Police chiefs say training aids officers in protests

Mihajlo Maricic/iStockBy LUKE BARR, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As the protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer rage on across the country, police departments are in the unique position of being the target of protesters and keeping those same people safe.

Demonstrations that started in Minnesota in the wake of Floyd's death on Memorial Day, have multiplied as well as escalated from peaceful to violent and police chiefs from departments of all different sizes told ABC News that they have had to rely on their training procedures to get through each wave.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said that her agency is focused on making sure that people can express themselves freely and without any reservations.

"Part of it is making sure that we have the right training that we are able to approach this in a way that minimizes risk to the people who are, exercising their free speech but also minimizes risk to officers," Best explained to ABC News by phone.

"Responding to civil disturbances like we have seen is always a complex and difficult situation for any police agency," Steve Casstevens, the president of the International Chiefs of Police told ABC News. "It is easy to see the difficulties that situations like these present and the complexity of law enforcement's action in response -- which require a fine balance of response to the range of emotions and reactions -- while working to restore peace and prevent the further escalation of violence and destruction of property."

Friday night in Oakland, California, one contracted Federal Protective Service (FPS) officer was shot and killed and another was wounded after a shooter opened fire on the federal building, the FBI told ABC News in a statement. A senior Department of Homeland Security official told ABC News that the shooting and the overnight protests were related, but the investigation is still in its preliminary stages.

On Saturday night, outside the White House, the Metropolitan Police Department and U.S. Secret Service made 18 arrests. According to MPD, 11 officers were injured, with one sustaining a compound leg fracture.

More than 60 U.S. Secret Service uniformed division officers and special agents were injured during protests in Washington Friday night through Sunday morning. Eleven Secret Service employees were transported to local hospitals and treated for non-life threatening injuries during that period.

In Seattle, the police chief said in a statement that 27 people were arrested Saturday night during demonstrations in the downtown area. That same night in Miami, authorities said there were 44 arrests during protests.

Miami Chief Jorge Colina told ABC News that when the police department expects a lot of people, they don't immediately go out in riot gear but rather wait and asses the situation.

"If I can avoid a confrontation, I want to avoid it. Obviously, you've got to protect property. You've got to protect life. And I understand that. But I can't stress enough how important it is to have those relationships built in where either the chief, or your community relations people can speak to the organizers, the unofficial leaders of those movements and say, hey, man, you too can be heard," Colina told ABC News.

Chief Edwin Roessler of Fairfax County, Virginia, stressed to ABC News that he also works with the community to quell tensions and provide support.

"It comes down to having robust relationships with community advocates, regardless of their position. And we can't as police chiefs and police departments exclude anybody's opinion or use off-duty bias or implicit bias," Roessler said. "We need to be aware, we need to work with everyone so if someone wants to exercise their first amendment rights in Fairfax County our goal is to work with that group, provide them a space and a place to do it."

Roessler said that his department is always actively engaging with community leaders to better improve relations -- something that started when he first arrived as chief in 2013 because the police department was facing a challenge with transparency.

"We know our advocates who helped us design the policy," he said, "and we get to continually do that with each policy on an annual basis -- have a transparent report card on our web site."

While "pop-up protests" don't provide time to plan for a large-scale demonstration, Roessler said there is a specific civil disturbance unit in Fairfax County, that trains for these types of incidents.

"Sometimes you've got to use discretion. Just because they're blocking the road doesn't mean that you necessarily have to go lock everybody up. There's options, we could divert traffic and let the protest evaporate once (protesters) are satisfied," he said. "You don't necessarily need to arrest your way out of that."

On Friday morning, Americans woke to the news that a CNN reporter was arrested on live TV, and the police chiefs who ABC News spoke with said that while they did not want to judge without having been in the situation, they expressed frustration.

"I'm sure that if you were to ask anyone in the Minneapolis Police Department, who has any rank, I can't imagine that anyone there was happy with the decision that was made by whoever was in charge in the field. And I hope that it wasn't even that. I hope it was just that officer who made that decision -- a bad one -- and not a decision from the leadership," Colina said.

Roessler said that as soon as he saw that video of the reporter getting arrested, he talked to his command staff to ensure that a situation like that doesn't happen in Fairfax County.

"When I observed that immediately to my civil disturbance unit commander, that we need to make sure this doesn't happen to us, (Rossler urged the unit commander to) look at our policies, look at our training syllabus and make sure this is in the next level of training," he explained.

Best said that her department learned from instances like the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle.

"We learned a lot of lessons then, which really was a milestone for our organization, in learning how to address some of these more volatile protests. We took a beating at that time in 1999. We have learned a lot of lessons since then about how to structure better," Best explained.

In a recorded message to Miami police officers, Colina called the video of Floyd's death "disturbing" and he told ABC News that it sets police back.

"It puts us back as a profession, decades. And quite frankly, it's embarrassing as a nation," he said.

In Seattle, Best said that their goal during the protests is looking out for the safety of everyone.

"On a human level we really want everyone to be safe, and I realize that people are very upset about the obvious indifference to human life that we saw, most recently, in Minneapolis, but generally speaking, the officers that come to work every day are just men and women trying to do the right thing and trying to do good work," Best said.

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