Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
That's not what happened in Oakland Wednesday, when an outed officer drew his gun on demonstrators and press.
An undercover law-enforcement officer revealed himself to protesters in Oakland in the most dramatic way possible Wednesday night: By drawing his gun on them.
That pretty much put an end to the demonstration, which had begun in Berkeley and included some 200 people. But the story doesn't end there. According to Oakland police commander Lt. Chris Bolton, that undercover officer isn't an Oakland Police Department officer at all, but rather an officer from the California Highway Patrol.
He and another undercover CHP officer, both of whom were wearing bandanas over their faces, were identified as police by the demonstrators, according to KTVU. After a protester pulled off one of the officer's bandanas, the pair tried to leave the scene. When the crowd that had gathered persisted, one of the officers pulled his weapon.
Photos from the clash that followed include a rather remarkable image of the plainclothes officer pointing his weapon at Reuters photographer Noah Berger.
The image is alarming. The news that undercover officers are patrolling #BlackLivesMatter protests over police violence shouldn't be.
"While this was the first time I had heard about these specific instances, they did not surprise me in the least," said Daniel Lawrence, research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, in an email.
Jurisdictional issues aside, undercover officers usually work to de-escalate potentially volatile situations, Lawrence says. (Although that plainly did not work out as planned in Oakland.) He likens the scene of a protest to a heated soccer match. Stadiums in South American or European nations where soccer hooliganism is especially prevalent will sometimes hire undercover agents for crowd control. These individuals will sit among fans and respond positively to negative events.
"Instead of yelling at a referee for a bad call, they’ll instead loudly state why it was the right call. Or they’ll react positively when the opposing team makes a good play," Lawrence says. "This process, along with other tactics, helps alleviate some of the mounting tension among the crowd and in the long run reduces the likelihood of a riot breaking out."
The stakes are higher, of course, during serious protests, like the demonstrations now happening nightly over police violence and recent controversial grand jury decisions regarding police officers. That these protests are taking shape nationwide makes the threat of a riot much more serious.
"How can the police, which society has assigned as its primary instrument for controlling crime and social disorder, control a crowd of people who are actively protesting that power?" Lawrence writes. "The answer is to respond accordingly, not with full force, such as officers in tactical gear, but instead placing officers in the crowd who will try to attempt to alleviate pressures."
Lawrence cites an example from the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, where thousands of protesters gathered. During the demonstration, the Chicago Police Department tethered its responses to the actions of the crowd.
"The officers first walked among the crowd in their normal uniforms, talking to the protesters to keep the situation calm. Once a small group of protestors became unruly, only then were a group of officers in light tactical gear dispatched to make arrests," Lawrence writes. "Handling the situation in this manner prevented it from escalating out of control. If the CPD first approached the protests in full tactical gear with weapons drawn, you can bet that the protesters would have reacted much more aggressively from the start."
While the California Highway Patrol officers might have been assigned a similar task during the protest in Oakland, that doesn't excuse the officer's demonstration of a firearm—or justify their presence. Plainclothes officers may not be appropriate for de-escalating protests over the behavior of police, Lawrence says. "Transparency is key to building trust between the police and the community they serve, even when that community is yelling and spitting in officers’ faces."