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Town Hall Meetings

Within the past six months law enforcement officers have been subjected to an area where we have little experience and training - town hall meetings. Meetings such as these have occurred since the creation of our great country. We are dealing with upset citizens from our cities and counties who are, to a certain degree, folks from outside our jurisdiction. During the meetings we are there to protect the public from harm, others, and each other.

Some of us are old enough to remember the protests in the 50s and 60s. It was the time of social change that was long overdue. During protests people were beaten, K-9s were allowed to bite them, and deaths occurred outside of non violent protest. These are well documented in history. Prosecutions from acts that occurred in that era are ongoing fifty years later.

Move to the late 60s and early 70s there were the protests against the Vietnam War. Most of these were peaceful as they were conducted by pacifists. Meetings during this time occasionally got out of hand and were dealt with swiftly. Among the worst adversarial contact was the shooting of four students at Kent State College in Ohio. I can vividly recall the photographs of that day. I will never forget them. During the Vietnam era police showed restraint compared to the violence over civil rights. Police learned a lot in the years leading up to Vietnam.

In today's environment we are in a mess. The economy is bad; people are losing their homes and jobs. The baby boomers are coming into middle age with added worries of housing and health care.

News information is being put out instantly and to a degree of inaccuracy. There is little follow up to the stories that reveal there are always two sides of the story (well sometimes three sides). No waiting for newscasts or papers. Some of the information is being released in error causing a ripple effect to citizens who over react. Looking at these situations as they develop are serious issues we must address.

Most police departments are not adequately trained to handle civilian unrest. For most of us the state or federal department of corrections in any government are the experts in this area. They train extensively for these situations inside the prisons. We need to address the problem with strategies and techniques to deal with it. Direct law enforcement should train and interact with corrections. They are a valuable resource that should be utilized.

Officers are being thrust into situations that may be intentionally or unintentionally cause confrontation on both sides. In some cases officials may be set up. Town hall meetings are held for citizens to have their voices and concerns heard. To add to the confusion most ground rules are made as you go by organizers of the events. They are well meaning but, ground rules must be set in place and understood.

A few problems that cause unrest are prohibition of topics, recording devices, cameras, political groups, and diverse issues to name just a few. Opening meetings with an agenda are public forums. Allowing for open forum after the initial program is an open door. It is open to any topic and there are a lot of sensitive topics out there today. Once the forum steers to a path that is a hot subject a decision may be made to close the door. As law enforcement officers we know when the door is open to step in on the stand right? Is there a difference?

Citizens are asked to leave; that results in unrest. Citizen's refusal to do so results in officers being called to escort them out of the forum. Does the first amendment come into play? Are we as law enforcement officers mandated to ensure the rights of all? What if a person comes into the building with a video camera and the officer is ordered to remove the person and seize the camera? Are we put into a compromising situation?

How can we protect ourselves from these situations? It all begins with planning. I am a proponent of the National Incident Management System. Utilizing NIMS brings most parties to the table to discuss all known problems and issues. We also will have joint efforts in place to handle any problems that come up. Issues are: who will be there? Is the event dealing with a hot topic or, simply a meeting to bring the community up to date about the actions of our elected officials? During the planning stages insure duties and responsibilities; and answer the question in advance - are our actions within the confines of local, state, federal guidelines, and ultimately the constitution?