The treatment of protestors as the enemy at National Significant Security Events is the most counter-productive action law enforcement could think of. If one is running a policing effort during a NSSE, surely the principal information tool during the final hours before an event and during that event is the population itself. However, by treating all protestors as potential terrorists and critical threats and subjecting them to mass arrest, CS gas and other aerosol attacks and generally failed relations with the crowd, police significantly reduce the likelihood that protestors will “see something, say something,” because the police have chosen a confrontational relationship rather than a collaborative one.
The threat of a terrorist attack at NSSEs is real. The Secret Service and local law enforcement, reinforced by law enforcement from across the country, have to protect the NSSE and its attendees from terrorist attack. Simultaneously, law enforcement – but NOT the Secret Service – has to manage the crowds and protestors that are inevitable at a NSSE. Unlike the majority of the Occupy movement events, the protestors at the NSSEs will include a minority who desire a confrontation with police, who seek disruption, violence, widespread confusion and damage. These groups learn, they plan, they seek to out-think and outmaneuver the police, and often they are successful.
A NSSE will be preceded by a significant amount of intelligence activity, seeking to identify threats early and defeat them. However, intelligence isn’t infallible, as the car bomb in Times Square proved. Therefore, one of the last lines of defense is the population, the citizens who surround and participate in an event. Those surrounding that event include protestors; although they have something to protest against, they are generally loyal citizens. However, by casting them as the enemy, as policing efforts at NSSEs often do as part of the “counter-terrorism effort,” the protestors and citizens are cast as enemies of the police by the police, and so the police rob themselves of a critical component of the intelligence effort to defeat potential terrorist attacks poised to strike at the NSSE.
Policing efforts of a NSSE should be as community-based and intelligence-led as any routine policing activity. If the Secret Service and law enforcement continue to fail to grasp this fundamental truth, then at some point a bright terrorist is going to understand this fundamental weakness and exploit it. Protest management should be a cooperative activity with everyone taking responsibility for their actions – the police, the protest organizers and the protestors themselves.