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Urban Police - Policing Crowds

public gatherings departments unplanned

Crowd control is a specialized function of urban police forces. Officers must maintain security during public gatherings that are both planned and unplanned. Planned public gatherings include permitted rallies, protests, demonstrations, vigils, parades, holiday celebrations, and other specialized events. McCarthy and McPhail have noted changes in the nature of public gatherings and police response over the past forty years. During the 1960s, police responded to public gatherings with suspicion and aggressive enforcement. Police often tried to prevent demonstrations and protests. If public gatherings did occur, police tactics often included the use of force and arrest, which escalated disorder and violence.

Over the next three decades, McCarthy and McPhail argue that protest events have become institutionalized, or governed by formal rules and regulations as well as by informal norms. Since the 1980s, public order policing reflects communication and negotiation between police departments and citizens. Most groups file requests and receive permits, allowing them to legally gather in specific areas at specific times. Police departments negotiate with these groups and informally work out what activities and behaviors will be allowed during these gatherings. As described by McCarthy and McPhail, "under negotiated management policing, an 'acceptable level of disruption' is seen by police as an inevitable byproduct of demonstrator efforts to produce social change. Police do not try to prevent demonstrations, but attempt to limit the amount of disruption they cause" (p. 97).

Urban police must control unplanned public gatherings as well. Unplanned public gatherings include events that exist without a permit, along with gatherings resulting from natural disasters and riots. Policing unplanned public gatherings is difficult for police departments. Several examples of public gathering and riot situations occurred during the 1990s, where police were criticized for being unprepared, too lenient, or too aggressive (e.g., the LAPD during the Rodney King riots in 1993; St. Petersburg, Florida, police during race riots in 1996; Seattle Police Department during the World Trade Organization protests in 1999, etc.). Again, the response by police during these and other situations was believed to escalate, rather than control, the situation.

Most large departments provide officers with some form of crowd control or riot training. Much of the training includes documented rules and regulations resulting from crisis management. Police policies are often made as a result of an inadequate response to an immediate crisis and are unsystematic (Manning). Departments' procedural guidelines are often situation-specific or, alternatively, terribly vague. In fact, many departments learn better ways to handle crowd situations through documentation of poorly handled initial situations.

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