for a great deal of criticism from students who were present and a number of videos have been released on the internet showing police using batons outside the proscribed manner including multiple strikes to individuals on the ground.
Although the event has been widely described by the press as a riot there appears to have been very little property damage and almost no violence from the students towards the police.
RECOMMENDATION. Incidents such as this where crowds are non-compliant but are also non-violent are amongst the hardest types of crowd situation for police to deal with. Deploying the same tactics and weapon systems to deal with a non-violent crowd as would be used against a violent crowd will always lead to criticism, damage to the reputation of the police and it is highly likely to lead to expensive lawsuits.
It is therefore vital that police have a variety of tactical options for dealing with different levels of aggression from the crowd. The level of force used on those who fail to comply with commands from officers needs to be carefully considered. Baton strikes and the use of less lethal weapons against individuals who are not posing a violent threat will be seen as an over use of force by most people and the legality of the action may be called into question.
The Demonstration Report and Threat Analysis is available to law enforcement free of charge by e-mailing DemonstratorThreat@densusgroup.com.