One of the freedoms we enjoy in the United States is the right to speak our minds and protest without fear of retaliation. For years I’ve participated and watched law enforcement officers attempt to protect these rights by maintaining control and keeping everyone safe at protests and demonstrations. In doing this, police officers are the visible form of authority and, unfortunately, become most at risk. I’ve observed that as people participate in protests against various policies and institutions, some eventually express their anger and frustrations at those same officers tasked with keeping them safe. Officers often become the recipient of abuse and assaults by protesters bent on destruction.
In some incidents, it can be violent and graphic when police officers use justifiable force. Arresting or restraining a person who wants to escape or assault a police officer is difficult and can be disturbing when viewed by those not present during the event. As George Orwell pointed out, “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” In other words, there are times when force may be necessary, including protecting the rights of protesters. (Of course, I’m not referring to those incidents where officers violate the law or department policies. They should be held accountable for their actions. I’m talking bout officers protecting protestors from themselves and other protestors, sometimes with force.)
Ferguson and other cities where anti-police riots occurred are not the only type of demonstrations that are dangerous for police officers. Any time law enforcement officers are called on to intervene and control demonstrations they are at risk.
My first exposure to a large scale, violent demonstration occurred on June 22, 1986. Denver’s Five-Point’s neighborhood was the site of a large “Juneteenth” celebration involving 1,000s of people. As the evening wore on, the crowd became larger and rowdier when suddenly a Denver police officer, who had been monitoring the crowd from a rooftop, was shot and seriously injured.
Up until this time we maintained a low profile police presence by waiting on side streets, out of view. These were the days before organized field forces. After the police command made the decision to clear out the crowd, we were placed into several groups of four or five officers with a supervisor each.
Some in the crowd attacked each other. When we attempted to disperse them, their anger and violence turned towards the police. As a young cop, this was my first experience with a large, angry crowd turning their anger towards the police. Why was it that at first the participants were angry with each other and as the police stepped in to keep them safe, the climate turned and we became the subject of their anger? I couldn’t understand why some of the crowd viewed us as the problem. It seemed when violence among them broke out, they used it as an excuse to riot and attack us.
After the crowd ignored repeated orders to leave, tear gas was thrown into the masses of people and we were directed to swarm into them to move them out.
Mobile Field Forces
Unfortunately protests, demonstrations, and sports celebrations have become larger in the years since and they present more of a potential for violence and a bigger threat to public safety.
The response of law enforcement agencies across the country has been to institute mobile field forces. These field forces are comprised of a line of officers carrying shields and less-than-lethal weapons (typically tear gas and pepper-ball guns). The field forces advance slowly towards the unruly crowds to move them back and try to disperse them. I have been part of several mobile field forces during riots or when the Denver Broncos and the Colorado Avalanche won national titles and their fans rioted in downtown Denver.
While mobile field forces are effective in moving crowds, it requires officers to stay in a fixed formation. This provides the protesters easy targets. I have vivid memories of seeing Denver police officers struck by objects while trying to hold the line of protestors back. Assaults on law enforcement officers has been repeated in cities across the country and the world. Officers have been verbally abused and physically assaulted—for no other reason than that they are police officers attempting to diffuse violence and protect people.
I was shocked to see people recently attending the protests in Charlottesville and other cities carrying firearms, bats, shields, and other homemade weapons while wearing helmets and covering their faces. To me, this shows the intent to create chaos and violence. I believe the authorities should have cancelled the demonstrations and not allowed them because of the obvious threat to both protesters and the law enforcement officers when weapons are brought to these events. They weren’t there to protest. They were there to fight.
Whether people have a legitimate reason to hold protests or demonstrations is irrelevant. They have the right to express their views. However, using these situations to express their anger, frustrations, and violence against the police officers who are there to protect their free speech is misdirected. When protesters turn to violence and property destruction their message is lost, no matter how legitimate their cause may have been.