Rubber bullets and flash-bangs don't just tear through crowds — they jeopardize years of police reform

"What I’d like to see is police not just taking a knee but standing in support of systemic, sustainable police reform," a policing consultant said.
Police advance on demonstrators Saturday in Minneapolis.
Police advance on demonstrators Saturday in Minneapolis.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Jon Schuppe

Anthony Batts knows painfully well how simmering anger over police abuses can explode into riots.

He’s seen it happen as the police chief in Long Beach, California, then in Oakland, California, and finally in Baltimore, when his efforts to reform the city’s police department ended with a 2015 uprising triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a neck injury while in police custody.

Since he lost the Baltimore job over criticisms that he failed to keep order during the riots, Batts has traveled the country as a consultant, urging police commanders to prepare for civil disturbances. Some didn’t seem to take his warning seriously, telling him it wouldn’t happen in their hometowns.

“And now they’re seeing what I’ve been talking about,” Batts said.

Mass demonstrations have erupted in hundreds of American cities since George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police, after then-officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, unleashing anti-police fury and shattering a national lockdown over a pandemic that has disproportionately affected minority communities and put millions of Americans out of work.

The size and the scope of the unrest — a mix of peaceful marches and outbreaks of looting, arson and attacks on police — has not been seen since the 1960s, overwhelming many departments and often drawing a fierce response from the police, including tear gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles.

The nightly skirmishes have raised questions about what police departments have learned from the rioting that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Freddie Gray, a black 25-year-old, from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody the following year. Those events, and the deaths of other black men and women at the hands of police, sparked nationwide efforts to repair public trust by changing the way police used force, held themselves accountable for misconduct, and managed mass demonstrations.

But in recent days, departments have responded in ways that jeopardized that limited progress on reform. That includes clashes in which officers may have violated protesters’ — and journalists’ — constitutional rights; Amnesty International USA has accused police of using excessive force against some protesters, endangering their lives and restricting free speech.

Full coverage of George Floyd’s death and protests around the country

“I don’t think anyone would agree that police have emerged better off than they were a few days ago,” said Edward Maguire, an Arizona State University criminologist who researches police response to protests. He has seen images of officers beating up protesters and firing tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds in ways that may have made things worse, and could lead to civil rights lawsuits, he said. “They have actively diminished their image over the past few days and it’s a giant mistake for them to have responded in that way.”

In Atlanta, several officers have been charged for using excessive force against a pair of college students dragged from a car and tased. In New York City, police clubbed protesters gathered near the Brooklyn Bridge. In Minneapolis, officers enforcing a curfew were videotaped saying “Light ‘em up” before firing what appeared to be paint projectiles at residents standing outside their front doors. A Seattle police officer responding to reports of a break-in at a T-Mobile store was recorded with his knee on the neck of a man under arrest. And in Buffalo, New York, officers were caught on video knocking a 75-year-old man to the ground during a protest; two officers were suspended without pay.

These incidents reflect the kind of behavior that brought protesters into the streets to begin with: the targeting of minority and poor communities with aggressive police tactics, from stop-and-frisk to deadly force, that has bred fear and hatred.

A police officer throws a canister of gas during a May 29 protest in Louisville over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Bryan Woolston / Reuters

Many of the confrontations unfolding across the country have been difficult to assess because of the confusing nature of the protests, experts said. There are so many of them, and they change so quickly, and often involve a mix of both destructive and peaceful participants, that it is forcing police departments to adjust their approaches on the fly. The large number of demonstrations has strained law enforcement’s mutual-aid network, in which neighboring jurisdictions provide backup during emergencies. That has left many departments without the number of officers necessary to effectively manage large unpredictable groups.

These circumstances call for a nuanced approach by police, a strategy that has been embraced by authorities in Europe, policing experts said. It involves viewing a demonstration not as a homogenous crowd but as a mix of different types of people who require different responses: maintaining dialogue with the peaceful ones, and targeting the destructive ones with arrests. The multilayered approach requires officers in plainclothes, ordinary uniform and riot gear. But many agencies do not have the training, or enough personnel, to do it that way.

A measured response also requires disciplining officers who abuse protesters’ rights, experts say.

“If you don’t have those resources to monitor a crowd that carefully or put people in ‘soft’ clothing to interface with the crowd, you have to make a hard call ahead of time as to what’s the safest thing to do,” said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a nonprofit that trains law enforcement agencies on crowd control. “Sometimes, the safest thing to do is go with full equipment, which can be seen as an overreaction. But the alternative is not doing it and risk having officers being injured or killed.”

Going straight to riot gear and suppression techniques, such as tear gas and projectiles, can stir up a crowd rather than suppress it. That is what researchers from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services found when they analyzed the police response to the unrest that followed the August 2014 shooting death of Brown by the police officer in Ferguson. The researchers concluded that the deployment of military vehicles and weapons and aggressive use of tear gas “had the unintended consequence of escalating rather than diminishing tensions.” The methods should be used only if necessary and be kept out of public sight until then, they said.

A police tactical team moves in to disperse a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014.Jeff Roberson / AP

Those findings were in line with the experience of police in other cities, including Boston, which learned from mistakes in the late 1990s and the early 2000s to rely less on “skirmish lines” of officers in riot gear and weapons that are not designed to kill but that could nevertheless inflict serious injury, former Boston police Chief Daniel Linskey said.

“We’ve learned that it’s tough to throw a bottle at a cop who welcomes you and speaks to you and says, ‘Have a good day, let me know if you need anything,’” Linskey, now a managing director for security risk management at the consulting firm Kroll, said. Riot gear should only be used “as a break-glass-as-last-resort,” he said.

Baltimore police followed that advice at the start of the protests against Gray’s death in April 2015, sending officers into the streets without riot gear and with orders not to use tear gas or rubber bullets. Batts, who’d been recruited for the Baltimore job after a rocky tenure trying to fix the scandal-plagued Oakland Police Department, cast himself as an enlightened reformer. But the Baltimore force was not able to transition to a heavier response when the looting and destruction broke out, according to an analysis of the riots by the Police Executive Research Forum. The riots led to a homicide spike, and in July 2015 Batts was fired.

Two months later, the Police Executive Research Forum released its findings, saying they should serve as a reminder to all American police agencies to prepare and train for widespread civil unrest.

“Police have to become leaner and quicker and more flexible to respond to these things,” said Steven Nottingham, a retired Long Beach, California, officer who was a consultant to Baltimore police in 2015 and helps police departments train for and manage civil unrest. But the current wave of protests “is taxing police to the point that they've never been taxed,” Nottingham said.

Ronald Davis, a former California police officer and the former head of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said he’d seen instances in recent days of police turning prematurely to riot gear, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets. But he said he has also noticed restraint, including police who have joined protesters in the streets and taken a knee in symbolic gestures of sympathy. In some cases, officers ramped up force in response to increased aggression by protesters, including attacks that have seriously injured officers.

The more measured responses in some cities, he said, reflect new thinking about community policing that spread in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore.

The Baltimore Police Department is now under a federal consent decree to change the way it stops and uses force against people. Amid the current crisis in other cities, the protests in Baltimore have been largely peaceful.

“More community policing is needed, and is something that all agencies should adopt,” Davis, now a consultant, said. “What I’d like to see is police not just taking a knee but standing in support of systemic, sustainable police reform. Instead of being against police, this can be a movement to change policing. It doesn’t have to be us versus them.”

Miami police Chief Jorge Colina said his department has learned from its heavy-handed response to past riots, including unrest in the 1980s that followed killings by police. Officers are now trained to protect the free-speech rights of protesters, to maintain dialogue with them and to avoid aggressive confrontation unless they need to protect people’s lives or property.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Colina said. “We have to consider someone’s right to express their anger as opposed to someone else who could be harmed. If we move too quickly, we could be criticized, rightly, for creating a confrontation, and if we are too passive people will think we allowed the destruction of their property.”

Even so, the start of the recent protests in Miami “was quite scary for a lot of us,” as protesters set police cars on fire and threw rocks and bottles at officers outside police headquarters, Colina said. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. But by midweek, protests had become largely peaceful. Colina credited his officers for showing restraint, but protesters have said that they are working on their own to keep violent participants away.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts on this story

Maguire, the Arizona State University researcher, said American police are at a pivotal moment, and their response to the protests — and the lessons they take afterward — can help convince the public they understand the call for change.

“What people need to feel from police is empathy, a fundamental sense of fairness, an equity in how services are delivered, that the police care and are upholding democracy,” Maguire said.

Batts put it more bluntly.

He said he sees the current protests as the start of a long period of demonstrations that will continue to challenge police. It is no longer realistic, he said, to assume it can’t happen in your community.

“The best way to deal with riots is to do it before they happen,” he said. “You have to show people that you give a shit.”