Political Demonstrations: A Terrorist’s Dream Opportunity

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Patrick Mullane


As the 2020 and 2024 U.S. presidential elections approach, an uptick in political protests is inevitable. Law enforcement agencies must fully prepare to police these political protests as well as secure them from any potential terrorist activity. Recent terrorist attacks, such as the vehicle ramming attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, and on West Street in New York City, have demonstrated the forms of violence facing law enforcement at political protests.

  1. Case studies

This thesis presents case studies of two political demonstrations and three terror attacks. The political demonstrations include the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the yellow jacket protests in Paris, France. The terror attacks analyzed include the Chelsea bombing, the Queens hatchet attack, and the Westside Highway attack. These case studies help to identify ways in which demonstrations have vulnerabilities to these styles of attack. Following the case studies, the researcher evaluated the New York City Police Department (NYPD)’s policing policies for political demonstrations.

The Unite the Right rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the weekend of August 11–12, 2017. The themes from this event included vehicle ramming attacks, active shooter situations, and tactical considerations.[1]

In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron signed a bill raising the taxes on diesel fuel to help France become more environmentally friendly.[2] The themes from this event include fire as both a weapon and distraction, the use of hard-style policing, and the use of tear gas. After the protests became popular in fall 2018, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria released images on Twitter of attacks against the yellow jacket protestors.[3] The image contained a quote in Arabic that translated to, “Oh lone wolves, exploit the demonstrations and kill the unbelievers in France.”[4] The images contained a vehicle with blood splattered on the hood and a hand holding a knife.[5]

On September 17, 2016, Ahmad Khan Rahami placed a series of pressure cooker–style improvised explosive devices in New York City and pipe bombs in New Jersey. The themes from this incident included active shooter protocols and terrorism trends.

October 23, 2014, was a rainy day in the commercial district of Jamaica, Queens. Rookie NYPD Officers Kenneth Healy, Joseph Meeker, Taylor Kraft, and Peter Rivera, were assigned to foot patrol in the area.[6] As the officers posed for a picture, Zale Thompson charged the officers with a hatchet and delivered a number of blows.[7] The element of distraction was a part of this case study.

Sayfullo Saipov entered the bicycle lane that runs north and south on the west side of West Street at Houston Street, approximately 20 minutes after entering New York.[8] He traveled southbound, killing eight people and injuring 11.[9] The themes from this case included ramming attacks, active shooter protocols, and enhanced training.



  1. NYPD Units and Policy

The NYPD has numerous assets involved in the policing of political demonstrations. These include basic patrol units, advanced specialty units, and administrative support units. This thesis outlines what each unit’s duties and responsibilities are and what it does during a political demonstration. The thesis then discusses what constitutes the NYPD’s policies, including the Police Academy curriculum, Activity Log inserts, and Patrol Guide procedures. The most important policies for this thesis include rapid mobilization, active shooter protocols, Handschu guidelines, and the use of force. The Handschu guidelines, which stem from case law, determine how the NYPD conducts investigations of political organizations.[10]

  1. Conclusion and Recommendations.

Overall, the research concluded that the NYPD is fit to handle demonstrations and terror attacks. The research identified numerous areas that could be improved to further strengthen current policy:

  1. Regular patrol personnel who handle political demonstrations need the same disorder control training that specialty units receive. The researcher created an updated policy for how patrol personnel should initially handle political demonstrations.
  2. The Operations Database must be rebuilt as a user-friendly tool, rather than a record. Operations Unit personnel and supervisors in the field need to open a dialogue about what information could be useful about a specific demonstration.
  3. With the NYPD’s shift to a more community-orientated strategy, all officers who interact with the community on a regular basis need to learn the Handschu guidelines and how they operate.
  4. The NYPD’s cell phone is a powerful tool for officers. Law enforcement personnel need to remain vigilant and avoid being distracted by the phones, realizing the repercussions of such distractions.
  5. Policies regarding fire and body-worn cameras need to be reevaluated to include the content discussed in this thesis.


[1] Hunton & Williams, Final Report: Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia (Richmond, VA: Hunton & Williams, 2017), 144, https://www.huntonak.com/‌images/content/‌3/4/v4/34613/final-report-ada-compliant-ready.pdf.

[2] Jake Cigainero, “Who Are France’s Yellow Vest Protesters, and What Do They Want?,” National Public Radio, December 3, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/03/672862353/who-are-frances-yellow-vest-protesters-and-what-do-they-want.

[3] Annabel Murphy, “ISIS Calls on Fanatics to Kill Unbelievers at French Fuel Protests,” The Sun (London), November 26, 2018, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/7833132/isis-calls-lone-wolf-french-fuel-protests/.

[4] Murphy.

[5] Murphy.

[6] Daniel Prendergast, “Cop Who Survived Hatchet Attack Gets NYPD’s Medal of Honor,” New York Post, June 14, 2016, https://nypost.com/2016/06/14/cop-who-survived-hatchet-attack-gets-nypds-medal-of-honor/.

[7] J. David Goodman, “New York City Police Kill Man Who Hit 2 Officers with Hatchet,” New York Times, December 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/24/nyregion/new-york-police-fatally-shoot-man-who-attacked-officer-with-a-hatchet.html.

[8] Sarah Almukhtar et al., “Trail of Terror in the Manhattan Truck Attack,” New York Times, October 31, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/31/nyregion/manhattan-truck-attack.html.

[9] Benjamin Mueller, William K. Rashbaum, and Al Baker, “Terror Attack Kills 8 and Injures 11 in Manhattan,” New York Times, October 31, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/nyregion/police-shooting-lower-manhattan.html.

[10] New York City Police Department, Command Operations: Guidelines for Uniformed Members of the Service Conducting Investigations Involving Political Activities, Patrol Guide Procedure No. 212-72 (New York: New York City Police Department, 2018), 24.

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