Notes from the Field: Civil Disturbance A Three-Part Approach to Civil Disturbance

By Commissioner William B. Evans, Boston Police Department

February 21, 2018

Boston’s history with civil disturbance dates back hundreds of years to the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party in the 18th century. More recently, our sports teams have won 10 championships in the last 12 years, Boston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and the city has had widespread demonstrations, such as the Occupy Movement in 2011 and Free Speech Rally in 2017.

About "Notes from the Field"

NIJ has launched the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today. Learn more.

Preparation in Communication

The first thing we do when we learn that a large-scale event is being planned is to connect with the event organizers. In these conversations, we ask pointed questions about the planned scope, goals, location, and intensions of the event, and lay out expectations and ground rules. We emphasize that the police are here to protect the protesters’ First Amendment rights, but that we will not tolerate violence. Beyond gaining information and setting expectations based on laws and city policies, these conversations also build trust and a relationship that we can leverage if things go badly during an event.

One of the first large-scale civil disturbance incidents I dealt with was the Occupy Protest in 2011, when individuals camped out in Dewey Square for 70 days. Establishing dialogue and a relationship with the individuals leading the movement was extremely important during that time. The event organizers had my cell phone number, and I had theirs. When people started to act up during the demonstration, I was able to ask them for help in bringing the crowd under control. We saw good results with this open communication during Occupy, and we’ve continued to take this approach since.

We take a similar approach in trying to communicate with groups for events we know will happen even if organizers have been denied a permit, such as in the case of the “Rally for the Republic” in November 2017.

We also communicate with all sides when preparing for events that involve more than one group protesting. In August 2017, the large Free Speech Rally and counter-protests took place in the Boston Commons. Before the event, we met separately with both the rally organizers and the leaders of groups involved in counter-protests. We made it clear that we wouldn’t allow any body armor, weapons, or sticks with signs on them that could be used as weapons, and that no violence would be tolerated. Before the event, we used social media and emails to communicate with event participants, college students, local residents, and other members of the community.

Boston also hosts a lot of large sporting events, and we have seen massive crowds on the streets after all of the 10 championships we’ve won in the last 12 years. With these sporting events, we can predict the route based on past experience and put barriers in place to break up the crowds.

Of course, there’s not much you can do to prepare for spontaneous protests that aren’t well-organized, and these are often the events that have the biggest potential to turn violent. But we still do everything we can to reach out to organizers or leaders when possible. If you talk with organizers before an event, they won’t fight you the way they will if you don’t engage with them and then turn out in full riot gear.

A Soft Approach

If you show up dressed for a fight, you’re likely to get a fight. Protests, rallies, and many other instances of civil disturbance are about people having the right to expression under the First Amendment. Rather than policing these events in a militaristic fashion, we opt for a softer approach, in which we maintain a soft but very visible presence. Over the course of my five years overseeing our civil disturbance response — and many years prior — we don’t show up to protests or rallies in full riot gear.

Of course, we always need to be prepared in case things escalate. We establish a soft, non-threatening presence and progressively increase our use of force as a situation grows unruly or violent. Our officers wear regular uniforms and interact with people in a friendly, non-threatening manner. If things escalate, we employ a tiered approach to scale up our response. We start with no helmets, then bring in bikes. After that, we have officers put on their riot gear, then bring out Public Order Platoons if needed.

This initial soft approach might seem difficult to justify if a chief is worried about an event turning violent. I will never let my officers get hurt. The minute it gets ugly, we put on our helmets and sticks and bring in the Public Order Platoons. Our officers can easily access their tactical gear if things do escalate, and we stage Public Order Platoons on buses nearby. These platoons are ready to go the minute a crowd might turn on us or get rowdy, but they aren’t visible in the streets until they are needed. In keeping these assets close but hidden, we’re prepared for the worst-case scenario of an event turning violent or disorderly, but we aren’t taking the first step in escalating the situation.

Continuous Learning

We’ve been lucky in Boston to have very few incidents when events escalated to violence or otherwise necessitated extensive use of force. Regardless of how an event turns out, we always debrief. We can never be too prepared, and no matter how well an event goes, there are always lessons to learn. All it takes is one bad incident to turn an event and the perception of police ugly.

We always do everything we can to avoid a worst-case scenario, but regardless of the outcome of an event, we learn from it. Sometimes, unfortunately, that means learning from things turning ugly. Despite our best efforts, Boston has been through tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombings or use-of-force incidents that turn deadly. The tragedies we have seen in Boston have made us stronger as a city and a police force. We always want individuals to feel safe organizing and attending events in Boston. We’re very proud of how we handle civil disturbance. Part of that is learning from error over a long history.

About “Notes From the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes From the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes From the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

About the Author

William Evans was born and raised in Boston, and joined the Boston Police Department in 1982, after two years in the Department's cade program. In 2009, he was promoted to superintendent in charge of the Bureau of Field Services. He as served as police commissioner since 2013. He is a graduate of Suffolk College and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Writing and editorial support was provided by Rianna P. Starheim, a writer with a federal contractor, on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

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Date Created: February 21, 2018