Protests on Campus – Preparing for Before, During and After

By Lt. Joseph Pangaro, CSO, CPM


Protests on campuses are nothing new, they have been with us for generations. What is different now is the recent uptick in the violence we see during a protest. Social changes, political changes, world events, and other trends in societal norms, beliefs, and attitudes combined with the stress of our modern world have created an atmosphere for violence.      


In our modern world, there is an expected level of care that every institution must provide to its students, staff, and visitors. We must take care in advance of any kind of event taking place on our campuses to ensure we have prepared ourselves for any scenario that may take place. We must consider our plans, preparation, and responses to both non-violent and violent events- failure to do so can be catastrophic to life, limb, and property. 


Part of the bedrock of our society is the right of people to express their concerns in private and in public, to make their voices heard on topics that affect their lives, and to advocate for change, vent anger, grieve, or to celebrate.  A positive demonstration or protest can have good effects on a campus, it can bring people together, clarify a point of view, or help heal a wound.  


When planning for a protest or demonstration, we need to understand the mindset of the participants so we can plan properly. Concerns about a positive event, one with no violence, can include many of the same things we look at for addressing a violent one. The difference can be in the consequences of NOT being prepared if the protest turns violent. Because of that reality, we will cover both types simultaneously.


What we need to consider and cover as part of our planning can include planning, preparation, training, performance, handling problems, responding to danger/violence, securing the location, moving people, addressing injuries, and recovery from known and unknown events.   


There are things to consider before the event. First, we must break down the event into two categories and address each one individually.


  • The Known Event- This is a protest or demonstration that we know about in advance. It may have been publicized, posters can be put up, and other notifications made to let people know about the event and get them to attend.
  • The Unknown or Unexpected Event-POP UP

This is a protest or demonstration that happens organically based on immediate events in the city, state, nation, or the world. These events can be based on social incidents, cultural events, violence outside of your campus, national conversations, or protests outside of your area that begin to spread across your community. They can happen quickly.


The key to a proper response to either of these kinds of events is being prepared in advance.   

Let’s look at the known event, There are some steps we can take to prepare ourselves and our organizations, such as:      

  • Review the announcements- posters, social media, newspaper articles, and others looking for insight into potential problems.
  • Understand the event and the issues present to help you plan the response.
  • Know who is coming and who is expected to come.
  • Investigate previous similar events for lessons learned.
  • Gather all possible intelligence.


With a known event or an unknown event, we must have a process to prepare for them. The known event gives us some time to prepare, assess, and act before anything takes place. The unknown event requires the same actions on your part, but if they are not considered and planned for in advance you can be caught off guard and unprepared to properly handle the events as they unfold. This can lead to additional violence, injury, and property destruction.    


Getting Ready for Each Kind of Event:


  • The Known Event

Based on your pre-event information and investigation you begin to develop your plan for handling the activities, how you will deploy your personnel, train your staff, and respond to potential problems that can arise.


  • The Unknown or POP-UP event

You must have plans, policy, training, and equipment ready and at hand to be activated the minute we get indications of potential trouble.  


One of the next main steps in preparation is to identify areas of concern.


The concepts of preparation and planning can be overwhelming if we don’t see them as a priority. If seen as a priority, we can provide the time and resources needed to properly consider all possibilities, engage our teams to work together, dedicate time for training, and obtain the required supplies, equipment, technology, and assistance we need in advance of any problems.


This is Key.


The question we must ask then is how to identify areas of concern. A simple and easy way to consider how to identify areas of concern is this:


Think of the old saying “Murphy’s Law”, which is a supposed law of nature, the effect that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. **

** Definition from Oxford Languages 


With that definition in mind, we set out to look for areas of concern.


What This Means For Us is This:

  • Plan on a worst-case scenario. (for non-violent and violent events)
  • Consider the unexpected. Do we create barriers?
  • Conduct “What if” sessions.
  • Go outside of your own experience (Lessons Learned).
  • Conduct a Tabletop drill.
  • Better to be overprepared than underprepared.


Some of the Concerns to Address Before the Event:

  • Security personnel- uniform and undercover
  • Pre-event training- Laws, Policy, Procedure, First-Aid
  • Pre-event route review (Bricks/Bottles/Weapons)
  • Staging places- Incident command/Reinforcements/Incoming help/First Aid
  • Equipment- Tech/ Cameras/Riot gear/Gas/Pepper Spray/Shields
  • Route with escapes for protesters
  • Securing facilities along the way.
  • Fast response teams
  • Arrests
  • Damage to public property
  • Shots fired/Lone wolf/other (Technology)
  • Overcrowding in areas
  • Communications
  • Emergency responses to fire, explosion, shots fired, knife assault, other weapons.
  • Outside assistance (who, where from, Financials MOAs)


The next considerations during an event are related to the people at the event.  Once an event gets started there are considerations for response, but we must also understand the protesters and how they are reacting to the event as well.

The term “Mob Mentality” and how it affects crowds of people is well defined and has been studied for many years and in many considerations. Failure to understand this concept can lead to failure of plans but, if understood, can help you see coming problems and react properly.  


What is Mob Mentality?

As described by Gustav Le Bon in his book on the topic, “The Crowd” we get a better understanding of how people might react in a crowd and what to prepare for

(Wikipedia reference:


Le Bon and his work “The Crowd”, attempted to identify why crowds of regular people can become MOBS of violent people even if the members are not as prone to violence as individuals themselves.


He broke the concepts down into three that can help us:


  • Anonymity
  • Contagion
  • Suggestibility


Let’s start with “Anonymity”- a loss of self.


Once an individual is immersed in a crowd of like-minded people, they can lose a sense of self and lose inhibitions that might normally be present in their personalities. We tend to choose one side and see ours as the “Right” side and every other side as the “Wrong” side. We then become just a part of the larger crowd. We can lose a sense of morality and responsibility. This can build up feelings invincible and free us to act out of character. History is replete with examples of this phenomenon whether in crowds or as entire nations.  


The next thing Le Bon identified was what he called a “Contagion”. This is the idea or emotion of the crowd as it is perceived by each person in the group and transmitted to every other member by word or deed. It is a growing sense of groupthink that infects the individual.


When infected by the contagion we can do irrational things that we might never consider in our own daily lives, but as the crowd contagion spreads, we can be overcome by this feeling.


The third this Le Bon identified was what he called, “Suggestibility”.  Suggestibility is usually pushed by an influential person, a group leader, a spokesperson, or an idealized person who is right with the cause. It is the influence that this person has and often wields that can move a crowd from normal people to amped-up, driven people who do things as a mass, such as riot, loot, assault or burn during a protest.


With the effects of anonymity and a contagion in full effect, a crowd can be led to acts of violence by a person with influence, like a protest leader, or an impassioned speaker, or other leader’s personality.


Le Bon stated that the leader can cause the crowd to go into a kind of hypnotic state of mind where they follow the leader and the crowd for good or bad.


Understanding Crowd Dynamics and the three concepts presented by Le Bon can help us anticipate how a crowd might be moved or react during an event, therefore we have to recognize these things as they take place so we can intervene if possible before violence erupts. 


Understanding the dynamics of crowds and the MOB mentality can help you identify factors that can indicate violence or the potential for violence is growing.

If you see or hear incitement to violence, or a speaker growing bolder in their expressions of anger or calls to act out, you can anticipate the crowd responding in kind.  If you are prepared, you may be able to short-cut this process. 


With this information in mind here are some areas of concern during an event:


  • Security presence/ visible/undercover/ where?/ breaking cover
  • Monitoring the crowd from a distance (Technology), Placement of reserves
  • Relieving pressure- removing contagions?
  • Keeping groups apart
  • Route review (Tech and People)
  • Response to violence First aid/ arrest
  • Hot spot build-up and response (tech and people)
  • Removing inciters- process/ getting ahead of problems.
  • Roving groups


By recognizing these dynamics through our five senses and having plans in place along with well-trained personnel we may be able to eliminate or minimize the violence, injury, and damage that can result when an event goes violent. 


Caveat to all plans, no matter our best efforts we must keep in mind that even with great planning we may lose control of a crowd at a protest. Our actions here can determine the amount of damage or injury sustained.

If we monitor the crowd and decide to remove a contagion we may incite the crowd further, timing and action is the key, (How and when to act).


If we decide to shut down an event, remove a person(s) inciting violence, or move the crowds along out of particularly vulnerable areas, we must have accusable escape routes for the crowd. Panic on the part of the crown is contagious as well. If they feel trapped or threatened, they can react very badly.   

In any event, if we take action we may decide or be forced to back off to prevent injury to our team. Securing and protecting the innocent becomes the priority. 


Planning for the worst-case scenario can help us anticipate problems. If we have anticipated problems in advance, we can develop “Multi-Optional Responses” to the events as they unfold. The key here is good leadership, situational awareness, and the ability to adapt, combined with adequate training and resources.

If the protest takes a turn for the worst, the ability to move and function is paramount. Planning and training are key.


After the Event – Recovery

After a non-violent event recovery may be easier for the entire community, but after a violent event, recovery will be much more difficult.

There is the immediate recovery after the main portion of the event has subsided, which can include moving along stragglers, removing obstacles, etc., and there is the long-term recovery which can include dealing with injuries or deaths, damaged infrastructure, loss of trust, and other personal/emotional injuries.


Both kinds of recovery require plans in advance, allocation of resources and identifying outlets for help.


Immediate Concerns:

  • Moving protesters
  • Clearing streets, walkways
  • Explosive/ weapons review/ Fires
  • Screening people to reenter facilities (Tech and People).
  • Restoring order
  • Handling triage and transportation of injured
  • Dismissing assistance/ personnel issues/ staffing
  • On scene debriefing
  • Punchlist of tasks and timetable


Long-term concerns:

  • Mental health issues
  • Physical issues
  • Structural issues
  • Funding
  • Media response
  • Community concerns



Preparation before an event will help provide a plan and guidance during any kind of event. A lack of planning will ensure a very negative outcome for any event.


There will be emotional and physical traumas to address to your campus, students, staff, families, and those in the communities around you.  Considering these points now, today will help you recover. 


Technology as Part of Your Plans…

Just as important as your plans and training, technology can provide vital information and communications capability before, during and after an event, especially a violent event.


The 3 Pillars of Survival, Plus 1

Preparation/ Communication/ Notification / and Mental Health


Types of Technology to Consider…


Communications: Cell phones/ WiFi/ Internet/ Radios/ and Emergency Notification Systems.


People counting tech for rooms and other areas.

Air Quality Sensors

Gun Shot Detection

Aggression Detection


Weapons Detection Systems

Building Mapping


Closing Thoughts

Violence is unpredictable, but NOT unheard of. Saying “it will never happen here” is a recipe for disaster.

Every school, organization, and business must provide an “Expected Level of Care” for anyone who enters their facilities.


Preparation in advance is our best tool to create a safe environment and enhance our ability to respond if violence erupts.

Build on these concepts, train, and prepare. Violence is always only a moment away.