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Planning for the Planned Protest

January 22, 2013 | VACP

By Lieutenant Patrick Aigner, Prince William County Police Department

In this day and age, protests and demonstrations have become commonplace. In the National Capital Region, law enforcement agencies deal with groups expressing their rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution almost every day of each calendar year. Agencies like the United States Park Police, United States Capitol Police, and the Metropolitan (DC) Police Department have handled so many demonstrations they have developed an expertise in that area.

Until the incarceration of accused Army Private Bradley Manning, the Prince William County Police Department had dealt with smaller demonstrations within its jurisdictional boundaries, but had not encountered a large scale protest like the one held on March 20, 2011.  On that day, approximately five hundred protesters rallied near the front gates of the United States Marine Corps Base in Quantico.  At the conclusion of the rally, the group conducted a pre-planned march along a lane of the highway. 

At the end of the march, a small group was permitted to place flowers near the Iwo Jima Memorial.  When a police officer was in the process of escorting the group back to the rally point to signify the end of the event, the entire group descended into the roadway and blocked it in all directions.  As a result, the event was immediately declared an “Unlawful Assembly.”  After the required warnings to leave the area, more than thirty arrests were made utilizing the assets of several agencies that were deployed for the event. 

In the aftermath of the protest, a formal debriefing was done with the participation of all major stakeholders.  The overwhelming sentiment was the event was successful; however, there were numerous lessons learned.  The following points were gleaned from the original operations plan and post-event feedback session. 

Planning Started Immediately

It is critical to start the planning process as soon as possible.  In late January of 2011, the Prince William County Police Department became aware that the “Bradley Manning Support Network” planned to protest in Quantico on March 20, 2011.  The initial intelligence indicated this would be a major event and the size of the group would be in the hundreds.  The Department dealt with factions of this group three times prior and felt it was critical to begin the planning phase as soon as possible. 

The first step undertaken by our agency was intelligence gathering.  Some of the obvious issues of interest about the protest (and counter-protest) groups are the history of the cause as well as recent protests.  The best predictor of future behavior is the past, so this information is extremely important.  Another critical piece of information is the identification of the group’s leadership.  The search for relevant information from their history with the group goes a long way toward categorizing the perceived level of cooperation or lack thereof with the law enforcement efforts.  Another benefit of analyzing past events is to see whether a counter-protest group or groups will mobilize.  The information sought for the protest group will be done then for the counter group so a complete analytical picture can be drawn and disseminated to the appropriate staff.  Finally, a search needs to be done to identify whether any anarchist factions are aligned with either group.

Due to the number of stakeholders involved in this type of event, an initial planning meeting needs to be scheduled as soon as possible.  Most of the participating agencies will be easily identified; however, many more will be brought aboard as the incident draws near.  An important aspect of the initial meeting is to develop a task list with the identity of the appropriate agency and due dates for each. 

It is equally important to establish a point of contact with the leadership of the protest group and meet face to face if possible.  Although the information provided from meetings with the group’s leaders should be looked at critically, much can be learned from this step.  Furthermore, this affords the ability to communicate what is legally permissible within your jurisdiction.  For instance, the protest held near the entrance to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico had some unique boundary issues which needed to be communicated to the leadership of the Bradley Manning Support Network.  The ability to meet on site in advance of the event is optimal.  Another benefit is to ascertain the group’s goals, if arrests are desired, whether anarchist groups are expected, and the level of cooperation with law enforcement.  It is advisable to keep an accurate record of these meetings, when they were held, who attended, and the substance for future reference. 

In the National Capital Region, there are a multitude of law enforcement agencies, often with overlapping jurisdiction.  Due to the fact that this event occurred at the entrance to a federal installation, it was necessary to see what legal agreements already were in place.  This was important to ensure all participating agencies had legal jurisdiction and knew the scope of their authority.  If for some reason there is a lack of such an agreement, this needs to be addressed as soon as possible through the proper legal channels. 

As soon as it is practical, a meeting needs to be held with representatives of the local City/County Attorney’s Office as well as the Commonwealth/District Attorney’s Office.  As mentioned, there may be legal agreements in place which allow for assistance across jurisdictional boundaries, but they need to be examined by your City/County Attorney’s Office to see if they are current or in need of revision.  Furthermore, your local prosecutors need to be apprised of the event and the possibility of arrests.  Although one cannot foresee exactly what may happen, you can discuss the probable criminal issues which may present themselves and what charges might be placed.  It would be fiscally responsible to identify, in advance, the officers who will make the arrests, select specific court dates for the cases, isolate the cases in one courtroom to minimize the circus environment, and follow through with cases worthy of prosecution.   

Both offices should have reviewed and approved the scripted announcement which would be used to declare the assembly unlawful, if necessary.  Any legal matters need to be resolved long before the date of the protest.    A representative from each of these offices should be present on the day of the event to provide legal advice.  The benefits are “real time” feedback to commanders at the scene.  The ability to view the video is invaluable, but nothing compares to being there. 

Comprehensive Operations Plan

As with any major planned event, a comprehensive operations plan is paramount.  It establishes the objectives, guidance for commanders/unit leaders, and important points of contact.  Due to the size and type of event, numerous resources were identified for the Bradley Manning Support Network protest.  Some of the more notable assets deployed for this event were:

  • Civil Disturbance Unit(s) or “Cut” Team(s) – On hand to deal with protester devices if needed
  • Tactical (SWAT) Team(s)
  • K-9
  • Motor Unit(s)
  • Mounted Patrol
  • Patrol Squads
  • Criminal Investigations (detectives)
  • Crime Scene Units
  • Videographers
  • Public Information Officer (PIO)
  • Aviation Unit(s)
  • Tactical Medical
  • Military Units (if appropriate near a military facility)

There were a number of resources the Prince William County Police Department did not possess, but requested via mutual aid agreements.  These types of requests need to be made as soon as you aware of the need, as some take time to secure.  In the case of a military installation like Quantico, there were a number of unique issues that needed to be resolved.  Also, there are numerous stakeholders that need to be alerted for an event of this nature.  Due to the possibility of mass arrests, it is important to inform the local jail and magistrate’s office so they can plan for a spike in intakes.  It is always a good idea to provide advance notice to the hospitals.  Although unlikely, ensuring adequate staffing in the case of mass casualties is another aspect of effective planning.

The Day of the Event

No matter how well prepared an agency is for a planned demonstration, they seldom go off “without a hitch.”  The best plans allow for a manageable amount of flexibility in order to adapt to the unforeseen.  What we have seen leading up to the event required a lot of cooperation and communication.  The same is true of the day of the protest. 

A thorough briefing conducted by the lead agency is essential so that everyone is aware of his role in the operation and has the most up-to-date intelligence.  It is important to select the key players to attend the briefing.  The leader and/or assistant for all specialty teams should attend to ensure that they understand their part in the overall plan.  Any last minute concerns should be dealt with at this time.  Any event will bring about questions and confusion that could not be foreseen; however, it is incumbent on the command staff to try and address what they can beforehand. 

It is a wise idea to establish contact with the protest/counter-protest group leaders on the day of the event.  They need to know who their point of contact is with your agency and may provide updated information of value.  For instance, they may tell you the numbers are more or less than expected, if anarchists are expected, and other useful intelligence.  This is where the effort spent in the establishment of a rapport leading up to the protest may pay dividends. 

Another important function on the day of the event is to update the media outlets that may cover the event.  Your agency’s Public Information Officer (PIO) could hold a media briefing if the event is a large one and may generate a lot of national/international interest.  It is vital to keep the media aware of what is going on and provide them access to cover the event.  The designation of an assigned media area that is safe but “close to the action” is preferable.  Having the agency’s PIO embedded with the media will ensure they have the direct access needed to cover the event and receive timely updates when available. 

Whether it is a mobile command vehicle or a building serving as the command post for the event, the location should be selected long in advance of the day of the protest.  Some of the obvious criteria for selection include, but are not limited to, proximity, access, and the ability to secure the area.  Considering the numerous agencies and specialty units involved in an operation this size, the ability to select absolute essential command post personnel cannot be understated.  Unit leaders who have the information need to be close; however, the “decision makers” should staff the command post to ensure peak operational efficiency.  Those making decisions need a proven and dependable means of communication with their direct subordinates.  Whether it is cell phones or police radios, there should be a back-up means of communication should problems arise.  It is imperative the command personnel have “real time” information as the event unfolds.

The overall objective of every event is to afford all individuals their rights under the First Amendment as well as safeguard the lives of participants and non-participants.  As we all know, there are times when an event becomes unlawful and arrests are made.  A scripted announcement to the crowd should be made consistent with your local or state laws/ordinances.  If arrests are made, they should be videotaped and documented as per the agency’s protocols.  Due to the confusion brought about by mass arrests, it is helpful when the case comes before the court to have pictures and/or video of which persons were arrested and by whom.  As soon as possible, information concerning the event, such as arrests, should be provided to the media.  It is critical to ensure that the information is timely and accurate.  In the event of mass arrests, the pre-planned notification of the jails, courts, and others will make the prisoner processing and arraignments much smoother and efficient.

Post-Event – Meeting with Prosecutors

If arrests are made, it is important to meet with the designated prosecutor(s) to discuss the pending cases and what is needed to ensure the case is presented in a complete manner in court.  Even if the prosecutor was present during the protest, it is prudent to allow him to view the video/pictures as soon as possible so he can determine if the charges are to be prosecuted as is, plea bargained, or dismissed.  The value of videotaping the event cannot be understated.  As often the case, protesters will post video excerpts of an event on the internet and represent it as what actually occurred.  In the interest of justice and protection against unwarranted civil action, it is wise to record the entire incident from beginning to end during all preplanned events.

Formal Debrief-After Action Reporting

Whether the demonstration was uneventful or resulted in mass arrests, a great deal can be learned from a comprehensive debrief.  It is imperative this be scheduled as soon as practical after the event and all the major stakeholders are present.  A debriefing will be more productive and an effective learning tool if the team has the ability to speak candidly about what went well and what could have been done better. 

After the debriefing, the Incident Commander, or designee, needs to compile the After Action Report (AAR) for the event consistent with the National Incident Management System (NIMS).  The report will be a summary of the event and the information that was gleaned from the debriefing.  Although it is beneficial to all agency personnel, it is important to go over the information with affected specialty units at the earliest opportunity.  In the case of the aforementioned Manning Protest, there were a number of unforeseen details which were pointed out which were addressed for future events. 


Prior to March 20, 2011, the Prince William County Police Department had some experience in dealing with protests; however, most were relatively small in size and uneventful.  Most urban police departments deal with organized demonstrations often and are forced to make a substantial amount of arrests.  The guidance provided in this article, such as a commitment to prosecution, may prove logistically problematic in large scale situations and not feasible for those situations. 

The ultimate goals are the support of individual rights and the provision of a safe forum for the involved individuals and bystanders.  Most agreed that the law enforcement response to the Manning Protest met those goals and was successful.  A great deal was learned and will be incorporated into future protests.  The professionalism, dedication, and cooperation of numerous agencies were critical to a positive outcome.  These relationships form long before a need arises and their importance cannot be overstated.