In order to justify the paramilitary tactics used by law enforcement at protests, the manual describes protesters and their methods as equally intimidating and violent. While a tiny paragraph buried on page 106 informs course participants that protester violence is actually an extremely rare occurrence, the rest of the manual is full of references to the potential dangers law enforcement will likely face at demonstrations.   

By Traci Yoder  NLG  NLG Director of Research and Education   

When independent media collective Unicorn Riot filed a records request to the North Dakota Department of Corrections related to the indigenous movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, they received the updated Field Force Operations Manual produced by the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP). The 135-page federal training manual is designed to provide local law enforcement with “the knowledge and skills required to manage and control crowds and demonstrations.” References in the manual to the Occupy and Black Lives Matter Movements indicate that it has been updated recently, although the policing tactics will be familiar to those who have taken part in social movements for the last several decades.

Although it is not their stated purpose, training manuals such as these can help equip social movement participants and supporters to understand how members of law enforcement are being taught to view both themselves and the protesters they encounter. While the full manual is worth a read, there are some important highlights to keep in mind, especially in preparation for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. As a National Special Security Event (NSSE) like the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the inauguration will receive the highest level of security and policing. However, the policing tactics described in the manual will also be applied to activists contesting the actions of the Trump administration over the next several years, making it more important than ever to understand not just police practices but also the psychological lens through which these actions are understood and justified.

A Mobile Field Force

Participants in the CDP training are taught intervention and response strategies for large events, specifically what the manual refers to as “illegal gatherings” in which “protesters disrupt the peace” or act with the “intent to make protester removal by law enforcement” (i.e. arrest) difficult or dangerous. The manual includes eight modules: Civil Actions, Mass Arrest, Team Tactics, Legal Considerations, Protester Tactics, Crowd Dynamics, Riot Control Equipment, and Riot Control Agents and Less Lethal Munitions. To pass the course, students are only required to receive a 70% or higher on a written exam.

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As the title of the manual indicates, participants in this course are taught the team tactics necessary to become a Mobile Field Force (MFF), defined as a “well-trained, disciplined, organized demonstration of police force that emphasizes unity of command and can be rapidly deployed in civil disorder situations.” The concept of MFF is part of the “Miami Model” of protest policing, developed by Police Chief John Timoney for the 2003 Free Trade of the Americas meeting protests, and distinguished by large scale (often preemptive) arrests, heavily armed law enforcement, intense surveillance of protesters, and intimidating shows of force by police. The emphasis in these trainings is on group over individual actions and decisions to ensure participants will learn to act as a unit and carry out orders given from above without question.

Image from CDP Manual: Police Making An Arrest
Image from CDP Manual: Police Making An Arrest

Students in the course are taught three tiered levels of response: crowd management, crowd intervention, and crowd control. At the initial level of crowd management, members of law enforcement are actually encouraged to avoid the appearance of militarization and to coordinate with event organizers to establish the police as “facilitators rather than confronters.” This approach is designed to encourage event organizers to cooperate with police by monitoring their own protests. Despite this friendly facade, however, protesters should be aware that police are prepared to turn to the use of force— including the deployment of riot gear and “less-lethal munitions”—at any sign of provocation from demonstrators.

For crowd intervention, the course advises the tactic of isolating anyone in the demonstration who they think might act illegally, tracking them using cameras and “shadow teams”, and then preemptively arresting and removing them from the crowd as quickly as possible. This tactic—which former NLG Executive Director Heidi Boghosian has called “snatch squads”—is regularly applied to people at protests based on their clothing, general appearance, or perceived political ideology, and can easily lead to constitutional violations.[1]

At the level of crowd control, police tactics become even more obviously militaristic. The training outlines the verbal, hand and arm, and physical communication methods used by protest police. According to the manual, these commands “must be given in a direct and forceful military manner to show protesters that the MFF is a well-disciplined and well-trained unit.” This show of force and intimidation, participants are taught, will frighten the crowds and counteract the “militaristic tactics used by some protesters” (more on this below). Officers are trained to not engage in dialogue or be in any way affected by protesters, and are told explicitly to arrest everyone in a crowd once a decision has been made from above. At this point, outright force and police munitions will be deployed, including chemical weapons, rubber balls, bean bags, batons, and other weapons not mentioned in the manual (i.e. canine units and water cannons, as seen recently at Standing Rock).

The manual also covers legal considerations, and clearly states that “during a civil event, the rules for search and seizure do not change.” Police are not allowed to take cameras or cell phones without warrants, or to destroy property. The entire constitution is also included as part of the training manual, along with recent case law covering protests. However, as protest litigation over the past several decades has proven, these legal lessons are often forgotten or de-prioritized during actual police-protester interactions.

Imagined Protesters

In order to justify the paramilitary tactics used by law enforcement at protests, the manual describes protesters and their methods as equally intimidating and violent. While a tiny paragraph buried on page 106 informs course participants that protester violence is actually an extremely rare occurrence, the rest of the manual is full of references to the potential dangers law enforcement will likely face at demonstrations.

The manual describes three “types” of protesters: 1) Everyday citizens, 2) anarchists, and 3) “professional protesters” who are assumed to adhere to two basic principles: “intervention demands responsibility” and “small harm is acceptable to prevent a greater harm.” As Unicorn Riot points out in their summary of the manual, Trump has already started characterizing recent protests on Twitter as the work of “professional protesters, incited by the media.” While this reference will seem absurd to any contemporary activist, police are clearly being trained to believe that “professional protesters” (and “anarchists”) are not like “everyday citizens”, and therefore can be treated differently.

The manual includes pages of descriptions of “protester tactics”, ranging from common actions seen at protests to fantastic and lurid acts that have never been documented at an actual demonstration. The long list of violent “tactics” includes the following: deploying weapons (e.g. wrist rockets, catapults, caltrops, smoke grenades, incendiary devices, bowling balls, cinder blocks), positioning blockades, executing unarrests, flashing mirrors at police, and throwing an array of substances, such as manure, hazardous waste, fecal matter, ammonia, bleach, urine, animal or human blood, paint, and acid. What the manual does not make clear is that many of these “tactics” have almost never been used, or are completely imaginary.

From reading this manual, it appears that almost anything a protester would do during a demonstration could be considered a “tactic” by law enforcement and subject to retaliation. Examples given include noncooperation (refusing to engage with police), asking for a lawyer, riding bikes, overwhelming public transportation through mass ridership, and using children and elderly to “gain sympathy and give a negative portrayal of police dispersals and arrests.” Even standing near an officer quietly, looking at them, or taking photographs are defined by this manual as “using personal space as a tactic” by displaying “passive resistance” and making law enforcement feel “uncomfortable.”


Image from CDP Manual: Protester Tactics

More alarmingly, law enforcement professionals are trained to ignore anything said by someone during a protest or while being arrested. If protesters (or onlookers) yell, cry, say they or someone else is being injured, or question arrests or other police actions, course participants are told to hear these only as distractions and attempts at intimidation. There is no allowance in this training for the possibility that police in riot gear using weapons and/or riot control agents (chemicals like tear and pepper gas) might actually be hurting someone through their actions.

In addition to falsely militarizing the actions of protesters, the manual also professionalizes them by assuring course participants that organized protest groups “create businesslike plans for their structure.” Readers of the manual familiar with recent social movement practices will find the descriptions of these assumed roles anywhere from inaccurate (such as claiming protest groups have a defined leader who is “kept offsite”) to completely mythological (one protest support role in the manual is literally called an “action elf”). What one learns from reading the assumed structure of protesters is that police imagine they are confronting a disciplined, hierarchical force comparable to their own structure. For example, course participants are taught that protest groups will all have a “tactical adviser” who functions like a police field commander.

Perhaps these various misrepresentations of current social movements emerge from the fact that, while this manual promises to draw on “leading theories of crowd psychology and recent analysis of protest groups”, the theoretical underpinning for the training is still based on Raymond Momboisse’s 1967 report Riots, Revolts and Insurrections.[2] According to this study, all crowds have the ability to transform into unruly groups and any group can become a mob as soon as it is “instilled with a purpose and intent to carry out that purpose.”

The sociological breakdown used by the FBI to understand protests is still based on Momboisse’s sociological types (impulsive, suggestible, cautious, yielders, supportive, resistors, psychopathic), presumed motives of protesters (independence, wealth or security, recognition, self-esteem, justice), and goals (aggressive, escapist, acquisitive, expressive). In an attempt to explain the mindset of protesters, the manual also includes a Department of Justice list of “ideologies” that lead people to protest: animal rights, environmental, anarchist, white supremacist, anti-government, black separatist, and anti-abortion. Perhaps even more unhelpful is the Group Action Impact Assessment (Sopow 2004) given to law enforcement to understand protester’s motivations: e (emotion) + o (organization) = a (action).[3] It is an understatement to say that these lists and formulas do little to help us understand the actual motivations of those protesting police killings of people of color, destruction of the environment, rising economic inequality, and the many other egregious examples of injustice that bring people to the streets.

Aiding and Abetting

The inaccurate and negative portrayal of protesters in the training manual also extends to the role of media and legal support. The manual accuses “the media” of unfairly representing police in their interactions with protesters, and blames journalists for bringing criticism onto law enforcement, rather than taking responsibility for the illegal or inappropriate actions of riot police. The manual uses the demonstrations in Ferguson, MO after the death of Michael Brown as an example, claiming that the media unfairly condemned police for using full riot gear, military tactics, and undue force against civilians. According to the training, the lesson learned was “the use of force, especially the militarized police officers, attracted national attention, much of it negative, regardless of the circumstances.” The distrust of media is also apparent in the discussion of protester tactics, in which media passes used by journalists to gain access to demonstrations are considered a type of “infiltration.”

The role of media and the way that events are shared and interpreted is also discussed in the frequently referenced 2011 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report Managing Major Events: Best Practices from the Field, in which police officials recommend getting protesters away from the media before making mass arrests. Describing the 2008 Republican National Convention, Minneapolis Deputy Chief Rob Allen recalled: “We had big hulking cops in turtle suits and it looked like we were going to be taking on little kids. There were people watching.”[4] Despite such acknowledgements that recording police actions would bring criticism, the CDP training materials describe media’s role in covering protests as no more than another protester “tactic”, in their words: “using media to demonstrate the ‘brutality’ of law enforcement.” The possibility that police response to demonstrations could be an overreaction or lead to negative results is once again never considered.

Amy Mei Willis is arrested while Legal Observing in Atlanta, GA. (Photo: Megan Harrison)

Amy Mei Willis is arrested while Legal Observing in Atlanta, GA. (Photo: Megan Harrison)

Finally, the manual addresses the role of legal support groups like the National Lawyers Guild, which document protester-police interaction. Oddly, legal teams are described as protest “personnel,” implying that they are professionals or paid by protest organizers rather than volunteers protecting First Amendment rights. According to the manual, these legal “personnel” are part of the protest and therefore subject to arrest even when they indicate that they are neutral observers. As a result, we have seen increasing arrests of NLG Legal Observers at demonstrations over the past decade. From the perspective of this training, legal support is there to “intimidate law enforcement by telling them the tactics they are using are illegal.” While this is not the role of legal teams, the assumption that unarmed, non-intervening legal volunteers are an intimidation to fully-armed riot squads says a great deal about the ways that protesters and others at demonstrations must be imagined to allow the police to justify their heavy-handed tactics.

Looking Forward

Along with other law enforcement resources like the PERF Critical Issues in Policing Series, the training modules described in the CDP Field Force Operations Manual can provide valuable insights into how police anticipate and prepare for protest activity. Reading these documents as a participant in social movements can be disorienting; the descriptions of activists feel overly militarized, professionalized—and at times—simply made up. Despite more than 50 years of litigation on behalf of protesters challenging unconstitutional arrests, mistreatment, and brutality on the part of protest police, law enforcement training manuals present unarmed demonstrators as the violent and dangerous party. However, it is not enough to simply note that these educational materials are inaccurate or biased. Because they are being used to train generation after generation of law enforcement, they must be taken seriously and studied carefully by social activists. As we prepare for massive demonstrations on J20 against the Presidential Inauguration as well as 4-8 years of a repressive and violent administration, those dedicated to social justice will need to understand what to expect when exercising their First Amendment rights.

Photos from top to bottom: Image from DCP Manual: Police Making An Arrest; Image from CDP Manual: Protester Tactics; Amy Mei Willis arrested with Legal Observing in Atlanta, GA (Credit: Megan Harrison)

[1] Boghosian, Heidi. Punishing Protests: Government Tactics that Suppress Free Speech. NLG (2007).
[2] Momboisse, Raymond. Riots, Revolts and Insurrections. Charles C. Thomas Publisher (1967).
[3] Sopow, E. “Protest Policing and the Age of Outrage: A Scholar-Practitioner’s Multidisciplinary Linking of Theory and Reality,” Fielding Focus, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2004): p. 4-5.
[4] “Managing Major Events: Best Practices From the Field.” Critical Issues in Policing Series, Police Executive Research Forum (2011).

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By Published On: January 10th, 2017Comments Off on Protest Policing in Trump’s America: Notes for J20 and Beyond

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