Post-election civil unrest: How public safety can prepare

While we don’t know what we will wake up to on Nov. 4, we must focus on professionalism, choosing to help, not acting as accelerant


It only takes a few swipes on my social media feeds or a couple of moments of imagination to remind myself that this is an election unlike any other.

The most worrisome posts, predictions and promises are that an unhappy electorate will take to the streets to protest their presidential candidate’s loss, or that the uncertainty of results on election night will plunge the country into chaos.

Personally, I have tried to salve my worry with the experience of Y2K. In the weeks and days leading up to the calendar flipping from 1999 to 2000, there were dire predictions: ATMs would spew cash into the streets. Planes would plummet from the sky. Grocery stores, unable to scan bar codes, would close indefinitely. Instead, the clocks struck midnight and life on Jan. 1 wasn’t much different than life on Dec. 31.

You have trained to bring calm to chaos and reason to uncertainty. Keep making the choice to help others and reject the opportunity to act as accelerant.
You have trained to bring calm to chaos and reason to uncertainty. Keep making the choice to help others and reject the opportunity to act as accelerant. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Perhaps I am being naïve about this presidential election. I acknowledge that some of my hopefulness has to do with my comfortable life in small-town middle America. I am also an optimist. I believe that most people are good at heart and that, depending on the outcome of the election, most of us desire the certainty of a peaceful continuation of power or a peaceful transition of power. 

Nonetheless, my optimism is being questioned by well-meaning friends, family and colleagues who are asking, “what if the worst happens?” The images and videos of this summer’s protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd, are still fresh in our minds. What if there are protests like that in every community? What if those protests were even more violent and more destructive? What if I was forced to pick sides? You can see how quickly worst-case scenarios can lead to laying awake at night with apocalyptic dread.

The “what if” mental exercise, either individually or in a group, should be familiar to public safety personnel. As I have contemplated the question, “what if civil unrest is widespread, violent and destructive in my community?”, for me personally, as well as the public safety personnel I am honored to serve, here is what has come to mind for me.

Speak only for yourself

When you take to social media, to either support a candidate or castigate a candidate, only speak for yourself. But realize that by default of your position as a public figure, you are a representative of your department. Whether you are on-duty or off-duty, the citizens you serve expect you to uphold the values of the department. From firefighters to police chiefs, many personnel have been suspended or terminated for racist comments, sharing offensive memes or threatening violence. Don’t let this election cause you to join the ranks of former public safety professional.

Be a helper

At every incident – today, tomorrow, next week or next month – you get to choose to be a helper. You have trained to bring calm to chaos and reason to uncertainty. Keep making the choice to help others and reject the opportunity to act as an accelerant. When you show up to help others in need you honor a tradition and expectation that dates to the good Samaritan.

Click safely

I am just as tethered to smartphone as you are and the person next to you. It is how we live. In an age where we are regularly inundated with purposeful misinformation, click safely. Before you click and especially before you share, ask yourself some simple questions:

  • Is this information from a trusted news source that follows standards for fact-checking and verification of sources, and will issue corrections?
  • What is the intent of the person or organization who shared this information?
  • Will consuming – reading or viewing – this information help me serve others?
  • If I share this information, how will it impact the opinion others have of me and the department I serve?

Honor your profession with preparation and professionalism

It is reasonable for command staff to meet and discuss “what if” questions related to possible post-election civil unrest. If you haven’t initiated those meetings, it’s not too late. Set the stage now so, if it is needed, incident command or unified command can be started early. The best time to initiate ICS is always sooner than it was.

If your community calls on you to serve during a time of civil unrest, know your role. Following policy, procedures or protocols is proven to bring order to chaos, reduce anxiety and help save lives. Don’t freelance or go rogue. You honor your profession, your colleagues and your citizens when you do what you’ve trained to do while upholding the oath, ethics and expectations of your profession.

Perpetual campaign continues

The campaign rallies, debates, advertisements and social media won’t end on Nov. 3. Campaigning for state and federal office is, and has been, a perpetual campaign for decades. Endorse, campaign or lobby for the people, issues and organizations you care about within your rights as a citizen, union member or leader. But do so within the parameters of department policy, a collective bargaining agreement, or state and federal election law.

Thanks for serving your community. Stay safe and stay healthy as you choose to help others.

[Read next: Civil unrest 2020: 3 key takeaways from Atlanta’s front lines]

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