When it comes to demonstrations, police agencies only can do so much

By Joe Vargas

The demonstrations in Charlottesville were tragic and heartbreaking. White nationalists, neo-Nazis and a variety of other groups chose to gather together in mass to publicly espouse their warped ideology.

On the other side were many others who wished to take a public stand against hate and racism. The results were the deaths of one participant, two police officers and the injury of many others.

The Charlottesville Police Department, of course, was caught in the middle. They were given the job of ensuring each of the groups can exercise their constitutional rights of free speech  — no matter what the consequences to the local communities in time, resources and public order.

In the aftermath, the Monday-morning critics and pundits are quick to blame the police, citing their less- than-effective response. The common question, of course, is, “Where were they?”

One of the big challenges of today’s confrontational demonstrations between groups is generally, you are dealing with leaderless groups. There is no one in charge and the groups are driven by emotion with many participants actively seeking confrontation.

People showed up wearing helmets, carrying clubs, shields and even rifles to a demonstration were just evidence of what the crowd came looking for.

You do the best you can at preplanning. This is absolutely no easy task. You answer questions such as where do we deploy? How many people do we deploy? How many on standby? How many mobile? How much mutual aid do we utilize?

Trying to predict what a group might do before participants have even thought of it themselves is not an easy task.

Troopers and Charlottesville PD and medics on scene at 3-vehicle crash at Water St and 4th Street. Multiple injuries. Crash under investigation

Posted by Virginia State Police on Saturday, August 12, 2017

There is also the understanding that in many instances, there are more demonstrators than you have officers. Yes, in most cases they do outnumber the police.

A police department can only do so much. Groups set on confrontation will find it. Oftentimes they also come prepared to do battle. Banning demonstrations is not an option in a free society.

In many ways, the widespread presence of news media contributes to the circus. Crowd behavior becomes a performance. Banning the media also is not an option.

Troopers and Charlottesville PD and medics on scene at 3-vehicle crash at Water St and 4th Street. Multiple injuries. Crash under investigation

Posted by Virginia State Police on Saturday, August 12, 2017

The art of mobile field force deployment requires deliberate and methodical deployment of personnel. It also requires overwhelming use of force — something that doesn’t look pretty.

You follow but you don’t chase demonstrators when dispersing a crowd. Unruly crowds have the advantage of mobility and speed.

Orders to disperse are given whenever violence has erupted, the potential for violence has increased or public safety is significantly compromised. Of course, it seems there always will be a significant number in the crowd who feel the orders to disperse don’t apply to them.

Tear gas will help to disperse the crowd but is not always as effective as some would think. Pepper balls provide more incentive and make for great pictures when demonstrators display their bruises as evidence of police brutality.

Demonstrations with opposing groups have become the norm in city after city. In Anaheim, Seattle, Sacramento and many other cities, white nationalist demonstrations have ended in violence. In the violent aftermath, the police bear the brunt of the pundits.

In the end, there always will be critics on both sides. In most instances, police agencies are doing the best they can under the most trying of circumstances. But the simple answer is blame the police for not being everywhere at once.

Have I mentioned how much it costs taxpayers? Well suffice it to say it’s not just the labor but lost business and eventually civil litigation from unhappy participants.

Free speech doesn’t come cheap.

Given the latest news reports, it seems like this is going to be a trend for a while. I can guarantee you departments get better with practice.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.