The Role of the U.S. Government in the Law Enforcement Response to Protests

Apr 28, 2022 | by
  • Description

Policing protests requires law enforcement to accomplish two primary goals that are sometimes in tension with one another: protecting the constitutional right of free speech and assembly and preserving public safety. Law enforcement agencies are expected to apply proportional and impartial strategies and tactics to accomplish both imperatives. The law enforcement response to protests is primarily a local function in the United States, but the federal government plays two key roles in shaping that response, one direct and one indirect. The principal direct role involves federal law enforcement agencies responding to protests on federal property, in and around federal buildings, and when called on to provide mutual aid or other forms of assistance in communities. The principal indirect role involves training state and local police on how to handle protests and other crowd events. Several crowd policing events in the past two years have revealed related deficiencies in the manner by which federal agencies fulfill these two roles. 

To remedy deficiencies in its response to protests and similar crowd events, the federal government should conduct a comprehensive review of the relevant training and policies of every federal agency that engages in crowd control, crowd management, or the response to civil disturbances. That review should focus on the extent to which the training and policies are consistent with current research evidence and best practices. The federal government should also work with researchers to begin testing and evaluating changes to training, policies, and operations. This will involve carrying out honest after-action reviews that seek to identify which approaches worked well and which ones require further adjustments. In following these steps, the federal government can take a leadership role in adopting, testing, refining, and modeling evidence-based practices for handling crowd events in the most judicious and effective manner.