Presidential campaign rallies are a huge challenge – and opportunity – for campus police

With the elections approaching, university police and public safety departments should prepare now in case they are asked to host presidential campaign visits and political rallies, writes Dr. Jack W. Moorman, retired NC State University Police Chief and IACLEA Board Member. They may get very little notice.

As the November elections draw near, many colleges and campuses will be asked to host major political rallies and presidential campaign visits. Sometimes these events will be high profile and arranged with very short notice.

As a chief of police, you may get a phone call on a Sunday afternoon notifying you of a planned event in just three- or four-days’ time. You’ll have some major challenges to deal with, above and beyond your normal workload.

Even for experienced and well-resourced police departments, it can be daunting. For first-time hosts, it can raise/propose a lot of unexpected issues.

Get it right, and you can raise the capabilities, confidence, and standing of your officers.

So here are some of the most important things I’ve learned from my years handling such events as chief of police at universities very much on the campaign trail. And – as with most things in life! – preparing early, and knowing what you are getting into, really helps.

Choose the right location

It’s important that someone from your public safety team or police department gets involved at the earliest stage. They should have the knowledge and confidence to feed into conversations about where exactly on campus the event will be staged. So, it’s a good idea to have three or four different locations in mind, suitable for different sizes of crowds. Some locations will be easier to manage than others, and if you’ve identified these in advance, you can steer the event hosts and planners accordingly.

As the hosting institution, it’s up to you to decide where the location of the event will be. Bear in mind that the campaign manager for whichever candidate or party you are dealing with may not be reasonable in their expectations. They may ask for things that aren’t feasible. If you are a public institution, there may be an assumption that you are obliged to cooperate, but there’s no legal requirement. Your responsibility is to ensure safety and security and to protect the reputation of your institution.

Impact on campus life

Consider the impact that the event will have on the normal operations of your campus. If you are hosting a sitting President, the security levels can cause significant disruption. You may have to re-route busses and shut down approaches to make sure the motorcade can come in.

In these cases, to reduce the impact, look for a venue that’s removed from the main part of the campus. By using a stand-alone site on the periphery, such as an athletics facility, you can avoid a lot of problems.

An ideal venue will have at least two ways in and two ways out, and not be on a regular route for foot traffic.

Potential for backlash

If you do accept the opportunity to host an event, be aware that there may be a public backlash if you are seen to favor one side or other – Democrat or Republican – you run the risk of upsetting at least 50% of your constituency. As debate becomes more polarized, that risk increases. To deal with this, your institution should be confident and clear in its communications: that valuing free speech and the free exchange of ideas is not the same as endorsement.

Your resources will be stretched, and you may have to pull in support from partner agencies. Where this happens, prior to the event, you need to be clear about where lines of responsibility begin and end. It would help if you had memorandums of understanding and mutual aid agreements in place.

Also be clear about what your costs are going to be, and how you are going to be reimbursed by the campaign. The costs will vary depending on the scale of the event, but you are probably going to be responsible for personnel in the venue, at the perimeter, and on traffic routes in and out. For comparison, your costs may be similar to those incurred when you host a major athletics event.

Secret service involvement

If you host a campaign visit from a sitting President or a candidate within 120 days of an election, they and their family members will have Secret Service protection. The Secret Service team’s goal will be the protection of that individual. You will meet them and collaborate with them early on. You will still have your responsibilities for the venue, although they may also bring their own magnetometers (walk-through metal detectors) and implement their own security checks.

Officers’ roles and responsibilities

Make sure you are clear about what your officers’ roles and responsibilities are – and this comes back to protecting the reputation of your institution. For example, the campaign manager may ask for someone to be ejected from the event, but you need to make sure that your officers are not compromised by accusations of partisanship. Remember, expect any interactions or disputes to be filmed and published on social media. To avoid this risk, everyone needs to be clear about what behavior will and will not be tolerated. For example, is heckling allowed? What kind of banners are allowed, or slogans on T-shirts? The rules that you enforce should be informed by your university’s policies, and state laws, not by the campaign team’s strategy or preferences. So, you should confer with your institution’s general council to make sure you are clear about what those policies are. For example, if a member of the audience is expressing their disagreement by refusing to applaud, shaking their head, or by their general demeanor, that should not normally be grounds for ejection. In any case, a first approach to ask someone to refrain from a particular behavior should usually be made by a team member who is not a uniformed officer. The incident should only be escalated to enforcement if that individual refuses to cooperate.

Managing protests and counter-protests

Protests and counter-protests also need to be managed carefully, so that you can secure the event while also protecting their First Amendment rights. Be open and honest, reach out to protest organizers, and work with them to agree on where they can gather. Ideally, protestors should be directed to a location where they are visible, but physically separated from the event. They have a right to protest and should not be restricted to locations where no-one will see or hear them.

Technology and officer coordination

It’s essential to prepare your team in advance, properly equip them, and to be able to coordinate their actions and responses on the day. It’s also important to remember that your department’s normal campus policing responsibilities and public safety duties will continue throughout, so it’s vital to avoid overstretching and compromising your team’s ability to coordinate and respond.

Here, new technologies have a vital role to play. The teams I’ve led have made great use of unified command and control tools that give dispatchers complete visibility over the real time locations and movements of all officers in the field. The technology I strongly recommend (SafeZone / Omniguard) also allows targeted alerts and mass communications that does not compromise radio silence. This can be essential if you have a speaker at the podium and you don’t want disruptive audio comms. As a footnote, instant, silent comms of this kind can also be crucial in duress situations – but that’s another topic.

Officer impartiality

Preparation in advance should also include briefings to make sure that everyone understands what the objectives, risks, and responsibilities are. For example, it’s likely that officers will have their own political views and affiliations, but these must not affect their professional responsibility to act impartially. Be clear with your officers that whatever views they have, for or against, they are not to express those views in any way when they are in uniform. The same caution should apply to views expressed on social media. If they have shared political messages and identified themselves as an officer, then that will almost certainly be discovered; if they have to arrest someone with opposing views, they may be accused of being politically motivated. So, remind your officers, discuss these risks, and make sure everyone is aware of what the implications are.

Security Operation center Operations Plan / Incident Command System

It is also important to make sure that you have a good template of an operations plan in place, as this will help ensure that you have considered all relevant elements of the operations, including communications, point of contacts and other first responders needed. It is also important to make sure that other departments and agencies that you will be partnering with will be equally prepared and understand the operations of Incident Command.

The priority now: start preparing

This article is only a brief overview, because of the space available, but I hope it serves as a useful introduction to the topic.  The point I want to stress most is that you have an opportunity to prepare your team now, and it’s worth taking. When you get a call out of the blue asking you to plan for a major political rally or Presidential campaign visit, the spotlight will be on you and the stakes will feel high.

But if you get your plans in place now and equip your officers with the resources and confidence they need, then you can look forward to breathing a sigh of relief when everything goes smoothly, and when the event is safely concluded.


About the author: Dr. Jack W. Moorman served 20 years with the City of Raleigh Police Department and 13 years with the NC State University Police Department, retiring as Police Chief in 2019. He has also served as Interim AVC / Chief of Police at North Carolina A&T State University and Interim Director of Public Safety and Risk Management at Presbyterian College. Dr. Moorman served 2 terms on the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) Board of Directors and on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Campus Safety Administrators (NACSA). He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and possesses a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree and a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) from NC State University. He currently serves as a law enforcement consultant and an adjunct professor.



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