Taking a step back helped Philly police keep the peace during Thursday protest

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     Police officers watch as protesters pass by and briefly stop across Philadelphia's City Hall Thursday night. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    Police officers watch as protesters pass by and briefly stop across Philadelphia's City Hall Thursday night. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    As a crowd about 1,000-strong marched through Center City Thursday night, the mood remained  largely calm.

    The organizers, under the name Philly Is Baltimore, sought to express anger over the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in the custody of Baltimore police.

    Some observers say the restrained approach taken by the Philadelphia Police Department helped cool tensions during the Thursday demonstration.

    There’s one image from the protests in Ferguson last summer that has been seared into the minds of  police officials around the country: The sniper perched on top of an armored military-style vehicle.

    It represents an approach to protesters that criminologists say inflames, rather than suppresses, violence.

    “Cops in riot gear and armored vehicles and military-style equipment raises the level of tension,” said  Arcadia University’s John Noakes, who studies how police respond to protests. Ceding the streets to protesters, letting them march peacefully and not having riot gear officers up front are the best ways to keep the peace, he said.

    On Thursday night, Center City was flooded with police cars. There were officers on horses. Some on bikes. Others held batons to barricade the highway. But the armored police? They were there, but sort of hidden. That was intentional, Noakes said.

    “When we’re studying protests, or policing protests, we’ll break off every once in a while and just walk the perimeter a couple blocks in, and that’s when you tend to see them — sitting there waiting for something to happen. So they’re there,” he said. “But they’re not putting them there as the face of the response to protesters.”

    Research on protests points out that crowd violence escalates if people think police are treating them unfairly or if there’s a heightened sense of threat.

    Philadelphia police reported just two arrests in the hours-long protest Thursday. And both of those demonstrators were released from custody hours after their arrest.

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