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Closing Argument

Police Tactics at Some Pro-Palestine Protests Ignore Past Lessons

While some universities have sought peaceful approaches, others have used aggressive policing that bucks research from the protests following George Floyd’s murder.

Two university members, wearing white tops, jeans and badges, look out a window and record videos from their phones. In the foreground, police wearing riot gear form a line in front of a building.
University members look out a window as police form a line and break up a pro-Palestine encampment at the University of California, Irvine on May 15, 2024.

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A police sniper stood watch on the roof at Indiana University. An officer fired beanbag rounds at UCLA. Protesters at Emory University were met with rubber bullets and tear gas. Police have frequently used aggressive and militarized tactics in arresting nearly 3,000 people tied to the pro-Palestinian protests that have swept dozens of college campuses this spring, according to databases collected by The Appeal and The New York Times.

The arrests have mainly come at tent encampments set up by students protesting Israel’s war in Gaza and occupation of Palestinian territories, and demanding that their universities disclose and divest any financial investments that may benefit Israel. Students make up most of the arrests, which also include professors, staff, alumni, and some people unaffiliated with the schools. Some protesters have reported stitches, broken bones, and concussions from interactions with police.

Last week, several criminologists told Reuters that aggressive police tactics were at odds with research and best practices developed after the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. A study from the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing think tank, recommended avoiding mass arrests whenever possible and called for limiting the use of so-called less-lethal munitions such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

That same report also emphasized that when police establish trust and communication with protesters, rather than a strong show of force, it leads to safer outcomes for both officers and the demonstrators.

Researchers have studied how police respond to protests for decades. Nearly four years ago, Maggie Koerth from FiveThirtyEight and I wrote about that history, and how there’s been a robust body of government research on the handling of protests dating back to the late 1960s.

For that story, we spoke with the Rev. David Couper, who was the police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, during anti-war protests in the 1970s and anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s. His strategy for dealing with protesters was to send officers out to talk with demonstrators, listen to their concerns and empathize with them, using officers in regular uniforms, rather than riot gear. Couper was one of the first law enforcement leaders to promote a softer approach to policing protests, sometimes called the “Madison Model.”

I touched base with Couper again this week. He said he was frustrated watching so many police use heavy-handed tactics, given the success he had during more than 21 years and hundreds of demonstrations. “In every situation, we were able to use a very low-key approach that did not result in a lot of property damage, or people getting hurt,” Couper said.

This de-escalation model was never widely adopted, but even the handful of departments that once tried it largely dropped it over the past quarter-century, as police forces became increasingly militarized and oriented around an “us against them” mentality, we reported in 2020.

Comparisons between the current campus protests and the 2020 demonstrations that swept across the country are only so useful. The campus protests are orders of magnitude smaller, and more uniform in approach and environment. Another key difference is that university administrators serve as intermediaries, and have generally been in charge of asking police to break up protests. Administrators who were swift to call in the police have cited disruptions to the campus, and reports from some Jewish students that some protesters targeted them or made them feel unsafe amid rising claims of antisemitism.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that external pressures may have also led to police response in at least one school: Columbia University in New York. A group of wealthy business leaders privately pressed Mayor Eric Adams to send police to disperse the protests, on a call where campaign donations to Adams were also discussed, according to The Post. The city denied that police were dispatched for any reason other than “specific written requests” from the school. (Disclosure: The Post listed Len Blavatnik and Daniel Loeb among the executives on the call. The Marshall Project currently receives funding from the Warner Music Group / Blavatnik Family Foundation Social Justice Fund. The Margaret and Daniel Loeb-Third Point Foundation supported the news organization until 2020. Under the terms of its funding, The Marshall Project has sole editorial control of its news reporting.)

After backlash to arrests — especially from professors at the schools — many universities began seeking alternative ways to clear encampments. Northwestern was one of the first schools where protesters and administrators struck a deal, agreeing to clear the encampment in exchange for disclosing information about the school's investments, establishing an “affinity space” for Middle Eastern and North African students, and tuition for five Palestinian undergraduate students. CBS News reported that "some on campus are still dissatisfied, saying a small group agreed to terms that some say don't go far enough," however.

At nearby DePaul University, days of negotiations eventually gave way to arrests, after administrators declared a stalemate. Student representatives said they would have preferred to keep negotiating.

Both schools are in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has repeatedly pledged not to prosecute people engaged in peaceful protest, citing her agency’s Protest-Related Charging Policy crafted in 2020, according to The Appeal.

As my colleague Maurice Chammah recently explored, prosecutors in some jurisdictions could represent a new wrinkle in the age-old question of protest arrests. Like Foxx, a handful of prosecutors have pledged not to pursue charges. Others have expressed broad sympathy with protesters or dropped charges en masse — as did Delia Garza, the top local prosecutor in Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin.

After arrests at the State University of New York at New Paltz, my alma mater, Ulster County District Attorney Emmanuel Nneji issued a plea this week for protesters to obey the law “as a public official who wholeheartedly supports peaceable assemblies and protests to prevent the horrors and atrocities of war.”

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.