Law Enforcement Protocols

Agree to protocols between law enforcement and other local officials so that public officials do not work at cross-purposes.

Often the first individuals on the ground helping to defuse community conflict are members of law enforcement. It is important that mayors and other city leaders, both formal and informal, establish a working relationship with law enforcement in order to properly establish rules of engagement and to coordinate the de-escalation measures. The strategy may change depending on whether law enforcement is the lightening rod in the conflict. In all situations, though, a goal should be to help law enforcement be a part of the solution and be viewed by the public in that way.



  • Engage law enforcement early; encourage them to work together with the intervenor and community officials to de-escalate the conflict. Develop protocols – who calls whom and who does what – for each likely situation.
  • Divert those who do not belong in the criminal justice system as much as feasible, both preand post-arrest.
  • Develop a protocol, sensitive to the situation, regarding informing the public. If the public is concerned about whether the mayor is in charge of law enforcement, for example, it may be best for the mayor’s office to issue media releases about police matters. In other situations, police departments may directly stay in touch with the public about what they have learned and their actions.
  • Consider how law enforcement presence will affect efforts to de-escalate in each situation. Will it deter or precipitate violence? Should trained community members stand between demonstrators and law enforcement? Should law enforcement representatives participate as community members in town hall meetings? On the positive side, such participation may give them an opportunity to hear from the other side in an environment where a moderator is present and they can speak directly to residents about their decisions.
  • In situations involving race particularly, consider whether to begin holding regular meetings between members of law enforcement and members of the community. Two law enforcement leaders explain the rationale:

“To say that the minority community has a conflicted relationship with law enforcement is a profound understatement,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She added, “But if you listen closely, you can hear how often both groups are saying the same thing: ‘Don’t look at me and just see the uniform.’ ‘Don’t look at me and assume the worst.’ There is a mutual desire to be understood. We can find commonality from this common ground” (U.S. DOJ COPS, Strengthening the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Communities of Color 2014).

Cincinnati’s police chief, Jeffrey Blackwell, sounded a similar theme: “Policing is all about relationships, and in order to do that, we have to recognize that we have fractures. Be authentic, transparent, and a sustained force in the community and explain your culture. It’s all about how you treat people and the relationships you build” (2014 Conference by Office of Community Policing, U.S. Department of Justice).


Three years after the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, national attention had turned elsewhere. One morning, the National Action Network (“NAN”), a group headed by Rev. Al Sharpton, notified a Sanford official of plans to march to the Sanford courthouse at 6:00 that evening, a Friday, to bring media attention to police actions in Baltimore. Sanford was holding an arts festival that weekend, with 200 vendors setting up in streets that had been closed for the event and thousands of visitors on their way to attend. Fortunately, Sanford had a list of about 25 people – city officials, city and county law enforcement, media relations, permit offices, and more – were ready to deal with urgent issues like this and could be part of handling the NAN march and demonstration in the best possible way. A city official contacted someone at NAN indicating the willingness of the city to cooperate with planning the event and arranging for police protection for demonstrators, and asking if there was a willingness to be flexible about the route to the courthouse. The answer was yes. With quick cooperation among local leaders, the NAN march and arts festival proceeded simultaneously and without conflict that evening, with media connections and law enforcement protections, including police helicopters to ensure the safety of demonstrators, in place.

– Andrew Thomas, Senior Project Manager and mediator, Sanford, Florida.