Navigating Campus Safety and Protests: Lessons from Recent Events

Author: Dr. Jack Moorman, Retired University Police Chief for NC State University

In the realm of higher education, universities are not just centers for academic pursuit but collaborative communities where diverse ideas and opinions converge. However, when political activism transforms into protests, ensuring campus safety while respecting the principles of free speech becomes a paramount concern for campus security professionals and administrators. Recent incidents at state-side universities serve as a poignant reminder of the delicate balance institutions must maintain in these scenarios.

Proactive Preparation

The necessity of proactive preparation cannot be overstressed. Involving campus police from the onset of planning in the event of a protest on campus can significantly enhance security outcomes. If university officials are aware of a planned or potential protest ahead of time, selecting an area of campus that can comfortably accommodate attendees while minimizing disruptions to campus life is a critical first step in planning. For events likely to draw large crowds, locations on the periphery of the campus are preferable. This strategic choice assists in crowd control and reduces the impact on academic and administrative operations.

Enabling Open Communication

As discussed in a recent webinar, ‘Common Ground: Exploring Non-Sworn Officer Roles and Conflict Navigation’ the panelists unanimously agreed communication is key.

“If anything is coming up on my radar, I’m sending a group text message to [the safety and security team] to give them a heads up, so they’re all in the know. We holdtabletops regularly to talk through some of these issues with the university cabinet. Having that communication there, and building those relationships sets a foundation of trust.” Said Chris Cichosz , Director of Security at Winona State University.

“Especially being a safety and security team of non-sworn officers, relationships are huge – we have constant communication with our local police department, Northfield Ambulance, Northfield Area Fire and Rescue service, and we work closely with our local community.” Said Blake Held, Associate Director of Security Services and Emergency Management at Carleton College. “We rely on each other when we have some of these big incidents, it’s amazing how many directors or different people I can call for help.”

Anticipating and Managing Backlash

Political events and protests, especially in today’s polarized climate, are susceptible to public backlash. Clear communication is vital. Universities must clarify their commitment to upholding free speech without endorsing specific viewpoints. This involves establishing clear guidelines for conduct, based on university policies and state laws, to ensure that all voices are heard in a respectful and safe environment.

Maintaining Officer Impartiality and Professionalism

The professionalism of campus police is fundamental to maintaining trust and safety. Officers must remain impartial, refraining from displaying personal political or personal affiliations while on duty or on social media to prevent any perceptions of bias.

Effective Protest Management

Universities must respect the right to protest while securing the event. This often involves designating specific areas for protestors that allow visibility but maintain a separation from the event itself. Open communication with protest organizers can facilitate peaceful protest and counter-protest activities.

Utilizing Technology for Coordination

Advanced technologies, including unified command and control tools, such as those of SafeZone® and OnmiGuard® by CriticalArc®, can significantly improve the coordination of officer movements and responses. This is especially crucial during large-scale events, where the situation can rapidly evolve, and help may be needed. With SafeZone, users can send responders their precise location and request help for themselves or others all at the touch of a button. This technology also enables tip reporting which allows users to send responders information about events unfolding on or off campus including images and location data.

Other technologies such as automated license plate readers around the perimeter of campus can be beneficial in identifying non-students who enter campus with the intention of instigating an otherwise peaceful protest.

Having an Operations Plan

A detailed operations plan, encompassing communication strategies, key contacts, and coordination with other departments and external agencies, is crucial for the smooth execution of event security measures. For more information on creating an emergency management plan, check out this blog.

Operations plans should follow the Incident Command System (ICS). Both first responders and university administrators must be well-versed in the ICS principles. Regular training and drills with the Emergency Operations Group, utilizing the Incident Command Structure are imperative in ensuring that university administrators understand their role and the role of first responders and that communication is maintained throughout the incident.

Having an Institutional Policy about Ending Protests

Despite the best efforts to maintain the delicate balance between free speech and safety, there are times when extended protests jeopardize the continued operations of campus. This could look like an extended takeover of a building, an encampment site on campus, or another activity disrupting institution operations.

Best practices in the event a protest violates institutional policy and thus must be shut down, include having a protest policy in place that explicitly articulates the specific individuals responsible for ending a protest. This policy must be approved at the university level and should include at minimum, the following components:

  • Who is authorized to make the decision that the protestors must vacate (Typically a Chancellor, President, or a Dean of students – and who the alternate is if the designated official is away from campus).
  • Specific wording to be communicated to the protestors that they must vacate. This wording should be consistent with state and local laws, particularly those pertaining to trespassing charges in the institution’s jurisdiction.
  • The method of communication should be specified. The notice to vacate must be communicated in a manner that will be clearly audible to the protestors, such as the use of a bullhorn. It is important to ensure that the bullhorn is operational and available.
  • Timing should be explicitly outlined. An appropriate amount of time should be given to protesters, allowing them ample time to vacate. Thirty minutes is standard to allow protestors sufficient time to disassemble tents and gather belongings.

The policy should also specify the limitations on protests and include sanctions for violations of the policy. These limitations may include prohibitions against building takeovers or encampments.

Arrest of Protestors

When the institution has followed its policy requiring protestors to leave and they have chosen to remain, law enforcement will then initiate arrests.

Campus and municipal law enforcement agencies must consider several key points when conducting arrests. To prevent the rapid depletion of resources, it is crucial to ensure sufficient personnel are present onsite before initiating any arrests. Additionally, designating an incident commander to oversee the arrests in an orderly manner is imperative.

Protesters should be given the chance to comply verbally with lawful arrests. In instances where physical removal becomes necessary, it is vital to carry this out in an orderly manner to avoid unnecessary struggles. For best practice, a designated team of officers should coordinate physical removal of protesters in a manner that minimizes strain on the officers and risk of injury to the protester. Furthermore, a transport van should be readily available, accompanied by a designated arrest team or teams responsible for sequentially removing the protesters.

Availability of Equipment for Officers

Although many individuals express concerns related to the optics of law enforcement officers in riot gear on campuses, the safety of police officers should not be compromised. If there is a potential for violence and objects may be thrown, officers should have readily available gear to protect them in such situations.

If protestors barricade inside a building, having personnel with the training and availability of breaching tools is critical. There are also many municipal and state agencies that are trained in the removal of “sleeping dragon” tactics. Knowing which agencies possess this training is important if such tactics are deployed by protestors.

Mutual Aid Agreements / MOUs

Campus Police agencies should have existing Mutual Aid Agreements or Memorandums of Understanding with their local municipal and/or county police and other campus agencies. In North Carolina, for example, all public universities have a mutual aid agreement in place that allows officers from any public university to assist any other public university upon request.  These agreements are extremely beneficial in circumstances where local resources are quickly depleted. An additional benefit of mutual aid agreements with other universities is that the officers already understand the campus environment.

It is also important that officers from other agencies train together and have interoperable communications, as communications are key if the protests escalate into violence. CriticalArc’s OmniGuard is extremely valuable in these situations as it can allow real-time visibility of not only the institution’s own officers, but officers from other agencies who may be unfamiliar with the campus geography. It also allows provides playback features that show the timeline and movement of personnel in response to the incident and aids in the after-action review.

Non-student Protestors

Utilizing Fusion Centers and other sources of information from protests at other campuses can aid institutions in identifying potential instigators who are not affiliated with the institution. These individuals often blend in with student protestors with the intent of engaging in criminal activity and/or escalating violence.

Private Institution Vs. Public Institutions

While private institutions possess more leeway in limiting activities compared to public ones, it’s crucial to weigh the considerations of free speech in terms of “time, place, and manner.” Protecting the campus community’s safety and upholding the institution’s mission are of utmost importance.

Integrating Lessons from Current Events

The recent arrests at universities amid a Pro-Palestinian protest underscore the challenges universities face in managing protests. These events highlight the potential for peaceful demonstrations to escalate and exemplify how universities must navigate the fine line between safeguarding free speech and upholding law and order.

Incorporating insights from such incidents into campus safety plans can offer valuable lessons. Universities can leverage these experiences by refining their strategies for managing protests, ensuring the safety of all participants while fostering an environment where diverse opinions can be expressed respectfully.

In conclusion, as campus security professionals and administrators reflect on recent events and beyond, proactive planning, clear communication, and a commitment to safety and free speech are essential components of effectively managing protests on university campuses. By adopting a neutral and thoughtful approach, institutions can protect their communities while upholding the values of democracy and academic freedom.

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