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Cleveland police’s radical strategy for convention peace: don’t treat protesters like criminals

Police officers in Cleveland. Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Before the Republican National Convention, the warnings were grim: The FBI and other law enforcement agencies were preparing for the worst. Media outlets suggested all hell could break loose. Everyone seemed certain that the protests would turn into explosive riots.

But it didn’t happen.

The Republican convention came and went with no bouts of violence. Police officers in Cleveland arrested, by the latest count, fewer than 25 people related to protests. On the last night of protests, the Cleveland Division of Police even tweeted this:

Credit where it’s due: The police nailed it. Time and time again, it felt like police took in the full lessons of the past few years of Black Lives Matter protests. They focused on deescalating and preventing conflicts — instead of reacting with excessive force that might only anger demonstrators and cause them to lash out, or only reacting once things got out of control.

In other words, police didn’t treat protesters like criminals. And it worked.

Part of the reason police nailed it is because they had the resources and some luck. At almost all of the protests, police outnumbered demonstrators. That’s in part because Cleveland police got reinforcements from out of state — I saw officers from California, Texas, and Michigan, as a few examples — and because the protests turned out to be much smaller than expected — one march expected 5,000 people, but it ended up at 100 or so. This allowed police to consistently surround and isolate troublemakers as they arose, leaving those who acted peacefully almost entirely alone.

Police also played it smart. They never used chemical agents like tear gas, which could have angered the crowd and provoked people to try to fight back. They mostly relied on crowd control tactics and set up barriers — usually by standing side-by-side and occasionally creating a barrier of bikes — to limit how big protests could get and how far they went. When it looked like a confrontation could happen — such as when religious zealots started yelling anti-gay, Islamophobic comments at anti-Trump protesters — police simply surrounded the instigators to keep them split from the rest of the crowd.

The only incident that resulted in a lot of arrests — 17 total — came when someone tried to light a US flag on fire in a crowd, and police reportedly worried that he would light himself and others on fire. Police surrounded the protesters, who were part of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and after a brief physical struggle, arrested more than a dozen of them.

Police also benefited from smart preparation. Prior to the convention, officials put up fences across downtown that blocked certain streets, sidewalks, and alleys, forcing you to walk much further than you would otherwise need to. Uber drivers and protesters complained a lot about this, but it made it very hard for the protests to reach a critical mass that could get out of control.

For example, at several points there were demonstrations going on in multiple squares across downtown Cleveland. Normally, protesters could walk a couple blocks from place to place. But due to the fences, people had to navigate what was essentially a maze — making what would normally be a five-minute walk into 10 or 15 minutes.

Obviously, these kinds of preparations aren’t possible for more spontaneous protests. But the key lesson isn’t that police have to build fences on the streets of every city to prevent violence. (That seems very Trumpian.) The takeaway is that deescalation and prevention really can work to keep things calm.

Police have consistently made things worse at protests since Ferguson, Missouri

Much of this may invoke a "duh" from you. Of course deescalation and prevention work much better to keep protests calm than instigating the crowd with aggressive arrests, chemical agents, and other nonlethal weapons. How is that not obvious?

But this is not a "duh" for many police departments across the country. Over the past several years, police have acted far too aggressively at protests, sparking further chaos and distrust in law enforcement.

The policing of Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown was the most obvious example. There, police regularly used excessive force against almost wholly peaceful crowds: many arrests, tear gas, smoke bombs, sound cannons, and armored trucks. At times it seemed like the police’s main goal wasn’t so much to keep the protests under control as it was to force them to disperse. All of this really angered demonstrators, causing situations to spiral out of control.

Recently, police arrested hundreds of people across the US during a weekend of largely peaceful protests over the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The arrests didn’t produce the dramatic scenes of Ferguson, but they instigated protesters and, crucially, reinforced distrust in the police — making more protests, with a chance they’ll spiral out of control, more likely.

After all, demonstrators took to the streets to protest what they perceived as excessive use of force. And what did police do? They aggressively clamped down on protests — yet another example, in protesters’ eyes, of police’s excessive use of power.

Riots are, unfortunately, sometimes unpreventable. It’s not clear to me, in retrospect, what police could have done to stop the riots in Baltimore sooner. Sometimes people are just fed up, and they will communicate that frustration with violence. It’s obviously tragic, but it happens.

Still, there are ways to mitigate the risks. The experience at the Republican convention in Cleveland offers some of those lessons.

It even provided some lessons for the Cleveland Division of Police: The department was so happy with how the bikes worked out — for police transportation as well as to create artificial barriers — that they’re keeping the bikes and reinstituting bike patrols in neighborhoods.

There are times the criminal justice system fails to account for the latest evidence and adapt to the changing times. (See: mass incarceration and solitary confinement.) But in Cleveland, we saw the opposite — and it worked.

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