Police focus on safely facilitating right to free expression

This story is adapted from UIPD’s 2017 Year in Review.

URBANA, Ill. — As political demonstrations are becoming larger and more frequent on college campuses across the country, the University of Illinois Police Department’s approach to addressing those demonstrations has evolved.

Lt. John Brown says UIPD has made changes over the past several years to the way it addresses what police now call “First Amendment gatherings.” The focus has shifted from controlling crowds to facilitating individuals’ right to express themselves in a safe manner.

“The previous policy was based on attitudes from 20 years ago,” Brown said. “Those have changed.”

But that approach hinges on community members’ willingness to work with public safety officials and conduct their demonstrations in a way that is consistent with the law and maintains the safety of the general public.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its police department have a good history of working with community organizers to set up safe, peaceful demonstrations where protesters have a chance to voice their opinion and observers have a chance to safely listen. At Illinois, successful public demonstrations like these have become a routine part of daily campus life.

“When they’re willing to work with us and tell us what they need, we can help them accomplish their goals,” Brown said. “We’re not here to put a stop to it.”

A good example was a Jan. 29, 2017, event at Willard Airport where demonstrators gathered to protest political decisions on the national level regarding immigration. Brown said as many as 700 people converged on the airport, and he received inquiries from other departments around the area as to whether UIPD would need assistance controlling the crowd.

That assistance turned out to be unnecessary. With advance notification and good communication between the event organizers and police, everything proceeded smoothly and without issue. Both the demonstrators and police officers knew what to expect, and that reduced the likelihood of negative interactions.

But that does not mean that things always go as planned. There are contingency plans in place if an event were to somehow present a threat to anyone’s safety.

The University of Illinois Police Department has access to staffing from other police agencies and trained crowd-control specialists through a unit known as the Mobile Field Force, which is coordinated by the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System. During a demonstration, people of differing opinions may be separated by fencing or a line of police officers to provide for safe egress and ingress – but in a place that still allows them to effectively express themselves.

“It really comes down to respect,” Brown said. “Demonstrators have a constitutional right to express themselves and engage in vigorous, civil debate. But they do not have the right to harass, block anyone’s path, or threaten others’ safety. And it goes without saying that violence of any kind cannot be tolerated. If those things happen, we’re obligated to take some sort of action.”

Brown added that also is not acceptable to impede anyone else from exercising their right to express themselves.

“If there are two sides to an issue, they have to both have an equal opportunity to voice their opinions,” Brown said.

Brown said police officers always put their personal opinions aside when they are dealing with demonstrations. Decisions on whether to employ crowd-control measures or to take enforcement action – or not – are always made based on what the law says and what is in the best interest of everyone’s safety at that time.

“It’s never personal for us,” Brown said. “We have a duty to protect our citizens’ constitutional right to express themselves, and we also have a duty to protect the public safety of the participants and bystanders. It’s a balancing act, but it’s never based on our personal feelings about the politics involved.”

The key is always patience. Making arrests or introducing crowd-control measures are always a last resort.

“The best outcome for us is when we’re able to have a discussion in advance and figure out how to accomplish everyone’s goals while maintaining the safety of our campus community,” Brown said.