What Cops Should Do When Neo-Nazis Come to Town

Police are taking heat after a woman was killed and many more injured in Charlottesville. We asked experts how to prevent another tragedy next time.
August 16, 2017, 9:22pm
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Three years before Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, Heidi Beirich sat down to script a police training short called When Hate Comes to Town.

"We've been writing about cops dealing with hate rallies for a long time," Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, told me this week. But when her team searched for training material like the kind available for, say, school shooter scenarios, she said, they "noticed there was a lack of protocol here about how law enforcement can handle these very difficult situations."


In fact, little in the way of standardized training exists for policing protest in America. The result, experts said, is that terrifyingly few of the country's 18,000 police departments are equipped to get right what cops got wrong in Charlottesville, all but ensuring some level of chaos as white supremacists face off against their antifa foes at upcoming rallies. Local police were excoriated for appearing to stand by while violence raged around them in Virginia, but the crackdown some experts are predicting in the coming days could be just as dangerous.

"No police department in the country is going to want to be accused of an under-response" after Charlottesville, explained Dr. Edward Maguire, a criminologist at Arizona State and the author of a protest policing guidebook he said is currently languishing unpublished inside the Department of Justice. Instead, he and other experts I canvassed generally expect police forces to ramp up their activity level.

"Seattle had a demonstration [on Sunday] and within minutes, flash grenades were going off, cops were going out beating people," noted retired NYPD detective Joseph Giacalone, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "This woman has died now, and it's now causing mayors all over the country to say, 'I can't afford this either.'"

But there are real, documented dangers of a Ferguson-style over-response, according to former Portland Police chief Penny Harrington, who warned that "police can cause a riot by doing too much."

What experts agreed on is that there's little in the way of uniform or especially clear direction from political leaders at the local and state level, meaning when it comes to future demonstrations by heavily-armed hate groups, most cities simply aren't going to be ready. "If there aren't best practices and rules about this, it needs to happen now," Beirich said. "We've got this terrorism problem that's being abandoned by the federal government."

Ironically, the Justice Department tapped Maguire to create just such material in the wake of Occupy Wall Street protests that broke out in 2011. But the feds have been sitting on his findings for more than a year, according to the professor. Meanwhile, cops from Seattle to Berkeley have scrambled in recent months to police demonstrations that seem to be flashing ever more frequently into brawls.


"Police are trained to handle riots, they're not trained to prevent them," Maguire said. "There's this giant middle ground about how to respond to protest," but it hasn't been explored, he added. "We seem to be stuck between police doing nothing and overreacting."

The middle way Maguire outlined in Policing Protest: Lessons from the Occupy Movement and Beyond, a Guidebook for Police is called "graded response," and echoes some of the reforms Black Lives Matters's Campaign Zero has called for, notably a retreat from militarized policing. The Department of Justice didn't respond to inquiries about Maguire's report, but he suspects its recommendations aren't popular in a DOJ that credits the so-called Ferguson Effect—cops allegedly chastened by excess scrutiny—with increased crime.

Still, many of Maguire's prescriptions are virtually identical to those that have emerged in the wake of Charlottesville, even by experts who take the Ferguson Effect as gospel.

For starters, there should have been way more cops on hand, experts concurred.

"It appeared to me that they were grossly outnumbered and outgunned," said retired cop Paul Cappitelli, a police practices expert and the former head of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. "By the time it turned to a condition that was completely out of control, that's when they kicked it up to the next level," he said.

This was too little, too late.


"You've got to have a force that's ready," Giacalone insisted, adding that he was appalled some Charlottesville police appeared to have been sent to change into body armor while violence escalated around them. "It takes a while to get it on."

Giacalone and others charged that the decision to delay riot gear might have been political, an attempt at softer optics. Charlottesville's City Manager Maurice Jones, who has authority over the police department that the city's Mayor Michael Signer does not, denied that.

"[Neither] the Mayor, nor anyone else in City government directed the police not to make arrests or to wear riot gear," he wrote me in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Cappitelli said he'd have put everyone in riot gear to from the jump, arguing it has a "calming effect" on crowds. Harrington—not to mention plenty of civil liberties advocates—disagrees.

"Most of the training that's available to police departments is on the full militarized approach, [where you] send your folks out in riot gear and have them do whatever they have to do," she said.

Maguire, too, thinks that would be a mistake.

"One thing we heard over and over again from the police themselves, if you want people to attack you, if you want to send a message that you should behave violently toward us, stand in riot gear and form a skirmish line," he said.

Rather than go hard all over the place, several experts recommended staging riot police in full gear just outside the protest, and even out of sight. Some, like Giacalone, also advised sending plainclothes officers into the crowd. Maguire took that recommendation a step further, suggesting officers can act as peacemakers, advocating face to face for calm—sorta like the armed militiamen who took that task upon themselves in Charlottesville.


That suggestion is likely to make some civil libertarians' hair stand on end.

"[We] are always trying to find the right balance that on the one hand allows for assembly and allows for freedom of expression but also protects the lives of people who are protesting, observing or counter-protesting," said David Kaye, law professor at UC Irvine and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Though civil libertarians have frequently opposed militarized policing of protest, restrictions on freedom of movement and cops posing as demonstrators, he said they do recognize the necessity of these tactics when lives are at risk.

"That's the line that's hard for law enforcement to identify, and it's hard for lawyers to identify," he said. "The key thing is transparency. It needs to be clear to everybody what the police are doing and how they see the nature of the threat."

Also, perhaps obviously, peace is much easier to keep when the two sides are not allowed to meet head-on in the most dramatic possible fashion.

"Our advice for a long time has been that when you have a situation like what happened in Charlotteville is, you keep these groups very separate and apart from each other," Beirich explained.

Charlottesville officials initially blamed protesters for mixing themselves in with neo-Nazis. "We did make attempts to keep the two sides separate but we can't control which side someone enters the park," Police Chief Al Thomas told reporters at a press conference on Monday.


But experts said that it absolutely is possible—not to mention essential—to keep demonstrators from direct contact any time a hate rally draws counter-protest.

"I'm like, 'Well, you're the police," Giacalone told me. "This thing should have been coordinated off, and this should have been detailed in the permit. You can't plan for an event like this just on paper—there has to be training done."

John Eterno, a professor at Molloy College on Long Island and another former member of the NYPD, said better barriers and more aggressive control of the space around the park might have prevented some of the worst violence. To him, though, among the most troubling failures in Charlottesville is also the most difficult to solve.

"In New York City, for example, even carrying a sign with a stick on it is illegal," he said, whereas in Charlottesville demonstrators were allowed to march with items explicitly forbidden by protest permits elsewhere—among them sticks, masks, chemical weapons and accelerants.

Oh, and guns.

"Many people are armed to the teeth, and that is something that needs to be addressed," Eterno said. "That's another reason the officers may have been less likely to use force, because it might have escalated into an uncontrollable fire fight. They might have thought it's better not to do something here than to get more people killed."

The need to limit what demonstrators can bring to a protest is something experts emphasized across the board. But in open carry states, neither the city nor the police have the legal ability to restrict the most deadly weapons. What's more, cities in states with so-called Home Rule or Dillon's Rule, which Virginia has, are even more restricted as to the limits they can impose independent of the state government.


"Most police are against this level of carry," Eterno told me. "Most police officers believe there should be some reasonable gun-control legislation and I think that officers have to have that authority or situations can easily get out of hand."

Of course, "alt-right" hate groups may seek out protest opportunities in open carry states for that very reason.

"I think their strategy going forward will be to target states with open carry," Giacalone told me. "The governor, he gave this group a blueprint to use against other open carry states by saying that the police were intimidated by the amount of long guns. Now you've just opened pandora's box."

If the ex-cop is right, there's little reason to think local police will be better prepared in Atlanta or Mountain View this weekend.

"It hurts me in my heart every time I see protests go bad," Maguire, the criminologist, told me of his own work. "We need to get it out there and we need to start changing things."

Follow Sonja Sharp on Twitter.