What was the National Guard doing in Philadelphia, anyway?

  • Rachel McDevitt/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania National Guard troops are making their way out of Philadelphia, after their ranks peaked at 3,000 over the last two weeks of demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and others at the hands of police. 

The protests were largely peaceful, though police clashed with protesters at some points. In one instance, police used tear gas to disperse a group trying to block a major roadway. One officer faces aggravated assault charges stemming from a video that shows him striking a student protester in the head with a metal baton. Some people used the protests as an opportunity to incite violence and looting

Guard soldiers were an unusual sight, generally stationed in full military gear, including helmets, vests and rifles, outside city buildings and along commercial corridors in Philadelphia and surrounding counties. 

The New York Times reports he National Guard has launched an investigation into events in Washington, D.C., where soldiers were used to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House. But photos of the Philadelphia protests show Pennsylvania guardsmen did not appear to interact much with civilians. Still, the aggressive posture sparked some criticism on social media and questions about why they were needed. 

WITF spoke with Brigadier General David Wood, who oversees domestic response missions as the Director of the Joint Staff for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

WITF: Of those 3,000 people, were they from specialized units? Do they carry some sort of special training?

Wood: We do have soldiers that have specialized training in civil unrest. It’s called the National Guard Response Force. And that’s a number of a little under 1,000 soldiers that are trained for the type of non-lethal type stuff that you see on TV, with the shields and the face masks and maybe the batons and things like that. But the majority of our soldiers are not specially trained like that. They do have academic training on domestic operations. They do take courses that talk about what the legal liability [is], what the limits are, what they can do. But really, the majority of our soldiers when they deploy for something like this, we are working hand in hand with law enforcement. And really, our expectation is law enforcement will be present with us and law enforcement will take the lead in everything that we do.

It turned out that all of those members of the Response Force, they actually were never even used. When they went down into Philadelphia they were not assigned to any direct crowd control mission, they were just all assigned to go provide safety and security at different locations throughout the city. 

What is covered in the training for the Response Force?

They go through what is called field force operation training. And what it truly is, we get familiarized with the civil unrest equipment: the protective gear, the face masks, the shin guards. Primarily Pennsylvania State Police are the trainers. They have professional trainers who do this right over at the State Police Academy in Hershey. They also go over all the rules and regulations that law enforcement is required to adhere to when they’re conducting such missions.

Can you give me some examples of those rules and regulations?

I would refer to the Pennsylvania State Police.

(In a statement, State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said, “law enforcement action during civil unrest is guided by agency policy and applicable state law.” He said instructors at the State Police Academy conducted civil disorder training for about 210 Guard soldiers on June 1. It included briefings and practical training on how to disperse a crowd in a range of agitation, riot control formations and how to work with mounted police.)

How were the soldiers personally equipped? 

All of our soldiers deployed in their full military-issued gear. And that means they deployed with their helmets, that means they deployed with their armored vests, and that means they deployed with their weapons. It was a smart decision to do that and it was a simple decision to do that. That simple decision was made to deploy in that posture because we weren’t sure of the levels of violence or the levels of criminal activity that was going on, and we wanted to ensure the safety of our soldiers who would be down on the streets, potentially exposed to that type of violence. So that was a safety and self-defense measure and, really, not an unusual measure at all for something like this. 

What’s your response to the idea that this stance came off as perhaps too aggressive and maybe even could have provoked some people in these crowds?

First of all, we call it, for civilian matters, Rules for the Use of Force, the RUF. We’re actually not allowed to discuss what those rules are because that’s something that the commanders need to have and there is some security for that.

But I could tell you, it’s a process. It’s a long process. And there are steps that are taken before any of our soldiers should be using a weapon to deter. The weapon is part of their equipment. They are trained on how to use that equipment and they should carry that equipment.

I think the majority of the citizens of Philadelphia and any of the other citizens that went to Philadelphia to protest — I didn’t see a whole lot of them being intimidated. In fact, I saw a lot of interactions, a lot of de-escalating, a lot of people wanting to take their pictures with our soldiers. I really think that you know, our soldiers, the posture they were in, in some ways actually intensified the de-escalation. People were much more comfortable seeing those soldiers there than perhaps just seeing a line of law enforcement officials.

You said you’re not allowed to discuss the rules of the use of force. But those rules, where do they come from?

It comes from National Guard training, and each state has their own. They have very different categories of the rules of the use of force. I can tell you that before we implement those rules of force, the [Adjutant General] works directly with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the governor to ensure that the civilian authorities also agree with that.

Are soldiers told there’s a threshold of activity that they can witness before they are allowed to deploy force and are there steps a soldier could follow?

I really can’t talk details. But I think using a step process makes a lot of sense.

Is it something that you use, a step process? Is that laid out for soldiers?

I would rather not comment on it just because I think that’s kind of getting beyond what I’m allowed to talk about.

Do soldiers carry those rules with them?

Anytime a soldier is deployed for a domestic operation, we provide them with what the rules for the use of force are. We write them out, we hand them out in what we call a smart card. So it’s a documented card that each soldier gets. Each soldier reads it. Each soldier understands it, acknowledges that they understand it and they carry that card with them if they need to review it again.

The weapons that the soldiers are carrying, are they loaded?

I couldn’t answer that. I couldn’t tell you that. That would be, definitely, an operational security call.

Did your soldiers in this mission have to either detain civilians or participate in a use of force?

I am not aware of any, any activity as you just described it that involves our soldiers. Again, it was — as far as all the information that I have — it was an extremely successful event.

Matt Slocum / AP Photo

A boy waves to members of the Pennsylvania National Guard before a rally, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Philadelphia, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

What was the mission? And who defined that mission?

Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, under the direction and leadership of the mayor of Philadelphia, defined our mission. They defined that mission as a security mission. They wanted to have National Guard presence at city government buildings — city and actually federal government buildings. They wanted to have National Guard security presence at stores and commercial areas that had undergone some civil unrest. There was obviously looting that happened in several stores in several areas. So they wanted to be able to provide a guard presence there to deter that looting from continuing. 

The most important piece was that our soldiers were put in place to ensure that those citizens who were in Philadelphia marching lawfully and legally had the right to execute their First Amendment right. And that is really, for me personally, that was the biggest mission. And every soldier I talked to, it was about: you are here not to be a part of some action that interferes with our citizens’ right to protest. You are here to ensure that they can legally, lawfully and safely protest. And I think that’s really the mission that we’re most proud of.

Are soldiers on the ground taking directives from Philadelphia police officers? How does it work?

In the military, chain-of-command is extremely important. So, when it comes to, you know, orders and directions, it’s always going to be military that is going to order and control military. However, when we’re deployed in a domestic ops situation, we’re always going to be deployed with civilian authorities with us. And those civilian authorities are going to work very closely with the leadership on the ground to ensure that what we’re doing basically meets the requirements of the law. 

It allows us to not have to put our own soldiers at risk because we’ve got law enforcement that will take care of dealing with the criminal element, the violent element or what have you.

At the strategic level — where we go and where we’re located — that comes directly from Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. We don’t pick and choose anywhere to go. In fact, we won’t leave the armories until we’re told where to go and given that mission.

Were the units activated based in the Philadelphia area?

The 56th Stryker Brigade is headquartered in Horsham…and that was the primary organization that went in. In fact, they were the first ones in and they’ll be the last one to leave. So yeah, that’s a really important thing. And I’ll tell you another reason why we try to keep our folks geographically close is because with COVID going on, we don’t want to move soldiers out of a green county into necessarily a red county because that puts another level of risk on our soldiers as well as our community. 

What equipment did the Stryker Brigade take into Philadelphia?

The only equipment that we took into Philadelphia would be trucks and Humvees. Basically personnel carriers. We didn’t take any armored vehicles. There are Humvees that have additional armor on them for added security and we did take some of those in. We didn’t take those in as a call for security. We really took them in because we needed the logistics. We just needed more wheels to drive our soldiers.

When your soldiers get paid for this activation, is that going to come from the state?

It’ll come through the state. The governor declared a proclamation of emergency and that proclamation is the basis to pay guardsman on state active duty. Now it may be that [through] that proclamation, we might be able to get reimbursement from the federal government.

Can you tell me what they’re paid per day, and if they’re getting any type of hazard pay?

By law, they are paid the same pay that they would get for their rank in federal service.

Philadelphia police and National Guard take a knee at the suggestion of Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton, unseen, outside Philadelphia Police headquarters in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020 during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Philadelphia police and National Guard take a knee at the suggestion of Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton, unseen, outside Philadelphia Police headquarters in Philadelphia, Monday, June 1, 2020 during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd, Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

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