Two days into the May 2020 George Floyd riots in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, hundreds (on the way to ~1,500) of properties were burning, with smoke visible on the horizon. Top leaders appeared on television stating that law and order were breaking down and urging calm within the community. Based on media reports, there were a few places volunteers could help. One was in watching pandemic-vacated buildings, schools, churches, and grocery stores that were being systematically firebombed and looted. This was beneficial as volunteers deployed and were able to save some buildings such as a popular local Mexican restaurant complex near St. Paul (El Burrito Mercado) and a grocery store in Minneapolis. Another way in which volunteers could help was in intelligence gathering.
Historically, amateur radio volunteers were the emergency management community’s essential radio people. In Minnesota, for instance, 100 Amateur Radio volunteers run a medical command center and family reunification service for the largest outdoor sporting event in the state, working alongside a score of agencies. However, with modern public safety radio systems and updated cellular networks, these volunteers now play a much smaller role day to day. In 2018/2019, two area emergency managers directly said, “We don’t have time for volunteers.” According to the 2018 SAFECOM Nationwide survey, only 7% of public safety organizations trained with the private sector or nongovernmental organizations.
Much of the hesitation for using volunteer resources is fear of liability, which is not trivial. For example, the legal manual the Federal Emergency Management Agency created for Citizen Corps is 92 pages. There is a long list of additional issues that arise when considering volunteers in policing: arming law enforcement volunteers, training gaps, ability to assign volunteers to duty, etc. As another example, thousands of civilian volunteers successfully supported emergency services during the 1940/1941 Battle of Britain, when around 8,000 buildings a day were being damaged by bombs and fires. In July 1939, the Auxiliary Fire Service had 138,000 members.
Unfortunately, with no framework in place, efforts to provide the services of amateur radio operators and other volunteers during the riots were unsuccessful. Some government officials entertained the idea but politely declined. With the release of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) after action report from the Los Angeles George Floyd protests, a few possible roles for volunteers in civil disturbances seem obvious. One is in intelligence gathering.
A stock plot feature in old television police shows is the confidential informant, who in return for a small fee or not being arrested would turn over critical information. In modern times, department personnel sit in front of computer screens with an artificial intelligence application that can pinpoint criminal activity in real time (consider fusion centers, such as in Washington, DC, which can play a critical role in intelligence gathering).
Crowdsourcing, logistics, and intelligence gathering are ways in which volunteers can support policing efforts and build greater community resilience.
Leveraging a Large Support System
Crowdsourcing applications, although flawed (e.g., racial profiling), suggest a ground truth reporting system – possibly with trusted, trained observers – could be developed. Individuals can safely report what they see out the window, and licensed officers are not needed to operate this process. Media accounts of vehicles without license plates driven by out-of-town criminals were rampant during the Minnesota riots.
The other opportunity for volunteer support is in logistics. As noted in a post-incident report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, nearly 95% of the demonstrations in the summer of 2020 were peaceful, with only about 5% involving acts of violence. With a small percentage of criminals and anarchists doing most of the serious damage, this presents a good opportunity for volunteers to provide logistical support to law enforcement efforts. The LAPD report says that about 50-80 officers were needed to manage temporary jails, where they would process the intake of 200-300 arrestees per hour and await prisoner transports. If the hardened dangerous criminals were sent directly to the county jail and the hundreds of other people arrested for blocking the freeway were sorted, the mass movement, feeding, and processing of protestors could be safely run by non-licensed individuals.
The warrior police model does not appear to be as effective in protest scenarios as guardian policing. For demonstrations, as with other large public events, normal event organizing methods could be used. However, this is a struggle and a large role change for some agencies. As mentioned in the LAPD report, the Incident Command System has been a standard public safety training focus for decades but is not, by itself, a panacea. It also is sometimes ignored in real-world events.
A volunteer branch stood up for such events would be valuable. Alongside the existing chain of command, volunteers could assist with intelligence gathering and suspicious activity reporting to more rapidly help identify and stop bad actors before an incident occurs. Rather than saying, “I’m in charge,” agencies should refocus on the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Unfortunately, multiple chains of command can introduce conflicting agendas and authorities among overlapping jurisdictions. For example, although NIMS (which originated in the fire service) is broadly accepted across most emergency response agencies, law enforcement has perhaps been slower to embrace it.
Building Trust & Filling Gaps
The term “force multiplier” in the military sense is not applicable to public order policing with regard to volunteers. The use of armed volunteers on the front lines has obvious risks. Law enforcement is incredibly complex and subtle, and volunteers would not have near the level of training and experience needed to successfully perform the required tasks. The volunteers could, however, provide a surge of support. As an example, the U.S. Coast Guard has for decades handed over the entire recreational boating safety mission to The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, freeing active-duty team members to focus on law enforcement and other more hazardous duties. At a Minneapolis-area sheriff office, the communications and water patrol units are run by volunteers.
Human intelligence and trust are required for effective public order policing. Aloof, hardened tactics are proving to be much less effective. Many cities are struggling in this area. Volunteers though do not represent as much of a security risk as is often portrayed. The daunting potential liability of enhancing law enforcement efforts with volunteers could be managed (possibly via legislation). The key goal should be to enable highly trained officers to sleep when off duty and apprehend criminals when on duty rather than typing reports, answering phones in the emergency operations center, or supervising bathroom breaks at the fairgrounds. Volunteers could fill some gaps by performing basic tasks and reporting suspicious activities to help law enforcement officers focus on the highly skilled jobs they were trained to do.
Erik Westgard, MBA, NY9D teaches digital strategy in the College of Management at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis. He coordinates ham radio volunteers for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, Red, White & Boom Half Marathon, and the Loppet City of Lakes Winter Festival. His most recent project is the conversion of a dozen surplus construction light tower trailers into mesh networking tower generator units to support events and Minnesota VOAD.