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Q&A

How Can Police Defend Our Democracy?

At a time of political tensions, The National Police Foundation lays out best practices for local law enforcement during election season.

As early voting began in Miami-Dade County, a uniformed police officer walked into a polling place in full uniform, gun on his hip, badge on his chest, and a Trump 2020 "No More Bullshit" mask on his face.

In Michigan, law enforcement officers found themselves caught in the middle of a legal fight over whether the open carry of firearms could be prohibited at voting locations.

And in Minnesota, a police union has called upon retired officers to patrol election sites.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, political tensions have reached a level unprecedented in the modern era and law enforcement agencies are finding themselves caught in the middle. That is why the National Police Foundation (NPF) released the “Policing In A Time Of Elections” online resource kit, which was supported by Arnold Ventures. The civic health of our nation relies on law enforcement agencies supporting democratic values and systems. But it isn’t enough just to do the right thing — the public also has to perceive law enforcement as a neutral, nonpartisan actor. To help law enforcement leaders navigate this challenging political moment, the NPF has published resources that outline recommended practices and help ensure officers and communities know the role that police are expected and depended on to play in our democracy. These documents include proactive communications strategies and guidance for providing public safety responses on and around Election Day. The project also includes a list of relevant local laws relating to police presence at or near polling places, which was created in partnership with the National Conference of State Legislators.

To talk about this first-of-its-kind project, Arnold Ventures spoke with people involved in the creation of “Policing In A Time Of Elections.”

Jim Burch is President of the National Police Foundation and a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Amanda Burstein is the interim National Programs Director for the National Police Foundation.

Nikki Smith-Kea is a Criminal Justice Manager at Arnold Ventures.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you create the “Policing in a Time of Elections” program — why this election?

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Jim Burch

We were concerned with making sure that law enforcement leaders and officers are well prepared to take on the vital role that our democracy depends on them to provide – ensuring their safety and freedoms on election day. This is a turbulent political time, and it is a time when law enforcement is being tested every day in many different ways and places. When we started hearing about how the election could add to that turbulence — that we could see the potential for tense situations and friction because of political and other social views — it was important to provide support and encouragement to law enforcement leaders and to help them communicate the role of law enforcement to officers and communities.

We are also preparing them for the really tricky tightrope that they often walk in these situations because many law enforcement officers when on official duty, are prohibited from participating in the political process and all are expected to support communities regardless of political or other beliefs. Additionally, we see through this project that many state laws prevent officers from having much of a proactive presence at polling locations — and yet in other states, they’re required to be there. So this is a very tricky time for law enforcement as a whole.

Headshot of Nicola Smith-Kea
Nicola Smith-Kea

At Arnold Ventures we got intrigued by this opportunity because of the current climate and what’s happening between law enforcement and communities. A critical question for us is the role of law enforcement in certain spaces. So we approached this opportunity with the question: What are the expectations that society should have about the role of law enforcement during an election? What is needed in this critical moment to inform and educate law enforcement executives to ensure a democratic process free of intimidation?

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Arnold Ventures

So what are the most important takeaways for law enforcement leaders and officers?

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Jim Burch

Law enforcement plays a vital but neutral role in the electoral process. They’re not involved in the politics of the election, but they are central in guaranteeing Americans’ right to vote in a free and impartial way.

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Arnold Ventures

This message might be difficult to get across for routine citizens when they see things like police unions endorsing candidates or Blue Lives Matter flags being flown at political rallies. What can law enforcement leaders do to show people those actions don’t reflect their actual positions and that law enforcement really is politically neutral.

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Jim Burch

I really think it takes proactive communication — that is why “Policing in a Time of Elections” provides a communications toolkit for law enforcement leaders. It’s supposed to encourage law enforcement leaders about the need to clarify their official roles — proactively — as well as the expectations of officers.

For people who have been involved in this profession in one way, shape or form, it is pretty clear-cut. Most law enforcement leaders know the Hatch Act can restrict officers' engagement in political activity. They know what the rules are, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not something we deal with all the time, and the rules or differences may be misunderstood by the public. So it is incumbent upon leaders of local government organizations to proactively communicate to the internal staff — their officers — as well as to the community about their neutrality and about what their role is and what it’s not. We cannot take that for granted. It is far too important.

There's another aspect to this: Our country is a nation of immigrants. In policing we talk about understanding different cultures and what those cultures bring in terms of their relationships with police and how well they can trust the police. Some voters may come from places where law enforcement is an arm of the political process. So we cannot take any chances that somebody might assume that here.

Headshot of Nicola Smith-Kea
Nicola Smith-Kea

Something that I appreciate about this project is that it helps law enforcement executives be transparent and communicate to the public about expectations for their officers. This project is supposed to help law enforcement leaders articulate to the community what they stand for and what their departments stand for, and that they will protect the democratic process.

A unique thing about this project is the connection with communities. We shouldn’t think of law enforcement as separate from communities, and law enforcement has done an amazing job over the years to really try to bridge that gap. That relationship has been damaged somewhat over the last few years. This project is providing law enforcement with language, with narrative, to talk with communities about what is happening, about the current process, about what is expected. That level of communication and transparency will go a long way.

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Arnold Ventures

So is this a one-time thing or is the NPF going to be offering guidance with every election cycle?

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Jim Burch

I think it’s important that we make these kinds of tools available each time we go into one of these election seasons. Preparations need to be revisited each time we have events like this. And each cycle we have to recognize that the situation changes and state laws change. We worked with the National Conference of State Legislatures to compile a list of state laws as they relate to law enforcement presence at polling locations, and issues like firearms in and around polling places. Those laws are absolutely going to change. In fact, while we were preparing the list the laws were being reconsidered or potentially modified, so there were updates that had to be made as we went along. So these resources will have to be revisited in the future.

Lessons learned will also have to be taken into consideration. This is something that we advocate for more generally. After big events, law enforcement agencies should go back and evaluate how they did and try to get feedback from the community about their perception on what could have done differently. That’s an important part of this process and an important part of what we promote in policing.

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Arnold Ventures

The project specifically provides information about the challenge presented by protesters, perhaps even people with firearms, in and around polling places. How should law enforcement think about its role at an event with heightened tensions and firearms present?

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Jim Burch

This question of intimidating presences at polling locations could be one of the trickiest issues that law enforcement deals with at this time. There is no question that law enforcement will encounter people armed near polling stations. That’s no different than any other day in states where open carry is pretty common, so law enforcement is accustomed to encountering people who are either practicing concealed carry or open carry. What’s different about Election Day is that there are a different set of rules and laws that apply around polling locations. So the thought process and analysis about what’s happening becomes more complex. It’s not just about the presence of a firearm being within so many feet of a certain place, but it is also about how that makes someone else feel. That’s where things can get really tricky with different state and federal laws. If someone feels they cannot access a polling station because of the way that someone else is acting, that would be a problematic situation that law enforcement could be called to resolve. Police may or may not be called to resolve these sorts of issues at other times, but elections present a technical, nuanced and unique area for police.

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Arnold Ventures

We’re in the middle of the election process right now and I can point to some examples of law enforcement officers demonstrating worst practices — there’s a story about a Miami officer facing discipline after wearing a pro-Trump mask to a voting location. Do we have examples of individuals or departments demonstrating best practices on how they should be acting and messaging during an election?

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Amanda Burstein

I don’t think we’ll really know a good example until after Election Day. But, just anecdotally, the Phoenix Police Department has been proactive in communicating with the community and setting expectations around the election. They had a sergeant go on the local news and explain law enforcement’s role around elections and their dedication to protecting the right to vote and the right to protest — but also the responsibility of community members to act within the law.

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Arnold Ventures

The project also involved a survey about people’s concerns and thoughts around law enforcement and elections. Did you learn anything unexpected from that?

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Jim Burch

I think one of the points that I found most interesting from the survey is that 77 percent of those who were surveyed said they trust or strongly trust local police not to interfere with the voting process on Election Day. That was very reassuring for us and very encouraging that there’s some built-in inoculation to any sort of suggestion that law enforcement would play a different role in elections. At the same time, the survey points out that younger Americans — ages 18-34 — is nearly 20 points lower, with only 58 percent saying they trust or strongly trust police not to interfere. That general finding coincides with the data that we see on general trust in the police, that it’s generally lower among younger generations.

This raises significant concerns for me personally and for the NPF in the sense that we really have a lot of work to do with young people and reassure them about the role of policing.

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Nicola Smith-Kea

Yes, the survey says that people trust the police, but at the same time there's a whole other section of the population questioning that trust in the police, and we cannot ignore that. We’re at a critical intersection right now between police and community. So on Nov. 3, there will be a lot of eyes on law enforcement, and I’m curious to see how this critical event is handled by law enforcement, and the communities’ response.

A lot more cameras will be out this year to record law enforcement than in the past. Just this week an NYPD officer was put on suspension because he was recorded using the speaker on his car to endorse a candidate. People are going to be looking out for incidents like that.

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Jim Burch

These examples that we’ve brought up in Miami and New York may be examples of departmental standards of conduct, but they may also be potential Hatch Act violations. The project specifically has a one-pager document that explains how and why the Hatch Act applies to local law enforcement, and what they need to know about it. That’s very practical and specific guidance. To be honest we should have put it out months ago. It should have been on pocket-cards and there should be training for every officer. We missed the boat on that.

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Arnold Ventures

A big goal of this project is to ensure that people can trust the police and that police know their role around elections. But I imagine for individual officers it can be tough to remain neutral in a heated political atmosphere, especially when activists target law enforcement with real and justifiable ire.

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Jim Burch

Despite all of the many good things agencies and officers do each day, when we take a long view of the history of policing there are some facts to regret, acknowledge and remember. We have acknowledged that as a profession through the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), our own organization and others and many leaders. But there is a major effort underway to change that and to demonstrate affirmatively and proactively that policing is different today and that we won't repeat the mistakes of the past. We talk about the nobility of policing — that you’re a police officer and your mission is to protect all people. There will be people at the polls to vote in a way that is different from you. They may be protesting against your organization. Your job is unaffected by this and officers will still protect them and their rights — it is a noble profession in this way.

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Arnold Ventures

This project doesn’t specifically mention race, but it is unavoidable when talking about the proper role of policing today. How does this project fit in with a larger mission to reassess the history of law enforcement and how it fits with civil society?

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Jim Burch

We can’t take for granted that everyone just accepts and believes that we’ll do the right thing. That’s why it is important that we proactively go out and say these things and make sure we do these things — because unfortunately we haven’t always done and said those things. Maybe it’s not exactly in the context of elections, but certainly in the context of civil rights in general, the best decisions have not always been made, going back a long time. It is important to remind everyone what the role of police is and what the limitations on those roles should be and the ideals and values policing has.