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How Can America's Police Improve the Way They Handle Mass Protests?

We asked law enforcement experts how local cops might have handled things better in Baltimore last week.
May 5, 2015, 5:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Maryland National Guard

Though the details of Freddie Gray's death while in police custody are still unclear, it's obvious that the protests that turned into riots early last week were a disaster for the city. In what seemed to be an echo of Ferguson, dissatisfied citizens expressed their rage at civic institutions through violence, and the police had difficulty regaining control of the streets as people set fires and looted stores.


In the aftermath, Baltimore's court system is having difficulty handling all the arrested protesters, and though the city has returned to relative calm since charges were brought against six cops for Gray's demise, a question remains: How are police supposed to prevent large protests like that from turning into battlegrounds?

I put that question to two law enforcement experts. First up is Charles J. Key, a retired Baltimore Police Department lieutenant (he helped form the city's SWAT team in 1976) who now works as an expert witness and police consultant. He thinks that a more assertive (but not aggressive)—and larger—police presence might have stopped the Freddie Gray protests from escalating.

On how the police department could have handled it better:
Charles J. Key: Every study of every civil unrest situation going back to the 60s has essentially come up with the same conclusion, including the Warren Christopher Commission after the Rodney King riots, that a police department cannot wait to respond assertively (and I'm saying "assertively" rather than "aggressively") because if you wait and see if the situation's gonna die down on its own, it will not.

It really didn't spiral out of control. They burned some trash in the middle of the street and some thief drove a stolen car around and parked it where it would burn up.

That doesn't insure that you're not going to have damage, because sometimes it just gets out of hand. The point here is that it did not get out of hand like that in Baltimore until they just let it keep going.

The first incidents that occurred [on Monday] were at three o'clock and it looked like you had approximately about 100 police officers and maybe about the same number of individuals who were actively targeting the police and throwing bricks and rocks. In watching it, it looked like they'd been given an order to stand down and retreat behind [their] shields. The shields are meant to protect them from rocks, but you're not going to keep from getting hit by rocks simply by having shields up there—there are too many places on the body left to hit that the shield can't cover.


The way to handle it, instead of retreating, was to form the troops up, use their bearcat (an armored vehicle that's used to recover wounded people), and equip less-than-lethal munitions (and I saw them deployed out there) fired from a 37-mm gas gun or fired from shotguns. These are the little projectiles that when they hit don't penetrate but instead are spread over such a large area of the body that they create a stunning and painful blow. So you target the rock-throwers with those and you follow that up with the officers with shields and go in quickly and aggressively and you would have dispersed that crowd.

Had that been done and then more troops brought immediately to the area, then they could have controlled that situation. The more police officers you have, and the National Guard, it reduces the likelihood that you're going to have people who join in in the fun of looting and stealing and throwing rocks or whatever.

On what the media got wrong:
It really didn't spiral out of control. They burned some trash in the middle of the street and some thief drove a stolen car around and parked it where it would burn up.

The point is, the situation was exaggerated from the beginning. I'm not saying it wasn't serious—anytime you get any injuries it's serious, and anytime you get a destruction of property, it's serious. But it was nothing like Ferguson.

The mayor was actually right in not calling for the National Guard until six o'clock. They had several days of peaceful protest. And [at three o'clock] you're dealing with essentially at first high school students.


The long and the short [of it] is, from a tactical standpoint it was not that difficult. Even though the Governor said they were overwhelmed, I disagree. What was overwhelming was their failure to respond assertively in the early part of it.

But other experts believe that what happened in Baltimore points towards the need for a more general, nationwide rethinking of the methods the authorities use to handle crowd control. Among them is Michael Levine, a former DEA agent and police trainer who's also a prolific writer on law enforcement matters.

On the issue of a protestor versus a rioter:
Michael Levine: You have to take President Obama for his word when he says that there's a difference between a rioter and a demonstrator.

I used to be an undercover agent and I got involved in an undercover case where I wound up being shot at by New York City police and it was a complete screw-up, so I was furious at the end of it. So what I did was I punched my hand into the side of a building and I ended up both furious and with a broken hand.

What they did in Baltimore was basically the same thing they did in LA and Chicago and Detroit and New York back in the 60s—and that is nothing.

That's basically what happened in Baltimore—you got people who were furious and they just decided to lose themselves thousands of jobs by destroying businesses. So how do you stop that?

On what went wrong in Baltimore:
What they did in Baltimore was basically the same thing they did in LA and Chicago and Detroit and New York back in the 60s—and that is nothing. They waited for the rioters to take the lead.


You can't just sit back and wait for it to happen. You knew long beforehand that this was going to turn into a riot and everybody basically sat around and talked.

[Sending in] politicians and preachers to calm them down—that has never worked. The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And that's what they did.

On what should have been done:
I go back to my military training in the military police, where I first began being trained in riot control.

You've got to look for the moment when you have a reasonable suspicion that you're gonna have a riot. You've got to set up a situation where you can differentiate between the rioters and the protestors.

The only way that you can (and it's not perfect, but it will certainly [prevent] a hell of a lot of what happened) is that you immediately set up a designated area for peaceful protestors. You focus a hundred cameras on that area to identify people who try to turn that into a riot. You employ devices such as paintballs or paint spray where you can identify individual people to be arrested later with substances that would light up under a black light over the next 48 or 72 hours, so that [felons] captured on camera or identified by police can later be arrested.

The publicity of doing that, on its own, will act in a very strong way to subdue possible rioting.

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