Protests and Law Enforcement: Dynamic Responses in a Democracy

– Executive Summary

Social and political polarization are long-standing phenomena in the annals of American history. Even our most cherished foundational event – the American Revolution – was a “violent insurrection [that] divided American colonists into party-like factions.”[1] American history is replete with examples of social and political divides that have, in the case of the Civil War, literally divided the nation in half. Violence sometimes accompanied democratic progress in the United States, and sometimes the latter fell short of the change desired.

Demonstrations have advanced the cause of democracy, such as the women’s suffragist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the current social justice movement. Some movements’ impact on democracy is unclear, such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the Make America Great Again (MAGA) ideology. BLM and MAGA are socially and politically divisive for those who oppose them.

Protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the election-related riot at the United States Capital on January 6, 2021, demonstrate intense social and political polarization that may transform the nature of the bond between the government and the governed. Both events produced shockwaves throughout the public that raised serious questions regarding the validity of our system of governance and the institutions entrusted with its implementation. Law enforcement is perhaps one of the most visible institutions of the state authority in the United States. Attitudes regarding law enforcement have dramatically shifted to the point that the political left and the right see it as a symbol of repression.[2] Such hostile sentiments sparked mobilization and violence against law enforcement at protests in 2020 and 2021.

How does the right of citizens to protest, which is essential for democracy, affect law enforcement as state agents when protests focus on them? This thesis uses a comparative case study method to examine how and to what degree political polarization influenced protests and caused law enforcement to become a symbol and a galvanizing force behind contentious protest and violence. The research also examines levels of violence at demonstrations concerning COVID-19 mandates, civil justice protests that occurred in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, and the multiple MAGA rallies that preceded the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. These specific cases involve violent protests that made the police a symbol, resulting in numerous injuries suffered by protestors and law enforcement. To account for variations in how various law enforcement agencies handle First Amendment gatherings, I compared the policies of three agencies that have dealt with many peaceful and violent protests to explore different approaches across agencies.

Public demonstrations place society and the state – often in law enforcement mode –in confrontation. Safeguarding a citizen’s right to air their grievances with the government through peaceful assembly or even non-violent civil disobedience has boosted democracy in ways impossible through other means. Without the ability to protest, no 19th Amendment would have expanded democracy’s reach by nearly 50 percent of the population, no civil rights movement, and no dismantling of segregation would have happened. Protests can also be seen as a method of prodding our democratic society to live up to the ideals promised in the Constitution. A legitimate concern for further contemplation is whether the opportunity for democratic expansion is possible in a politically and socially polarized environment.

Regarding the impact of law enforcement on political and social polarization, the research revealed more of an effect on the individual officer from both types of polarization than from an institutional perspective. In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown and George Floyd, the de-militarization and defund the police movements had a significant impact in terms of public perception and political posturing regarding law enforcement. However, as the months of social justice protests receded, communities faced rising crime rates and significantly reduced staffing levels. Further compounding the problem was the apparent inability of agencies to hire new officers to keep pace with their losses.

The recommendations represent an attempt to refocus attention on several key areas where communities and law enforcement may agree to contribute to the conversation on how protests and law enforcement can best coexist in a democracy. They fall into four categories: legislative reforms, best practices for policing of protests, community engagement, and transparency. First, regarding policy reforms, the primary advice is to codify restrictions against the transfers of specific types of excess military equipment to law enforcement agencies. As seen in the transition between the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, the program is subject to political posturing. Congress should produce legislation that changes the current law to eliminate specific items from the program.

The second recommendation is to create a national commission combining subject matter experts in crowd psychology and law enforcement to create a national standard of best practices for safely and effectively handling of First Amendment assemblies. Third, messaging must distinguish between criminal conduct (i.e., destruction of property, willful injuring of officers) and peaceful assembly. The latter is a guarantee afforded to citizens in a democracy, whereas the former merits swift intervention by law enforcement.

The final recommendation is to create a national database containing the names of officers fired for cause; especially for civil rights violations and excessive use of force, to prevent them from being rehired by different agencies. To this end, there should be a centralized, independent, entity as a central repository of records of officers fired for cause.[3] This body would serve as a tool for hiring agencies to validate their candidates’ credentials and ensure that they were not terminated for cause or resigned for any of the pre-determined list of disqualifiers. Transparency would show policing as invested in all communities nationwide and unwilling to allow unfit persons to move from one agency to another.

Democracy requires compromises between factions to strengthening its institutions and the citizenry’s faith in those institutions – especially law enforcement. By highlighting the positive and the turbulent, this research attempted to show how two vital elements of society contribute to the shaping of democracy. The precarious position of law enforcement in the post-George Floyd/January 6 environment challenges homeland security because of law enforcement’s unique role as an enforcer of laws. An undermined law enforcement may lead to a governmental inability to implement laws that express the people’s will or provide security for citizens.

[1] Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), 13.

[2] Catrina Doxsee et al., Pushed to Extremes: Domestic Terrorism amid Polarization and Protest (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2022), 2.

[3] Russell E. Wheatley, IV, “Can National Tracking of Police Misconduct Increase Police Professionalism?” Master’s thesis (forthcoming). Naval Postgraduate School, 2024, 56-57.

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