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Why do police choose certain approaches?

The tactics that police use at a protest action will depend on a wide range of factors.

These include, in no particular order, the:

  • The political climate in which the protest is taking place. If the government and other political elites are hostile to the protesters and their cause police are more likely to take a harsh and uncompromising attitude towards the protesters.
  • Any subtle or overt political pressures on the police command. Although police in theory are operationally independent from government the attitude of the government to protesters is likely to influence police.
  • Police training . Police training in relation to protests will influence the approach taken to protesters. If police training emphasises human rights, the paramount duty of police to keep the peace and the importance of communication and negotiation, the attitude to protesters is likely to be relatively tolerant. If, on the other hand, police training implies that protesters are akin to insurgents or terrorists and that crowds are inherently dangerous, and concentrates or tactical issues related to riot control, then the attitude to protesters is likely to be harsh.
  • The type of police involved . Some groups of police are more inclined to use higher levels of force than others. Some specialist crowd control' police are trained to view protesters as enemies and to see their task as defeating that enemy by using overwhelming force.
  • The type of equipment and weapons available to police. Some believe that riot gear like riot shields, helmets and batons makes it more likely that police will use high levels of force, because it prepares them for violence (Jefferson 1990). The availability of weapons like capsicum spray may also influence the level of force that police use.
  • Relative numbers of police and protesters . If police are outnumbered this may disincline them from using high levels of force. On the other hand, determined and outnumbered police may decide to resort to weapons such as horses or capsicum spray to disperse a crowd.
  • The legal context . Fear of civil litigation may restrain police from using high levels of force. Legal uncertainty about the right to use force to arrest or disperse a crowd may also act as a restraint.
  • Media portrayal of activists . In the court of public opinion, negative media portrayal of protesters permits harsh policing. Police sometimes deliberately contribute to negative stereotypes about protesters in order to create a context where violent confrontations or police brutality are seen as the responsibility of protesters.
  • Presence of media . Although the media will generally give great credence to police perspectives, media images of police violence inevitably prove problematic for police because they provide an objective record of events. Police will therefore be reluctant to use violence in the presence of the media, particularly media cameras. On the other hand, the fear of negative publicity sometimes means that police will attempt to disable camera operators as part of their overall strategy.
  • Attitude of senior police. Messages from the top are important in influencing the behaviour of rank and file police. The attitude of senior police to protesters generally and in relation to particular protests or protest movements will set the tone of the police response. The attitude of the Chief Commissioner of Police is particularly important in shaping the attitude of police to protesters.
  • The nature of the protest movement . Police are a quasi-military organisation with rigid lines of command and control. Police feel uncomfortable dealing with protest movements that have no clear leadership. Also police have a fairly strong occupation culture which encompasses conservative values. Protest movements that embrace and embody diversity and that look and feel' different from the mainstream are likely to be viewed with great suspicion and hostility. For example, police may feel more comfortable with and therefore less hostile towards picketing members of the Maritime Union of Australia than, say, towards global justice protesters. Police may also be more likely to feel comfortable with concerns they can directly relate to, like pay and conditions, than global justice.
  • Protester tactics. A commitment to nonviolence does not guarantee a tolerant police response. On the other hand, experience shows that any violence or verbal provocation from protesters does dramatically increase the likelihood that police will use harsher tactics. Once provoked, police may not differentiate between activists using different tactics or engaged in provocative or non-provocative acts.
  • Prior knowledge of protesters. Police intelligence units keep careful tabs on those who attend protests. Police are likely to take a harsh approach to those they consider agitators', leaders' or organisers.

It is valuable for activist groups to study these factors. Strategically altering any of these factors can influence the way in which police act toward a protest or campaign in subtle ways, as well as helping to predict possible police tactics (see Gillham & Marx 2000 for an excellent discussion of the 'factors influencing police tactics at the battle of Seattle').

However, the discretion whether or not to use their powers, and how they use them, rests with the police and not with the activists.

It needs to be remembered that despite the nonviolence of activists, the presence of media, legal observers and other constraints, police can still apply extremely violent tactics and methods whenever they choose or are ordered to do so. It is always worth anticipating and planning for this.

For more information about organising in the face of increased repression, see Organizing in the Face of Increased Repression by Starhawk.