As Protests For George Floyd Continue Nationwide, All Eyes Are On How Police Respond Images of a burning precinct in Minneapolis raised questions about police tactics during unrest. When emotions are running high, law enforcement has to decide when to stay — and when to go.
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As Protests For George Floyd Continue Nationwide, All Eyes Are On How Police Respond

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As Protests For George Floyd Continue Nationwide, All Eyes Are On How Police Respond

As Protests For George Floyd Continue Nationwide, All Eyes Are On How Police Respond

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests raged across the country yesterday from Portland, Ore., to Atlanta.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Enough is enough. Enough is enough. Enough is enough. Enough is enough.

SIMON: And some protests turned deadly. One Federal Protective Service officer was killed after gunfire broke out at a federal building in Oakland, Calif. Another was injured. And in Detroit, one person was killed when a gunman fired into a crowd from inside a vehicle. More demonstrations are planned across the country today, all in response to the death of George Floyd. A video showing a police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd's neck circulated this week, and that prompted protests in Minneapolis and other cities. NPR's Greg Allen talked to law enforcement experts about the tactics police try to use when faced with angry protests.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The protests that brought the National Guard to Minneapolis began peacefully and quickly escalated. Looters broke into businesses, and buildings and cars were set on fire. Thursday evening, a large crowd surrounded and entered the police department's 3rd Precinct station, setting it on fire. The city's mayor ordered police to evacuate, abandoning the precinct to rioters. Yesterday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said he believed that was a mistake. And that's when he ordered the state police and National Guard to take over.

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TIM WALZ: I'm like all of you watching it. You can't have civil order deteriorate. And then you have to make a calculated decision about, does this force going in there escalate it? Does it stop it? Does it endanger civilians and the force going in there?

ALLEN: Like the governor, Ron Johnson watched it on TV. And for him, it brought back 2014 and another series of protests that turned violent. Johnson, then a captain with the Missouri State Police, was put in charge of quelling escalating protests in Ferguson following the police shooting of Michael Brown. He recalled being faced with a similar decision as protesters there prepared to set fire to a liquor store. He says he was standing on a hill with four SWAT teams ready to charge in and confront the mob.

RON JOHNSON: But then I decided at the last minute that the value of that store did not weigh the value of the lives of those that were breaking in the store, all of the young men and women of law enforcement that were standing on the hill. And so I said no, we're not going to go. And that did not please the men and women that were standing on that hill with me in uniform.

ALLEN: Brian Higgins, former police chief of Bergen County, N.J., agrees. A building can always be replaced, he says. He does have questions about how the police handle the protests earlier before they turn violent. When a protest first forms, he says many departments make sure to have officers in regular uniforms engaging and monitoring the crowd. Police departments have to be prepared if a protest turns violent, keeping officers in riot gear in reserve and not on the scene until they're needed.

BRIAN HIGGINS: The police department just shows up right off the bat with protective helmets and riot gear. They're almost telling the crowd, all right, we're here kind of looking for some action.

ALLEN: The protests first turned violent Tuesday, and police in Minneapolis responded with flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Higgins says those tactics often escalate the violence. The death of George Floyd is the latest in a string of deaths of black men at the hands of police that have long stirred anger and distrust in Minneapolis' African-American community. At a rally Friday, the head of the local NAACP, Leslie Redmond, says this week's violence was, in her words, a longtime coming.

LESLIE REDMOND: I can't tell you how many governors I sat down with, how many mayors we've sat down with. And we've warned them that if you keep murdering black people, the city will burn.

ALLEN: In Ferguson, Ron Johnson says after the state police took over command, he changed tactics. Instead of having the police on one side and protesters on the other, he had officers mixed with the protesters. Doing that, he was able to determine who was there to protest peacefully and who was there, in his words, to create chaos. The key, he says, is to separate the two groups.

JOHNSON: And then once you can do that, then you can get a sense of calm. And those people that are out there protesting their rights and protesting for change - that should take place because they don't want the rioters and the chaos that's there.

ALLEN: In Minneapolis, Johnson says local authorities have taken an important step in acknowledging what protesters are saying and then acting. The most visible action was the arrest and filing of murder charges Friday against former officer Derrick Chauvin. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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