Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters

Several hundred people were marching through downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, last year when a few dozen police officers in riot gear jumped off a city bus and lined up along the march route. It was the fifth consecutive day of protests in the city,…

Several hundred people were marching through downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, last year when a few dozen police officers in riot gear jumped off a city bus and lined up along the march route. It was the fifth consecutive day of protests in the city, where, like in scores of other places across the country, thousands had taken to the streets following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

That night, June 2, protesters peacefully approached the intersection of College and Fourth streets, when suddenly, those at the front of the march turned around and started running back: Officers positioned ahead of them had started firing tear gas and flash-bang devices directly at the advancing crowd. As people ran backward, they were met by the officers who had jumped off the bus, now closing in. Within a few chaotic moments, protesters found themselves caught between a line of cops on one end of the road, a cloud of tear gas on the other, and tall buildings on both sides. As the gas thickened, people began screaming and gasping for air.

“They closed the whole group in between a line of riot officers and a wall of tear gas,” Justin LaFrancois, a local journalist who was livestreaming the protest, told The Intercept. “Nobody ever gave a dispersal order or said where people were supposed to leave from. They blocked all the exits with tear gas, and nobody was going to just run through the tear gas, because if you did, you were getting shot with pepper bullets.”

People in the middle of the crowd began panicking and trampling other people. “There was no way out, it was the most helpless I have ever felt my entire life,” said Justin McErlain, a photographer who was also filming the protest. “I try to stay calm in most situations, I never get too excited. But in that moment, I wasn’t sure if we were getting out of there alive or not.”

“Nobody was going to just run through the tear gas, because if you did, you were getting shot with pepper bullets.”

A third group of officers positioned on the second floor of a parking garage along the protest route started shooting pepper balls at the crowd. “Not only we were getting hit from both sides, we were getting hit from the top as well,” said McErlain. “I felt sick to my stomach out of fear.” A few dozen people tried to escape by crouching to the ground and climbing under the closed gates of the parking garage — something police later described as trespassing. When that group eventually tried to leave, police rushed toward them and again fired pepper balls, said LaFrancois.

“It was terrifying,” he added. “They just trap you in, and you are basically at their disposal.”

In collaboration with the visual investigations team SITU, The Intercept reconstructed the events of that night by mapping footage captured by witnesses and police cameras against a 3D digital model of the urban environment in which the incident unfolded. The reconstruction, which offers multiple perspectives of the same event, shows that police deliberately exposed hundreds of peaceful protesters to tear gas and other “less-than-lethal” weapons within a confined space they had no clear way to escape. The model, combined with officers’ comments caught by their own body cameras, shows that their maneuvers had been intentional and carefully coordinated despite a claim from Charlotte’s then-police chief that his officers had not intended to cause harm.

The Charlotte incident is a particularly brutal example of a tactic police across the country have deployed for years against protesters — and at least a dozen times since last summer’s uprising alone. Known to protesters and civil rights advocates as “kettling,” the crowd control strategy consists of police surrounding a group of people, ostensibly in order to isolate them from a larger crowd for the purpose of making arrests. In practice, the maneuver — which police have described as “corralling,” “containment,” or “encirclement”— traps people in the streets with no immediate way out, indiscriminately subjecting all to the same, oftentimes violent treatment regardless of individual conduct.

Robert Tufano, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, told The Intercept in an email that “the practice of ‘kettling’ is prohibited under the department’s standard operation procedures.” Tufano added that the practice was “not specifically banned” before June 2, 2020, but the guidelines on civil emergency standard operating procedures were since updated to include the ban. Still, the prohibition on kettling is not written into any of the department’s publicly available policies. When asked for clarification, Tufano shared internal guidelines stating that riot control agents, like tear gas, “will not be used to intentionally corral or contain crowds.”

“When a dispersal order is given, the dispersal order and egress routes will be audibly communicated repeatedly, loudly and clearly to the crowd and over the police radio,” Tufano added, citing the new policy. “Designated egress routes will not be intentionally blocked by RCAs or physical presence.”

Kettling is largely unregulated in police departments, and public officials, including mayors and police leaders, have offered wildly inconsistent explanations about when it may be appropriate, what it is, or whether it is even used at all. The police training on kettling that does exist includes little, if any, guidance on how to mitigate its harm, for example by allowing people a way out. Because kettling is essentially a temporary movement of bodies that leaves behind no trace, it can be hard to prove that it happened after the fact. As a result, kettling has not been as widely condemned or legally challenged as compared to other police tactics — even as the use of the practice has proliferated.

“Most of the attention has been placed on tear gas, impact munition, the use of military-style equipment and tactics,” Edward Maguire, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who has written about the policing of protest, told The Intercept. “The tear gas is obvious, there’s the visual that gets captured; the impact munitions and the injuries that result from them make for compelling videos and compelling photographs, and it’s very visual and sort of easy to see and understand.”

There is, however, “no national conversation about kettling,” Maguire added. “Kettling is talked about on a one-off basis, based on a particularly egregious example of its use, but it doesn’t get talked about as a national practice.”

CMPD officers stand in line during a demonstration for the end of police brutaity, with The Spectrum Center behind them near uptown Charlotte, North Carolina on June 2, 2020. - US President Donald Trump said June 2, 2020, that he was now looking for a state to host the Republican National Convention later this summer, after  North Carolina said it could not do so as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. Charlotte was the designated city to hold the Republican convention from August 24 until August 27. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers are seen advancing toward demonstrators in Charlotte, N.C., on June 2, 2020.

Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

“How Do I Get Oxygen?”

A day after the protest, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney defended officers’ actions. “There is nothing to indicate whatsoever that there was intentional abuse on the part of our officers,” he said in a statement. Putney, who stepped down less than a month later, promised an independent investigation and the release of body camera footage to show police’s side of the story.

Police claimed they had responded to reports that the crowd had been “large and hostile” and that someone had hurled bottles toward officers that evening. But the alleged throwing of bottles preceded the kettling by nearly an hour and took place as the protest was moving through a different part of downtown. Those who were caught in the kettle say everyone was peaceful by the time police encircled them — and several videos that captured that moment show a crowd that was chanting and marching in an orderly fashion down the street.

Less than two weeks after the incident, the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation issued a five-page review of the events based largely on police records and interviews with officers. But several witnesses disputed the findings of the report.

Police, for instance, told investigators that the officers atop the garage had been shooting at the walls above the crowd, not directly at people, but LaFrancois, the journalist, recalled seeing people get hit in the face, neck, and shoulders. A police official told state investigators that officers had only fired “approximately 5-6” pepper bullets from the garage’s second floor. But LaFrancois, who returned to the scene a day after the protest, photographed the markings of at least 20 bullets on the walls. “Their investigation was inaccurate,” he told The Intercept.

“You’d have to have a lot of guts to try to run through that.”

The state investigation also found that two exit points had remained open for people to disperse — a conclusion officials cited as evidence that police movements that night didn’t amount to a kettle. But the streets were so filled with tear gas that the routes described by investigators were not visible to the crowd, according to people who were there. “All you see is blurriness,” said McErlain. “You’d have to have a lot of guts to try to run through that.”

In order to leave, protesters would have had to run through a thick cloud of gas. “I don’t define as a clear path one where a peaceful demonstrator has to go through chemical agents,” Luke Largess, an attorney who is representing many of those trapped in the kettle in a federal lawsuit, told The Intercept. “There was no clear path.”

Protesters caught in the kettle described having to make split-second decisions, in a panic, about their safest way out. “You should never be placed in a position where you have to make a decision, ‘How do I get oxygen?’” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union who was trapped in the kettle. “‘How do I get to a safe place where I’m not getting shot with pepper bullets? Do I go into this garage under this door that might crush me?’”

Puckett-Williams added that the officers were clearly “highly trained; they moved very efficiently and effectively. … They didn’t miss a beat.”

In late August, nearly three months after the protest, Charlotte officials released 57 videos captured by police cameras that night. The videos established that the officers’ actions had been premeditated and well-coordinated — a conclusion that is also supported by SITU and The Intercept’s reconstruction of the events. In the videos, officers can be heard describing their intended movements in detail. “We’re gonna push their ass straight up Fourth,” said one officer, who went on to describe the kettle as a “bottleneck.” “As soon as they get up on Fourth, we got ’em bottlenecked now, Rorie’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass. When they start running down, Dance’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass with gas. … We’re gonna fuckin’ pop it up.”

In another video, officers are heard laughing at having forced protesters “on the run.” In yet another, an officer reacts to police firing pepper balls at the crowd: “That was awesome!”

Even after the release of the videos, Charlotte officials denied that what police had staged was a “kettle.” City Council member Ed Driggs instead pointed the blame at the wind, which he said “created the sensation of being in a kettle.” (Driggs did not respond to a request to elaborate on his comment.)

Both McErlain and Puckett-Williams, who are involved with the litigation, said the trauma of the experience continued to hang over them nearly a year later. “As we’re talking, as I’m reliving it, I’m still feeling the same anger,” said McErlain.

Puckett-Williams said that people caught in the kettle were left “irreparably damaged. … We weren’t just afraid, we were terrified that police were going to suffocate us to death, and that we couldn’t do anything about it.”

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 24: Kerr Putney, chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, talks with the media concerning the release of police video from a recent officer involved fatal shooting at the Charlotte Police Department West Service Center September 24, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Protests have disrupted the city since Tuesday night following the shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott at an apartment complex near UNC Charlotte. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney talks with the media concerning the release of police video from a recent officer involved fatal shooting on September 24, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C.

Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty ImagesGetty Images

Controlling the Crowd

Long before they were adopted by police, the mechanics of kettling were deployed by military forces as a way for a smaller force to even out the odds against a larger one. The modern-day iteration of the tactic can be traced back to a 1979 concert in Cincinnati, where 11 people were trampled to death and dozens more injured as they tried to enter the concert venue. That incident helped spur a new field of study to develop ways for officials to handle large crowds. In 1980, a report on the Cincinnati incident for the first time identified the term “crowd management,” and for years law enforcement deployed those principles primarily as a way to safely disperse fans after soccer games and other large events.

Soon, however, police began to take techniques intended to manage nonpolitical mass gatherings and applied them to protests. The first known instance of that dates back to 1986, when officers in Hamburg, Germany, surrounded more than 800 anti-nuclear protesters, trapping them in the streets for up to 13 hours. While German courts determined the subsequent arrests had been unlawful, police in Europe regularly resorted to the tactic through the following decades.

What had been intended as a tool to safely guide people through potentially dangerous overcrowding had become something else entirely: a way to trap them.

“There’s this delineation between managing the crowd and controlling the crowd,” said Brian Higgins, a former New Jersey police chief who now teaches crowd management to federal law enforcement and is an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Managing the crowd is being able to keep it from becoming uncontrollable. If it becomes uncontrollable, then we have crowd control, where the police come in and use other means.”

Kettling, Higgins added, is a way for police to intervene and control a crowd that is becoming unmanageable. “Kettling is identifying the area where the crowd is becoming excited, where it is going from a peaceful protest to a not-so-peaceful protest; it is identifying where the flashpoint is and kind of breaking it off from the big crowd,” he said. “It’s almost like cutting off a fire: If you cut it off, then it can’t spread.”

Over the last couple decades, there have been a number of high-profile kettling incidents. In 2002, police in Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park kettled and then arrested hundreds of anti-war and anti-globalization protesters as well as several passersby, including tourists and at least one vulnerable, elderly man. “There have been several instances where people who got caught up in a kettle are people in wheelchairs, pregnant women, kids,” noted Maguire, the ASU professor. “It’s a really, really dangerous practice. And it can really entrap people who aren’t doing anything wrong.”

The next year, Chicago police kettled and arrested more than 800 protesters at an anti-war protest. During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, police used mesh fencing to surround protesters on multiple occasions. And in Portland, Oregon, in 2017, and then again earlier this year, police trapped protesters in a kettle, only allowing them to leave after they agreed to be photographed and show their IDs.

Kettling has also been used in Europe, most notably during the 2009 G-20 protests in London, when police trapped nearly 10,000 people in the streets for up to seven hours. A newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, died after being struck by an officer as he tried to find a way out of that kettle, prompting an official inquiry that concluded kettling was an “inadequate” tactic belonging to a “different era.” The London case moved all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in favor of police.

“Police are always trying to undermine the idea that they are intervening politically in a protest, but they absolutely are.”

Police who kettle protesters often say that they were reacting to violent acts by people in the crowd — usually the hurling of bottles, rocks, or other objects. But rather than singling out those individuals and separating them from the larger group, kettling traps everyone in the vicinity and indiscriminately subjects them all to the same consequences, whether prolonged detention, arrest, or exposure to tear gas or other weapons. Far from “cutting off” growing tensions within a crowd, the tactic tends to have the opposite effect: to create instant panic, claustrophobia, and chaos.

“Kettling has a political effect,” Chris Zebrowski, a political science professor and the director of the Centre for Security Studies at Loughborough University in the U.K., told The Intercept. “Police are always trying to undermine the idea that they are intervening politically in a protest, but they absolutely are.”

Zebrowski, the co-author of an academic paper on kettling, said that police guidelines on the tactic are rarely codified and that his review of the policies of several police departments for guidance on kettling yielded only scant mentions. Instead, knowledge about the practice seemed to be imparted on officers informally, Zebrowski found. For example, when he interviewed a senior U.K. police official and early proponent of the tactic, the officer described the use of kettling “as a matter of intuition, gut feelings,” Zebrowski said.

“One of our big questions was, what kind of training do police receive with regards to this sort of stuff? What does it say in the guidelines? When should a kettle be imposed? When should it be taken off?” he said. “The police are really, really reluctant to have regulations imposed on them. They like this idea that they have this experiential knowledge and they need to be the judge of these sorts of situations.”

New York police block protesters and activists crossing the Manhattan Bridge from entering the borough Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in New York. An 8 p.m. curfew was imposed following unrest on recent nights. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

New York police block protesters and activists crossing the Manhattan Bridge on June 2, 2020, in New York City.

Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP

A Planned Assault

The use of kettling was a flashpoint in protests across the country last summer, particularly in New York. On the same day as the Charlotte incident, New York police blocked off hundreds of people on the Manhattan Bridge, prompting elected officials to warn in real time of the dangers of such a maneuver. A day later, New York police kettled a group of peaceful protesters at a rally in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza. And on June 4, they once again trapped hundreds of people who were marching through the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx. With at least 263 arrests and at least 61 injuries, the incident, which a Human Rights Watch investigation billed a “planned assault” on peaceful protesters, was one of the most violent instances of police repression in recent city memory.

Despite overwhelming evidence of police’s reliance on kettling, New York Police Department officials repeatedly denied that they use the tactic at all.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea testified before the New York State Attorney General’s Office that “he had never heard of the term kettling until after the protests began, but that in certain instances, kettling of protesters would be appropriate.” Senior NYPD officials told the Department of Investigation, an independent agency overseeing city government, that protesters “generally should be and were offered opportunities to leave when within a police formation,” a claim that was disproved by several videos and witness accounts.

In November, the NYPD’s chief of patrol, Juanita Holmes, denied that the department had ever engaged in any kettling at all. “I don’t even know what that is unless it’s related to cows,” Holmes said at a press conference a day after police kettled post-election protesters in lower Manhattan. “Kettling is not used by this department, it is not in any of our patrol guides nor is it part of our training.” And last month, Shea doubled down at a City Council hearing, claiming, falsely, that “kettling has never been something that has been taught or allowed within the New York City Police Department.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, for his part, said last year that “kettling is not an acceptable practice,” even as he had repeatedly defended police accused of doing just that.

But the NYPD’s denial is only a semantic one: The department does use the tactic protesters refer to as kettling; it just calls it “encirclement.”

As a series of internal documents obtained by The Intercept reveal, the NYPD trains officers in a wide-ranging series of crowd-control tactical maneuvers, including formations for officers on foot, on bikes, and in cars. Those formations include multiple variations of kettling, which the documents suggest are used when “there is a need to take a group of people into custody.” The training documents, which include diagrams illustrating how kettling works, stress that the formation should be “tight,” with officers lined up “almost shoulder to shoulder.” They make no mention of leaving exit routes available to the people trapped within.

SRG-1

Screenshot of an encirclement formation from the Strategic Response Group’s field force training module.

Image: NYPD

Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a NYPD spokesperson, confirmed to The Intercept that the department uses a tactic it calls “encirclement” though she denied it is the same as kettling. 

“Kettling is not a term known to the NYPD. It has never been referenced in our training or procedures. It is not a crowd control tactic for us,” McRorie wrote. “However a tactic known as ‘encirclement’ is used in rare circumstances where a determination is made to make lawful arrests of a group of protesters who have received warnings and refused to comply with lawful orders. This tactic is meant to help ensure the safety of officers but also demonstrators during those arrests to limit the number of people within a given perimeter during an arrest situation.”

In a lawsuit against the NYPD for its violence during the Floyd protests, New York Attorney General Letitia James accused the police department of using kettling “to corral and detain individuals who were peacefully protesting in order to impede constitutionally-protected assemblies.”

That officials would “deny that they’re even doing what we can all see they are doing is an example of the NYPD being unwilling and unable to police themselves and take accountability for their actions,” said Molly Biklen, deputy legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has also sued the NYPD for using excessive force against protesters last year.

SRG

Screenshot of a tactical maneuver from the Strategic Response Group’s guide.

Image: NYPD

There were also reports of kettling at protests during and since last summer in PhiladelphiaHoustonDallas; AtlantaChicagoLos Angeles; SeattleDes Moines, Iowa; and Portland, Oregon. But while police across the U.S. have kettled protesters frequently, there is little official acknowledgement of the tactic, let alone any nationally recognized standards about best practices for its use.

The Intercept surveyed the police departments of the 20 largest cities in the country, as well as several others with reported incidents of kettling, to ask about their policies relating to the tactic. The departments that responded offered a range of inconsistent guidelines: some denying they allow kettling, others outlining limitations to its use, and others still making no explicit reference to it at all. Most departments’ policies include guidelines on dispersal orders and reminders of protesters’ constitutional rights, but few get into detail about what officers are allowed to do in order to manage a crowd.

Of the police departments that responded to The Intercept, only the San Diego Police Department has an explicit policy on kettling in their publicly available guidelines. The policy states that under certain circumstances, “officers may contain the crowd or a portion of the crowd for purposes of making multiple, simultaneous arrests” but notes that this technique must not be used in response to nonviolent civil disobedience or simply to disperse a crowd.

A spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau acknowledged that police kettled people at a recent protest. “It is still a tactic that can be used under certain circumstances at the direction of the Incident Commander,” the spokesperson wrote. On March 31, officers responding to individuals in a crowd who were breaking windows “created a perimeter around the group” police said. Those caught within that kettle, police added, were told “they were being detained for investigation of crimes, they were not free to leave, and they should comply with officers’ lawful orders. Failure to comply may result in arrest or force being used against them to include, but not limited to, crowd control agents, impact weapons, or tear gas.” Police added that legal observers, press, and anyone who was medically fragile or in need of immediate medical attention were invited to leave the kettle; those who were detained were identified and photographed as part of a criminal investigation.

Other departments — like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta — denied they train officers on the use of kettling. A spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department pushed back against reports that officers there kettled people during the Floyd protests. “We did not participate in this type of crowd control tactic last year,” the spokesperson wrote, “even though those allegations were made.”

“We do not train on this,” a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department, which was also accused of kettling protesters last summer, wrote to The Intercept. “We train to allow protestors an avenue of egress.”

SLUG-P/Protests--DATE-9/27/2002--LOCATION-Downtown, Washington, DC--PHOTOGRAPHER-MARVIN JOSEPH/TWP--CAPTION-An IMF protestor (far right) pleads with DC police officers to let him and others leave Pershing Park. THundreds of IMF protesters were detained and arrested because they didn't have a permit to have a demonstration. ORG XMIT: breaking news  (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

An anti-IMF protester pleads with D.C. police officers to let him and others leave Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27, 2002.

Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Im

“Where Do The People Go?”

Because the most egregious incidents of police kettling have included additional use of force, like tear gas and beatings, many of the legal challenges to police actions have focused on those more clearly definable abuses rather than on the maneuver that enabled them.

A class-action lawsuit filed in the aftermath of the 2002 Pershing Park incident led to a $8 million settlement with kettled protesters, and in Chicago, a judge ruled that the arrests at the 2003 anti-war protest lacked probable cause, leading to a $6.2 million settlement. Lawsuits involving kettling incidents were also filed after the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York and after kettling incidents in Portland and St. Louis. But those lawsuits mostly focused on a host of abuses that followed the kettling.

“It’s kind of impossible to just study the kettle on its own, or to make a legal or even ethical judgment of it in the abstract, because it is always being used in conjunction with these other techniques,” said Zebrowski, citing tear gas and violent arrests as an example. He noted that while the tactic may be “less explicitly violent” than others used by police, it is regularly deployed in conjunction with them, erasing the distinction.

“As a technique itself, it imposes a kind of imprisonment, and anyone within it is very vulnerable to all these other techniques. So it’s almost enhancing all of these other techniques.”

“There are circumstances where the kettling itself is going to become a constitutional violation.”

Still, some attorneys question the legality of kettling on its own, which they say jeopardizes the rights of assembly and expression and indiscriminately subjects people to detention and arrest — a potential violation of constitutional protections against illegal searches, as well as of the right to due process. “There are circumstances where the kettling itself is going to become a constitutional violation,” said Biklen, the NYCLU attorney. “But this summer, what it really was, is that it led almost immediately to excessive force and unconstitutional arrests.”

Kettling, Biklen added, functioned as a trigger that regularly resulted in an escalation. “The kettling really lights the match for pretty extreme police violence,” she said.

Javad Khazaeli, a St. Louis-based attorney who has sued that city and dozens of individual officers over a 2017 incident in which police kettled, beat, and arrested dozens of peaceful protesters, argued that a kettle subjects a whole crowd to the same punishment with no individualized discernment, enough grounds for legal action even without the violence that often follows. “In U.S. law, before you arrest somebody, you have to have individualized knowledge that they broke the law, there’s no such a thing as guilt by association,” he said, comparing kettling to the use of large circular nets to catch tuna but trapping protected species in the process. “That’s the problem with kettling: You’re arresting a whole bunch of people without making any determination as to whether or not they broke the law.”

In the St. Louis case, there was not a single allegation that any of the 123 people kettled and arrested as they protested the acquittal of an officer who had killed a Black man were directly involved in any property damage or violence, Khazaeli said. Instead, police “arrested them for not leaving an area that they trapped them in and wouldn’t let them leave.” Those mass arrests were likely illegal, Khazaeli added, although his lawsuit focuses mostly on the police violence that followed. “It was a kettle and then a beatdown,” he said.

Some critics of kettling concede that there may be circumstances under which the tactic could be appropriate and even necessary, particularly when compared to the alternatives available to police.

“If you don’t allow the police to kettle, to cordon against violent assemblies, then what tactics do you use?” said Stuart Casey-Maslen, an international human rights law professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. “You don’t want them to be having to recur to rubber-coated metal bullets, let alone conventional ammunition, and tear gas is extremely problematic,” he added, noting that human rights practitioners are divided on a practice that a top United Nations official has condemned. “If you cancel out kettling, you have got to look at what options the police are going to return to, and none of them are particularly pretty in human rights terms or in terms of potential deaths and serious injuries.”

Maguire, who has trained law enforcement officers on protest response, argued that kettling should rarely be used, and only after police have given a lawful order to disperse, audible warning, and a meaningful opportunity to leave. If all such considerations are in place, police may legally, and as orderly as possible, arrest those remaining, he added, noting that the only purpose of a kettle should be a lawful arrest. Even then, violence against a kettled crowd is “never appropriate,” he stressed. “Kettling has a place in handling civil disturbances, but it’s a very specific, narrow place,” Maguire said. “The vast majority of its use is not under those conditions. It’s overused. And it’s typically used to pen in protesters when there has not been a lawful order to disperse.”

Others in law enforcement questioned the logic of a practice that often results in the opposite effect of its stated purpose.

Isaiah McKinnon, a former Detroit police chief who was an officer during the 1967 riots, noted that police regularly exacerbate situations they are supposed to diffuse. Kettling, he added, does just that. “If you have a group of officers in one direction, and you have a group of officers behind them, where do the people go?” he said, noting that the single most important thing police must do in a kettle is to ensure that people have a safe way out.

“The whole idea behind it is to clear the streets and to make everything safe,” McKinnon added. “If you force people into a scenario where they can’t retreat, then what’s expected of people? Are they supposed to lie down and not do anything?”

CMPD officers carry a person they detained during a protest to end of police brutaity in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina on June 2, 2020. - US President Donald Trump said June 2, 2020, that he was now looking for a state to host the Republican National Convention later this summer, after  North Carolina said it could not do so as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. Charlotte was the designated city to hold the Republican convention from August 24 until August 27. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)

CMPD officers physically detain a protester during a demonstration against police brutality in Charlotte, N.C., on June 2, 2020.

Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

Changing the Culture

In Charlotte, none of the officers involved in the June 2 kettle were fired. Two supervisors who coordinated police response that night and who were named in the released body-camera videos were quietly transferred to different jobs within the department, according to internal documents reviewed by The Intercept. The officer whose crude comments were caught on camera received a two-week suspension.

But the events of that night have left a deep wound in a city where Floyd’s killing has resurfaced long-simmering tensions between mostly Black residents and police.

The viciousness of police’s attack on protesters that night prompted widespread, though not unanimous, condemnation from elected officials. Less than a week after the incident, Charlotte City Council passed a budget that eliminated funding for the purchase of chemical agents for crowd control purposes. A judge issued a temporary restraining order restricting the use of tear gas. And city officials have undertaken a broad review of public safety practices in the city. CMPD has committed to updated policies and procedures around dispersal orders, banned the use of tear gas for crowd dispersal, equipped all mobile field forces with body cameras, and required that the cameras be activated and turned on when officers are actively engaged with the public, wrote Tufano, the department spokesperson.

“Because they never acknowledged that this was kettling, they haven’t come out and said that there won’t be kettling in the future,” said Irena Como, a senior attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina, which is also involved in litigation against the city over police actions on June 2, 2020.

Police critics welcomed the reckoning ushered in by the Floyd protests but warned against piecemeal fixes to policies that do not substantially overhaul police’s role in the city as a whole. “If you take away kettling, you still have the things they do with the bikes, smacking people in the shins with pedals and wheels and things like that,” said Braxton Winston, a Charlotte protester now in his second term on City Council. “The bigger picture is reassessing and resetting government’s role in ensuring community safety.”

Focusing on narrow calls to reform or regulate specific tactics — from chokeholds to kettling — risks getting “into a level of semantics and specificity that allows changes to occur without the culture, or the overall flavor of the tactic changing,” Winston added. “You need a comprehensive reset about how you look at how government provides services around community safety. Changing any one policy at any given time is not going to produce the results that are necessary.”

It also won’t erase the experience of those trapped in that kettle last year. “What they did to us, I believe, is use illegal war tactics on their own citizens,” said McErlain, the photographer.

“There are not enough money or injunctions that could ever change what happened to us that night; we were changed forever,” echoed Puckett-Williams, of the ACLU. “How does a community ever trust people who laid a trap for them, to hurt them?”


This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Alice Speri.


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Alice Speri | Radio Free (2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00) » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/.
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" » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters." Alice Speri | Radio Free - Wednesday June 2, 2021, https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/
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Alice Speri | Radio Free Wednesday June 2, 2021 » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters., viewed 2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00,<https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/>
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Alice Speri | Radio Free - » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters. [Internet]. [Accessed 2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00]. Available from: https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/
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" » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters." Alice Speri | Radio Free - Accessed 2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00. https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/
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" » Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters." Alice Speri | Radio Free [Online]. Available: https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/. [Accessed: 2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00]
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» Ambushed by the Cops: When Police Deliberately Trap Peaceful Protesters | Alice Speri | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2021/06/02/ambushed-by-the-cops-when-police-deliberately-trap-peaceful-protesters/ | 2021-12-02T00:59:00+00:00
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