The Monday morning quarterbacking started early Saturday for Charlottesville police as scenes of chaos in the otherwise quaint college town played out on televisions and smart phones around the globe.
And that was before a Nazi sympathizer from Ohio plowed his car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others, some seriously. White supremacists who had gathered in Charlottesvile for a “Unite the Right” rally faced off against counter-demonstrators, some representing the militant anti-fascist “antifa” movement” exchanging fisticuffs and insults in the middle of the street as if they were filming an episode of “Game of Thrones.”
It left many wondering, where were the police?
In metro Atlanta, law enforcement is confident they can handle the kind of volatile protests that overwhelmed their counterparts in Charlottesville. Experts say Atlanta — which has seen its own share of racially-charged demonstrations over the years — has been successful by employing the time-tested best practice of keeping the two sides apart.
It was a strategy effectively deployed in some recent protests featuring white supremacists and counterdemonstrators at Stone Mountain.
But it’s not always as easy as it sounds, said Dean Dabney, a professor at Georgia State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and an expert on police operations.
“You’ve got to try and control the contact between the two groups,” said Dabney, who has consulted with Atlanta police on protest strategies. “Try to minimize their presence, if that’s going to inflame things.”
For whatever reason, that failed to happen over the weekend in Virginia.
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas defended his department’s planning and response at a press conference Monday, telling reporters, “We had a very large footprint.”
But Thomas said police were hamstrung by demonstrators who ignored staging agreements with law enforcement.
“We did make attempts to keep the two sides separate,” he said. “However we can’t control how people enter the park.”
Dabney said it’s crucial that police be nimble.
“What you usually see is tactical forces between the two groups, tactical forces flanking them, ready to move in,” he said.
If contact is made between the two groups, best practices call for a “divide and conquer” strategy, Dabney said, with officers quickly removing troublemakers.
“As a general rule, you want to be present but not confrontational,” he said.
That strategy was on display Sunday night in Atlanta when antifa-affiliated protesters marched from downtown to Piedmont Park, where they defaced what they thought was a Confederate statute. Ironically, the “Peace Monument” they spray painted was dedicated to post-Civil War reconciliation.
Atlanta police made a tactical decision to give the protesters some space “as long as they remained peaceful,” APD spokesman Carlos Campos said.
“We are intentional in our decision-making and do not want to escalate a situation by giving the appearance of unnecessarily presenting ourselves in a military fashion,” he said.
Former police officer Lance LoRusso, now an attorney who often represents officers accused of excessive use of force, said that strategy can backfire.
“It’s a no-win situation,” said LoRusso, who blames critics of police tactics in Ferguson, an outgrowth of the unrest that transpired in that Missouri city following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white officer. Police were criticized for their aggressive approach to dealing with unruly demonstrators. A push for de-militarization and de-escalation followed, one LoRusso said puts cops in an untenable situation.
“They were apparently trying to take a minimalist approach (in Charlottesville) and this is what happens,” he said. “Use of force is never going to look good to the public because they don’t understand why it’s necessary.”
There’s an extra sensitivity in Atlanta due to the city’s heritage as the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Police in Atlanta have always felt a dual responsibility to let protests breathe but not let them turn violent, Campos said.
“The police department’s role is to keep peace, and work to avoid damage to property and harm to individuals,” he said. “We monitor these demonstrations closely and make judgment calls on when it is appropriate to intervene, or make arrests when lawlessness occurs.”
The city has sometimes gone to great lengths to make that happen. Back in 1990, about 2,600 state, city and federal law enforcement officers shielded a white supremacist from Mississippi and four followers from a volatile collection of counter-demonstrators as they staged an incendiary protest just 400 feet from the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It didn’t come cheaply, costing the city and state more than $1 million.
“What happened in Charlottesville was an affirmation of the importance of sequestration,” said former Atlanta Police deputy chief Lou Arcangeli, who was among the officers deployed on that cold January afternoon 27 years ago.
Ultimately, though, police are often faced with a judgment call on dealing with protesters that can easily go either way.
“It’s a delicate balance that’s easy to second guess,” Arcangeli said. “Your choices are to engage and risk more violence or to disengage and take a chance that things will calm down. But if that’s your call, you better have a back-up plan in place. Mobs are infectious, and they spread fast.”