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Police advance on demonstrators Saturday in Minneapolis.Scott Olson / Getty Images

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.

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.

Image: A police tactical team moves in to disperse a group of protesters in Ferguson
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.