By Wendy Underhill
Americans were shocked when the U.S. Capitol was invaded last week.
Nothing like this had ever happened in our lifetimes. And yet the desecration of what amounts to a civic temple was different in magnitude, rather than in type, from a growing pattern of disrespect for government and government officials that shows up mostly as angry social media posts and angry (and sometimes armed) crowds.
The FBI is clear: All 50 state capitols, as well as the U.S. Capitol, are threatened in the coming days.
Outrage and a desire for vengeance are all reasonable responses. But are they helpful? Not so much.
What about civil discourse and reconciliation? Also not so much, at least not at this crisis-a-minute moment.
This week a “third way” came to my attention: de-escalation. Just because the term was new to me, doesn’t mean it’s new.
In December 2018, NCSL’s staff professional organizations hosted a webinar called De-escalation Techniques for the Legislature. The event was co-hosted by the Legislative Research Librarians and the National Legislative Services and Security Association and looked at how to deal with potentially violent people specifically in the legislative environment.
The advice from the presenter, Dan Billings, the director of security for the Senate of Pennsylvania, is still sound.
Violence De-escalation Resources for State & Local Officials is a new resource that provides state and local leaders with guidance on what they can do now to reduce the chance of political violence (and to bring down the heat if violence breaks out).
Think of this document as a table of contents for many, many resources. In brief, you can expect to find suggestions to look for signals of risk well in advance, review existing state laws and what enforcement options are available, and establish clear communications channels in advance—with other agencies, leaders of protest groups and with the public. I can’t do the content justice in just a sentence, of course.
I’m especially appreciative that one of the linked resources, Preparing for Election Day and Post-Election Demonstrations, explicitly recognizes our nation’s First Amendment freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of petition. Virtually all of these freedoms can be threatened by rioters and government responses thereto.
As we head into a three-day weekend (Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday), many legislatures and the agencies that keep them safe are working overtime—literally—to be prepared. We at NCSL appreciate that many of us thought “it couldn’t happen here,” but that you are preparing, just in case.
Wendy Underhill is the director of elections and redistricting at NCSL.