The Rise of ‘Blow Off Steam’ Policing

Authorities frequently met last summer’s riots with a diffident response. National Guard troops remained in their barracks, and police often stood by as looting, arson, and property destruction took place in cities ranging from New York and Chicago to Seattle and Minneapolis.

While political leaders deserve much of the blame, in some cases, the police themselves genuflected to left-wing protesters, endorsing their cause and reinforcing the protesters’ claimed moral superiority to the broader society.

The New Way

Such responses by police and authorities are rooted in the fear that a heavy-handed response will cause more violence. This might be called the “blow off steam” approach to controlling civil disturbances. Under this theory, a heavy-handed police response to community violence—with armored vehicles, riot shields, tear gas, and the like—makes matters worse, playing into the larger narrative of police brutality. 

This approach is also rooted in the idea that the rioters have legitimate grievances, that ordinary free speech is inadequate for their concerns, and that riots are an expression of understandable anger and emotion. In other words, if you let protesters cathartically break a few things and burn down a few stores, their passions will burn out and things will return to normal. As Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said rather infamously during the 2014 riots in her city, “We also gave those who ‘wish to destroy’ space to do that as well.”

The new “blow off steam” approach gained currency rather suddenly. We saw hints of it in 2014, when police stood by as stores were robbed and police cars were burned in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri. In 2020, the same scenario played out nationwide, as documented by American Greatness’ own Pedro Gonzalez. 

More recently, certain Trump advisors told Trump not to speak out against last summer’s violence following the death of George Floyd, lest he make things worse. Governors refused offers of federal assistance. When Trump ordered troops into D.C. to address rioting adjacent to the White House, a number of retired military generals condemned his actions. 

Worse, certain active-duty officers resisted Trump’s orders, by, for example, disarming the National Guard. 

The Old Way

The “blow off steam” strategy stands in stark contrast to the old approach to riot control. To use another homespun expression, “Give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” It used to be widely understood that violent agitators and riots need to be dealt with swiftly and aggressively or the disorder will acquire a life of its own. 

Former OSS operative Rex Applegate literally wrote the book on riots. His extensive experience in World War II and the twilight struggles of the Cold War informed the definitive manual on riot control used by many police departments in the 1960s and ’70s. “A widespread public disturbance which is not immediately suppressed but instead is permitted to grow,” Applegate wrote, “becomes a threat to the effective functioning of legally organized government. Violent and uncontrolled mob action destroys public morale and confidence in police and military forces. Loss of life, property, and other deleterious side effects always accompany mob violence.”

Riots exploit a dangerous reality: law and order rely on voluntary compliance and the perceived certainty of punishment. If even a smallish number of the population actively resists law enforcement, order can break down quickly. People on the margins realize during these windows of lawlessness that crime will pay. The riotous behavior of one’s peers makes this antisocial behavior seem more acceptable and more plausible. 

While the 1960s were a time of rioting and disorder, it would be hard to attribute this to a weak response by law enforcement. Perhaps the most representative example was Mayor Daley’s “shoot to maim” orders in response to rioting in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The riots didn’t last much longer after that.

Taking rioting and other disturbances seriously is similar to the “Broken Windows” theory of policing, which emphasizes the vital relationship of seemingly minor offenses such as graffiti and vandalism to more serious violent crimes. The theory teaches that the latter is fueled by the perception of community indifference to the former. New York City’s use of this strategy in the 1990s and 2000s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani is widely credited with the successful reduction of violent crime prior to the recent crime explosion under the left-leaning Bill de Blasio.

Both approaches have a certain facial plausibility. It is easy to recount times where aggressive police responses foster new grievances, whether it be Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday or the Kent State shootings

But saying police can go too far in keeping law and order is distinct from the “let them blow off steam” approach lately popular. In general, riots appear opportunistic and somewhat random. They only get off the ground after they first achieve some momentum. Under the new policing strategies, small disturbances that can be more easily controlled are permitted to rage out of control. As a result, riots appear to be more common and more destructive and, worst of all, more accepted by political leaders.

Law and Legitimacy

In the decade after the social turmoil of the 1960s, the country suffered under an extended period of criminal violence. One salient explanation was that the disorder and perceived immunity during the riots of the 1960s emboldened the criminal element. They realized there is safety in numbers. And some got a taste of the anarchic freedom unleashed by the disorder that traveled alongside the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements.

Another factor prevailed then and now. If law and order benefit from voluntary compliance, such compliance also benefits from perceptions of legitimacy. The behavior of others and perceived community norms are a key influence on behavior. 

In the wake of the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, and more emphatically in the critical race theory of today, the right of the government to impose law and order is in question. Critics deem the society as a whole illegitimate in both cases because of its alleged endemic racism. Moreover, in both instances society’s leaders have endorsed this criticism, losing their nerve and their self-confidence to insist on compliance with the law.

Justice increasingly is refracted through an ideological and racial lens, focused on “who, whom” more than the underlying behavior. Thus, authorities have implicitly permitted violent riots for black liberation and against regular law enforcement, while the mostly white lawbreaking involving last year’s election protest at the Capitol is freely compared to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and treated accordingly. 

One interpretation of the “racial equity” talk of recent years is that the broader society—what critics would call “white” society—is illegitimate because it is racist. If it is racist and illegitimate, so are its laws and institutions. Thus, for a white society to enforce laws against black lawbreakers (and their white “allies”) is not just, but a perpetuation of injustice. 

In short, the “blow off steam” approach is not a matter of police tactics. It implicates the more fundamental question of whether a white majority society is allowed to make laws and enforce them against racial minorities. For the Left, the answer is a resounding, “No.” 

As with the election of Barack Obama, the Left finds itself surprised by its own success. It is both in charge of society’s major institutions and also highly critical of them. This orientation is not sustainable, as it undermines the most basic functions of government and the expectations of the majority: order, protection of property, and safety. Without seeing themselves as stewards and fellow citizens of the same country with the same shared fate, they will not be able to govern, and certainly will not be able to govern well. 

Like the leftist French and Bolshevik Revolutions, the people in charge soon may realize they have unleashed a monster they cannot control, having undermined the habits of compliance and myths of legitimacy on which law and order depend. The sustained rise in violent crime following last year’s summer of rioting suggests this unhappy but entirely predictable result is already upon us. 

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

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