Responding to Civil Unrest: Creating Policies for Maintaining Security and University Support

Here are some of the lessons learned from college campus public safety and security executives who have responded to recent protests and riots.
Published: September 13, 2021

As college classes start up again, so does the potential for security and safety issues to occur at campus events, be they football games, controversial speaker presentations, demonstrations, concerts and more. Additionally, considering the high number of riots, protests and demonstrations on a wide variety of issues that have taken place over the past couple of years, public safety and emergency management departments must be mindful of the security issues that might carry over onto their campus from the surrounding community.

That’s why the 2021 Campus Safety Conference, held in San Antonio, Texas this summer, hosted “Campus Events and Protests: Creating Policies for Maintaining Safety, Security and University Support on Campus.” The workshop featured Paul Denton, who is a consultant with Security Risk Management Consultants; Mark DeRee, who is director of threat intervention services for the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison Police Department; and Ronnell Higgins, Yale University’s director of public safety and chief of police. Consultant Amanda Wright was the moderator.

2020 Minneapolis Social Justice Protests

DeRee kicked off the workshop with an overview of his former department’s experience at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) during the summer of 2020’s social justice protests of the murder of George Floyd. At the time, he was associate director of public safety, which consists of only nonsworn security personnel.

DeRee described his and his department’s experience as the protests broke out and took over much of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The campus is only two miles from the location where Floyd was murdered, two miles from the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct, which was destroyed during the protests, and only a half mile from the Minneapolis First Precinct, which was also under siege.  (You can listen to his presentation at the 2020 winter Campus Safety Online Summit for some of his comments).

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Some of the lessons he and his department learned as a result of the protests include:

  • During the initial stages of the unrest, local media was not present and in future large-scale events, will most likely not be present to provide information on the situation as it unfolds. During the Minneapolis civil unrest event, MCTC’s campus public safety department obtained most of its information from livestreams by independent/citizen journalists, Twitter, Snapchat, RadioLink Radio and police scanner traffic.
  • Younger officers who are social media savvy can help tap into social media feeds.
  • The fact that the Minneapolis protests happened during the COVID-19 pandemic helped because MCTC’s normally 19 publicly accessible doors were already reduced to two, reducing accessibility to protestors.
  • Campus bike patrol was suspended due to harassment of officers.
  • MCTC officers switched to civilian clothing so they wouldn’t be targeted.
  • In preparation for the riots possibly coming on campus, everyone in the department was sent home. Only public safety leadership remained on site.
  • Leadership removed as many items from campus that could be used as projectiles (trash cans, rocks, barricades, etc.) and staged more fire extinguishers around campus.
  • MCTC public safety leadership planned to blend in with the crowd if the campus was breached.
  • Facilities were on-call to assess damage and mitigation.
  • Department leaders covered the ATMS that were visible and turned off lights inside campus buildings to reduce visibility.
  • During large civil unrest events like the ones that happened in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, help most likely won’t be coming from law enforcement, fire and EMS. Campuses will be on their own. DeRee and his staff were informed that if something happened on their campus, no EMS, fire or police would be able to respond.
  • Mutual aid agreements from other cities couldn’t be tapped because those cities were concerned about the safety and security of their own cities.
  • Contract security officers might be pulled from campus to work at other locations. Campuses should check their contracts to ensure their contract security officers can’t be diverted during emergencies.
  • Technology can be a big force multiplier. Security cameras can be used to view remote locations from security operations centers. RadioLink helps with communications.
  • Have fire retardant plywood on-hand to board up campus.
  • Campuses must develop a long-term strategy to respond to civil unrest and obtain necessary support.

2019 Yale-Harvard Football Game Demonstration

Following DeRee, Higgins described how Yale’s police department responded to a November 23, 2019 protest by 70 climate activists at the annual Yale-Harvard football game.

During halftime, the activists came onto the field and unfurled signs and banners with slogans like, “Nobody wins. Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.” They were then spontaneously joined on the field by about 400 other game attendees from the stands, which surprised the demonstration’s organizers. The game attendees who remained in the stands became angry at the 43-minute delay of game caused by the protest, and the entire incident was televised on ESPN.

Despite this, the situation was managed and resolved with no injuries and no reported incidents of violence.

Higgins attributed the positive outcome to the following:

  • Emergency management protocol was followed.
  • Local police followed Yale’s lead.
  • Yale took a “hands-off” approach to managing non-violent students. Officers let them protest for a little while and then asked them to leave or arrested them. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
  • Higgins had relationships with some of the activists. Per their agreement, he arrested some of them as a demonstration to the other protestors and fans on the field.

Additional Event Security Leading Practices 

Higgins’ experience with the Yale football game protest was fortunate, due in great part to good relationships, smart response policies and planning. However, the presenter who followed him, Denton, described one experience he and his former department had at Ohio State University (OSU) in 2015.

OSU had just won the championship football game against Oregon, and students poured onto OSU’s campus to celebrate, with some of them marching to the stadium. Revelers then broke down gates, tore down the stadium’s goal posts and set 89 fires in the community. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowds, and there was a lot of media coverage.

Denton believes more and better planning could have led to a better outcome. “Failure to plan is planning to fail,” he said.

He then presented on leading practices for crowd management and control. Some of Denton’s suggestions included:

  • Allow demonstrators to protest peacefully, as long as it remains safe for them to do so.
  • Community mediators/fan reps/civilians can mediate between police and the crowd.
  • Crowd control police require multiple officers, lots of command and control, and a lot of training. Officers often wear soft uniforms.
  • K9s have a poor image in the U.S. due to their inappropriate use during the civil rights movement. It’s advisable not to use them for crowd control.
  • When issuing warnings, the warnings should be loud and intelligible, may need to be given at multiple locations and in multiple languages. They should also be issued before the use of gas.
  • Remember your policies, plans and procedures. They should be reviewed and approved by administration.
  • Work with local law enforcement before an event.
  • Conduct after-action reviews.

For more information on managing controversial events and issues resulting from civil unrest, please refer to the following articles that Campus Safety has previously published:


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