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Why Police Departments Across The U.S. Use Different Tactics To Handle Protests


In cities across the country, police in riot gear have clashed with demonstrators protesting the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans, and others have been seen taking a knee. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us now to talk about the varied responses by police.

Hi, Martin.


MCCAMMON: So these departments are independent of each other, of course. They're facing different situations in different places. But can we say we've seen a particular trend in terms of how police are handling these crowds?

KASTE: I'm not sure there's a unitary trend here. Obviously, as you say, you know, some police departments are definitely trying to dominate the street, as the phrase goes right now, with riot gear, tear gas, that kind of thing. Others are taking what police insiders call the soft hat approach. That means not wearing riot gear and helmets, wearing a regular uniform and trying to engage with protesters that, like you say, that take a knee, scenes we've seen in videos. I think it should also be said, though, that even in places where the departments have tried that softer approach, they often have tactical forces out of sight, around a corner nearby, in case something goes badly.

MCCAMMON: And, of course, this is far from the first time that American police have faced a situation like this. Is there any consensus about what the right way is to deal with these protests?

KASTE: Well, I talked about this with Patrick Gilham. He's a sociology professor at Western Washington University. He's been studying this topic for 20 years. And he says there was sort of a big moment of truth for the U.S. after the riots in the '60s. There was the Kerner Commission report, which looked at what happened there. And it concluded that bringing in sort of the heavy weaponry makes things worse. It just escalates things.

And that '60s experience really did kind of change police approach to protests for a while, for decades. The National Guard is called out a lot less often. Even to this moment, D.C. excepted right now, the Guard is usually kept kind of behind the lines, more as a logistics support role - transportation, that kind of thing - to free up more cops for the front lines. But it also led to this thing called negotiated management, the idea that a police department engages with the protesters ahead of time, kind of, you know, you give a permit for the protest, you hammer out sort of an agreement. We'll let you block traffic, get arrested at this point for the cameras and kind of limit the confrontation.

MCCAMMON: And is that still the thinking today?

KASTE: Not as much as it was, in part because of the second big inflection point, the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Gilham says, you know, he was there for that. That's what got him on this topic. He says negotiated management sort of broke down there because a small group of disruptive protesters weren't in the mood anymore to negotiate these things with the police. And that set the stage for what he believes was a mood of overreaction by the police.

PATRICK GILHAM: As a consequence of Seattle, law enforcement innovated again and really expanded on surveillance. They expanded even further on the - less lethal weapons, provision of body armor and military equipment. Sept. 11 exacerbated that dramatically and sped things up.

KASTE: And he says that that really brought us back to that kind of militarized mentality that the Kerner report warned against.

MCCAMMON: And, Martin, given the looting and arson we've seen in some places - and even deaths in some cases - aren't police facing pressure from some circles to use heavy tactics?

KASTE: They really are. I mean, that's the dilemma here. Gilham is no fan of military style tactics, but he says he doesn't envy the cops' job right now, either.

GILHAM: They're in a rough spot, no question about it. But they can't just lump everybody that's at a civil disorder into the same bucket. They can't say that the aggrieved people who have these legitimate grievances are the same as somebody who shows up and loots.

MCCAMMON: And briefly, how do police make these distinctions?

KASTE: Making common cause, often with protesters, to try to identify the troublemakers and work together to try to limit their effect on the protest. That's what he says and others say often works if you have time and the space to do it.

MCCAMMON: All right. That's NPR's Martin Kaste.

Thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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