Protests and the Public Defender
This blog was co-authored by Toussaint Romain, public defender in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), North Carolina.
When a protest is in the offing in your community, a wise public defender already has a plan in mind for what to do about the arrests and how to get people out of jail. Be proactive, set up your team and plan ahead of time. With that thought in mind, the following suggestions are to assist with mapping a strategy for your office:
- Identify the protest itself. (it is ok to feel partial to one side or the other…but remember you are acting in the capacity of a lawyer. That comes with a lot of responsibility and authority. Use it wisely).
- What does the permit anticipate in terms of numbers of protestors?
- Where will this permitted protest occur, a city street, a cordoned off area, etc.?
- Are there counter protestors who also have a permit?
- Do these permitted physical spaces conflict (as in overlap or same space), adjacent to one another or are they completely separate? (The more apart, the less likely there will be a problem at the sites.)
Law enforcement issues:
- What do the law enforcement authorities anticipate? Ask someone in the know in the police department. They may not give all of the specifics but will probably give you an idea of what they think is likely to happen. What kind of police resources will likely be present?
- Identify a police officer that will work with you to give you information about who has been arrested, etc.
- Identify the officer on the street who is in charge. Identify yourself and your purpose to him/her and that you are available to diffuse situations.
Protest communications and involvement:
- How much will your office be involved in the protest itself? Observers, participants, or not at all at the protest or somewhere along this spectrum.
- Which employees will speak on behalf of the office?
- Which employees will be allowed to speak on their own behalf (or on behalf of the protest?)
- Which employees do you not want to speak at all?
- What publications are you allowed to speak with/not speak with?
- What social media and in what format are authorized for the issues above?
- Who on behalf of your office is authorized to post on social media?
- Where is the line between someone acting as attorney/employee and protestor/participant?
- What are the consequences to your employees for getting arrested, destroying property, fighting, throwing stuff at the “opposing side”?
Staffing and representation issues:
- What resources does your office have to address mass bail hearings?
- What will you do about conflicts early on including identification and finding alterative counsel if necessary at the early point in time?
- What do you do if staff are witnesses to the events on behalf of clients or may be called on behalf of the government? How and when do you make this determination?
- What will you tell your staff? Sometimes, we represent people whose beliefs are alien to ours, how do you handle that issue with your staff?
- In the event of mass bail hearings, how will you coordinate ahead of time with the court system and the sheriffs who have custody of the people?
- How will you handle, the potential “volunteer” lawyers who call and want to help if they don’t know your court system or your community? What is the depth of their involvement in the process? How long in the process will they represent the clients? How will you get those clients to the lawyers? How do you vet their credentials, if you should?
Miscellaneous political issues:
- Are there other players in the system you will need to work with?
- If your organization is not a standalone organization (meaning if you are part of a larger agency) what steps should you take to advise other members of your agency of the protest, your office response, plan etc.?
At the end:
- When it’s all over, what lessons did you learn?
If it’s peaceful and there are few or zero arrests, be grateful. Thank the other players who helped in the creation of a plan and remind them that the plan will be useful in the future. If there are mass arrests, take some comfort in the measures you took to address the underlying issues and to continue to do the work of the public defender, defending people and getting them out of confinement in the moment.
This document is the personal perspective of the authors and is not the official statement of the Georgia Public Defender Council or the Office of the Public Defender, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.