Protests and Policing in America Today: Five Critical Lessons

Click the video link above for Dr. Abbas’ discussion of the five critical lessons for protests and policing in America in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.

Dr. Hassan Abbas, NESA

The widespread protests across the United States in the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, at the hands of a police officer raises important questions about police professionalism and rule of law. Police organizations across the world and in the US are already under severe stress due to the Covid – 19 challenge. The ongoing protests bring to the limelight how ordinary Americans are registering their anger and frustration at poor policing practices that are being seen as a regular law enforcement feature in certain areas. It is a sensitive issue with implications for racial harmony.

It is important to learn lessons from this unfortunate development and ponder over effective responses. In principle, protests are a sign of a healthy democratic order. Protests are a political tool for sure, but at the core these are also about justice and human dignity. Here are the five critical factors to consider:

  1. A crisis can quickly turn into chaos if people lose hope in rule of law system. From a law enforcement angle, the most effective way to nurture hope and public confidence in rule of law is to utilize a community policing model. The essence of this idea revolves around building trust between police and ordinary citizens. It is about serving people, resolving conflicts peacefully, and helping people feel secure.
  2. Peaceful protests as a reflection of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are a way to strengthen democracy. Protests emphasize the importance of accountability. Use of force to quell protests always backfires as evident from many examples across the world.
  3. The fundamental police principles as framed by Sir Robert Peel, father of modern policing, offer highly valuable lessons for policing challenges today: ‘winning public approval requires hard work to build reputation, enforcing laws impartially, hiring officers who understand community and using force as a last resort.’
  4. The 8 principles of Rule of Law explained by former British judge Tom Bingham are worth internalizing today for all and sundry. The most relevant today of these perhaps is ‘equality before law.’
  5. Freedom of speech and assembly should not be construed as freedom to create chaos or commit crimes. Still, it is unfair to expect those grieving and protesting to ensure that no one takes law into their own hands. This is indeed a collective responsibility, but more importantly state institutions are the ones primarily responsible to ensure that protests are not used by criminal elements for their own ends.

The need for institutional police reforms, especially through introducing community policing protocols in basic police training and ensuring adequate gender and racial representation across law enforcement institutions, is more urgent today than ever before.

References and Sources:

  1. Sir Robert Peel’s Policing Principles
  2. Tom Bingham’s Principles of Rule of Law 
  3. Understanding Community Policing: A Framework for Action, U.S. Department of Justice: 
  4. Why So Many Police are Handling the Protests Wrong 
  5. Policing Protests: Lessons from the Occupy Movement, Ferguson and Beyond: A Guide for Police


The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.