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Nicolais: The Boulder riot could have been a lot worse

By actively working to contain rioters and de-escalate the situation, Boulder Police demonstrate they may have learned from past experience

I am a glass full kind of guy. So when I saw rioting at my alma mater — and the very appropriate condemnation that followed — I naturally looked for some silver lining. While the students responsible did not give me much to cheer, what I saw from the police reaction gave me cause for hope.

From every account I have seen, Boulder police did not rush the crowd or engage with force or shoot tear gas. They did not escalate tensions through a display of strength.

Given what we saw from police forces across the country last year, including here in Colorado, that seems to be a significant improvement. It is a living demonstration of large, complex organizations internalizing lessons from past events.

Mario Nicolais

Of course, there are significant differences in the circumstances.

The mass protests last year were overwhelmingly peaceful and based on a collective political will to change institutions of systematic, institutionalized racial disparity. The Boulder riots were a chemical reaction of youthful stupidity mixed with alcohol. 

There is also the obvious difference in privilege. The BLM protests were organized and led by communities of color, primarily from the Black community, along with allies. The protests highlighted disparities in privilege. Pictures from the Boulder riots portray a mob of young, white students engaged in a bacchanalian display of privilege.

It would be legitimate to point out these differences in circumstance and question whether they constituted the difference in police reaction. But that explanation seems to overlook the potential for growth and change in police behavior, the precise outcome last year’s protests sought to affect.

It would also ignore historical perspective. 

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Nearly 25 years ago, just as I graduated high school and began making my plans to attend CU for the first time (I returned for my law degree and MBA in Health Administration), the university made national news for a party-turned-riot. The five-hour standoff between rioters and police led to more injuries, property destruction and several subsequent confrontations in the following years.

During my time at CU, I distinctly remember multiple occasions when friends and I had to plan alternate routes home to avoid tear gas in the Hill neighborhood.

If anything, the Boulder Police have now been accused by locals of failing to more forcibly engage the rioters and inadvertently sending out a community alert message meant for individual “active harmer” scenarios.

Regardless, it is evident that the police focused on containing the situation and letting it diffuse over time rather than attempting to impose their will through violent confrontation. That choice cannot and should not be overlooked. 

The militarization of police forces and response has been a focal point for reform activists in recent years. By choosing to avoid conflict where possible, the Boulder police helped to prove that such reforms can be effective and alternate solutions should be incorporated.

In fact, while the students caused substantial damage, the police strategy of non-confrontational engagement likely saved even more. Once these situations devolve into a prolonged, violent struggle between police and drunken mobs, the violence tends to compound on itself and leave a much broader path of destruction.

And that is before we get to serious bodily injury. The greatest cost of any police-included conflict is always measured in serious physical harm or death. While property damage can be cleaned, repaired and replaced, physical injuries can be permanent and debilitating. Avoiding that outcome should always be the primary goal.

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The Boulder police have also obviously taken a page out of the playbook Washington, D.C., Capitol Police employed after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Using body cam footage and social media posts, the Boulder police have begun tracking down and arresting the individuals responsible. Many will face both criminal penalties and scholastic repercussions.

Policing works best when it includes accountability on all sides. And much of that accountability flows from past experience. If the Boulder police strategy to defuse violent conflict is any indication, that is a silver lining we can all appreciate.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq



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