Police in riot gear swinging batons. Plumes of tear gas. Protesters on their knees, pepper-sprayed in the face. Rubber bullets shot from moving cars. Such scenes have played out in some 75 cities across the US after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.
US president Donald Trump has called for authorities to shut down protests with tougher policing, but he’s wrong. Decades of research show the right way to police a protest is to avoid excess force, remain calm, communicate transparently, and constantly negotiate.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
For the most part, that’s not what’s happening in the US. In New York City, police cruisers were filmed driving into protesters; in Atlanta, six officers are facing charges for using excessive force while arresting two students; in Louisville, Kentucky, two police officers were fired after they fatally shot a man while their body cameras were switched off. “They’re relying on escalated use of force to try to police the protests,” says Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor in criminal justice at Michigan State University, pointing to tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. “All of these are escalated use of force. That is incredibly heavy handed, it’s militarized tactics—and it’s used on protesters who are actually protesting police violence.”
If we assume the goal of police is to reduce damage and destruction, then these tactics are pointless. “The research suggests pretty routinely that when police over-respond to these events, they tend to escalate rebellion and defiance, rather than de-escalating it,” says Ed Maguire, professor of criminology at Arizona State University. “So we recommend a more measured approach.”
There are plenty of more measured models for protest-policing, but they center on a few key ideas: communication, facilitation, and differentiation. One such model, called negotiated management, amounts essentially to talking it out: police and protesters cooperate and set out rules of engagement before an event. The Madison Method aims to facilitate protests—which, after all, are protected by the First Amendment—with communication and restraints on police action. The elaborated social identity model (aka ESIM) emphasizes differences among members of a group, so that looters are arrested as criminals while protesters are allowed to continue.
At their core, each model argues that treating protesters like looters will cause a riot. “Much of what we’re seeing go wrong in my country right now is a failure on the part of police to do this piece of differentiation,” says Maguire. “We’ve seen police firing tear gas or less-lethal munitions on the crowd, most of which hasn’t done anything wrong and certainly hasn’t broken any laws.” Instead, police should make targeted arrests against those causing violence, starting fires, and looting shops, he says—but take no enforcement action against the rest of the crowd.
This corpus of research was apparently ignored by police in Minneapolis on the very first night of protests, with tear gas canisters flying well before fires were lit. “It started pretty bad,” says Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “The very first night, the Minneapolis police were firing tear gas and pepper ball rounds at people just standing around. It was a poisoned environment from the get-go.”
What would have happened had police taken a calmer approach at the beginning of the protests? We have a good guess because that’s what happened in Baltimore, with the protests sparked by the police killing of Freddie Gray in 2015. “Ferguson came on so heavy-handed, so militaristic, and received strong criticism from the public,” says Cobbina, referencing the civil unrest that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown the year before. “Baltimore tried to learn lessons from Ferguson and allowed protest, even as things got out of hand.” In the end, Baltimore also saw military-style tactics from the police, but by letting protests continue there was a more favorable perception of law enforcement, Cobbina says.
Another area of research that should have improved policing of protests is crowd management. According to Owen West, who spent 30 years in policing in West Yorkshire before becoming an academic at Keele University, it was once believed that people in a crowd would default to a violent, irrational, unthinking mob. “That flawed research and that flawed view was what most states and police forces took to be the sort of received wisdom of crowds,” he says.
But now it’s clear that the individuals that make up a crowd don’t act as a homogeneous mob. “They have an ability to police themselves, regulate themselves and set their own parameters,” West says. In the current situation, he points to protesters protecting businesses targeted by looters, and to a specific episode in which protesters shielded a police officer who had become separated from his unit and was left vulnerable. “That absolutely explodes the myth that crowds are irrational and inherently violent,” he says.
Why don’t police acknowledge these decades-old change in research and understanding? In the UK, some of these ideas were introduced after newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was killed by a police officer after getting caught up in G20 protests. That sparked a report from the police watchdog, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary, setting out a new framework for policing protests, says West. Among other changes, it led to the creation of protest liaison officers, whose job it is to communicate to protesters, troubleshoot and de-escalate, and also watch police behavior. Police are also expected to start at a protest in normal uniform, rather than riot gear, West said.
It’s a start, though that doesn’t mean British police are fault-free at policing protests—just ask Extinction Rebellion, whose protests sparked Boris Johnson to call for the “full force of law” to be used against the environmentalists, and to 521 abuses of police power according to the Network of Police Monitoring.
The US also had a period of better protest policing, making use of the idea of negotiated management—but that fell apart after protests against a WTO meeting in 1999 in Seattle turned into riots. After Ferguson and Baltimore, there were efforts among some police forces to re-engage with communities, as well as the increased use of body cameras. But any lessons learned seem to have been set aside after Floyd’s death.
It’s difficult to say why that is, though Maguire points to poor training and Vitale says police are frustrated at being attacked ideologically and physically. But while we have decades of research on the best way to police protests, we don’t have clear data on police-decision making in such moments, so we’re guessing at the motivations behind tactics.
It is likely that police threat assessments were partly influenced by fear, says Vitale. In New York, police arrived ready for a heavy-handed approach because of what happened in Minneapolis, despite the protesters being different groups of people. “They projected that on to whatever the local context was, so the first time someone throws a water bottle or tries to pull down a barricade, the image in the minds of police is a burned down police station,” Vitale says, referring to the torching of the Third Precinct building that took place in Minneapolis on May 28.
But Vitale also points to a disconnect between police leadership and officers in the street. Better plans may have been made at a higher level back at the precinct or police headquarters, but as soon as action started, police on the ground had to make quick decisions. “What I’ve seen is a lot of really bad improvisation,” he says. “Shooting television crews with pepper spray was not the game plan, that was officers running amok.”
In such a situation, can de-escalation still work? “I would argue it’s probably even more important,” says West. “There is always an opportunity to re-engage, to try dialogue—never give up on talking to community groups, to stakeholders, to people on the streets. What we can’t allow to happen is a spiral of escalation, with no-one willing to back down.”
And there are some examples of police departments in the US seeing the value of de-escalation and working with protesters rather than using excessive force, with a sheriff in Flint removing his riot gear to join protesters, and others walking alongside marches or taking a knee with protesters. “These are acts of solidarity,” she says, “It helps to de-escalate things.”
But given the protests started with an act of police brutality, some don’t want solidarity or friendly relations— and that’s understandable. As Cobbina notes, this isn’t just about Floyd, but 400 years of injustice. “It’s very important to understand the history and not just the incident at hand… there have been tensions between black people and police that date all the way back to slavery,” she says.
Rather than further terrify people with military tactics, Maguire says police would be wiser to demonstrate that they are different. “A little over a week ago, police in Minneapolis killed a man for the world to see—a slow motion death,” Maguire says. “In doing so, they dramatically diminished the perceived legitimacy of police. And everything following that awful tragic moment should seek to elevate the police to enhance their legitimacy. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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