Holding the Line: Policing and Public Order in Protest City

Professor Peter Squires and Dr Denise Martin

The first images that came to me on a recent visit to the States were of protesters and police clashing in Seattle following earlier peaceful demonstrations on May day.  Police clearly tooled up in a show of strength against protestors fired tear gas in an attempt to regain control of the ‘angry mob’.  These images, also repeated in LA where demonstrators carried an effigy of Donald Trump whose views on immigration were challenged in these events, were interpreted by officials as acts of violence and disorder.  No distinction was made between the peaceful and ‘criminal’ in these reports.  Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that her officers had undergone “enhanced crowd management training” and had planned specifically for the May Day unrest.

While the police may have planned for these events, the often careful preparation does not always lead to positive outcomes.  Situations where tensions run high can often mean that proposed strategies or policies are difficult to adhere to and the group protesting, the circumstances, the location and the police tactics can profoundly influence how protest situations develop.  There is a lot of truth in the old military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Yet, while police have sought more legitimacy for their actions in these situations, recent events suggest that the policing of protests remains an area of concern still in need of attention.  To illustrate this further we examined two examples: one from empirical research completed by the authors and the other concerning the police use of force where local residents were campaigning again fracking.

In the UK following the controversy over the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots in London in 2009, approaches to the policing of protest were set to change with the introduction of clear new guidelines from the HMIC (2009a, 2009b).  These arose after the HMIC’s inspection of protest policing found inconsistency of practice across regions, lack of understanding about individual officers’ use of force in public order policing environments, lack of understanding of the law and human rights and lack of training.  To rectify this, a ‘dialogue’ or ‘liaison’ based approach, informed by recent research, was encouraged.  Police were expected to have a clear command structure in place, communicate effectively with demonstrators, have a set of principles regarding the minimum use of force and take a measured approach to protest should they escalate.  Initially there was certainly evidence that police forces in the UK moved towards the adoption of this set of recommendations and it had a positive effect in some protest situations (Gorringe et al. 2012).  Despite this, other evidence (including our own) has suggested that a more measured approach to protest while desirable is difficult to sustain, and confusion over what actions are legitimate by the police remain.

In interviews with a number of police officers of varying ranks in a South Coast City, following a series of protests against student fees and the abolition of the post 16 education maintenance grant this ‘return to force’ became abundantly clear.  The following quotes taken from officers describe a point where officers felt that they were losing control of the situation and needed to deploy force in order to take it back.  The first comment describes a widely shared perception within the police ‘front-line’ and the second notes the consequence:

When we were boxed in it was quite heavy, we all had this sense, we were the thin yellow line, and it could all’ve gone horribly wrong.  I felt sort of let down, I felt we were lucky to get out of it.  We were heavily outnumbered and could’ve been sitting ducks. [L3 Public Order Officer]

I turned around to see one officer throwing a demonstrator to the floor.  I didn’t know why, I hadn’t seen what had preceded it.  I can only assume that it was a use of reasonable force, it was a particularly tense part of the march, we were being attacked at the time… it wasn’t a ‘red mist’ situation, the guy had gone down as he was pushed away. I assumed he’d been having a go at the officer. [PSU Sergeant]

It became clear that while the police had initially attempted to facilitate peaceful protest this didn’t mean the same thing to every officer and, when confronted by a perceived greater challenge from the protesters, officers reacted in a variety of different ways.  There was evidence that some officers believed that physical force was both necessary and legitimate despite others feeling that colleagues sometimes went beyond what was an appropriate use of force.

A different situation arose at the fracking protest.  Demonstrators had blocked the road to the fracking site.  Police seemed content to allow the protest to continue – facilitating legitimate protest, no doubt – until such time as the fracking contractor’s vehicles sought to enter the site.  At this point the police response was to stop ‘facilitating legitimate protest’ and instead began to remove the demonstrators, who were seated on the ground, arms linked, by use of force, specifically using the pain compliance pressure point behind the demonstrators’ ears. The obvious pain caused demonstrators to release one-another so they could be easily led away by police officers.

Several issues arise for us: in the first place the decision to start or stop ‘facilitating’ legitimate protest appears quite arbitrary; in the second place, use of ‘pain compliance’ seems forceful and excessive and prompted some disagreement amongst police officers regarding its appropriateness; and, thirdly, pain compliance was only inflicted on male protestors, not females, and certainly not on Caroline Lucas MP., who had joined the protest on this particular day.

Peter Squires is Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton. Email: P.A.Squires@brighton.ac.uk

Denise Martin is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of the West of Scotland. Email: Denise.martin@uws.ac.uk


2 thoughts on “Holding the Line: Policing and Public Order in Protest City

  1. Policing peaceful protest and policing public disorder are two grey areas lost in the fog of subjectivity. Whilst we rely upon perception of threat, impact factors, necessity and proportionality (none of which can be defined) there will always be debate surrounding areas relating to use of force. I read with interest the comments made by officers involved in the interviews and feel as these comments are broadly reflective of most officers when faced with large scale disorder. Pain Compliance is a legitimate tool in the police officers armoury and if professionally applied is an effective, short term measure to protect the health and well being of public and officers alike. Historically there have been issues surrounding excessive use of force and, when identified, have been investigated and acted upon in a robust manner.
    However, subjectivity and perception are vital in relation to protection of officers and we should resist any attempt to define them further as this may put hesitation in the mind of officers when acting in high stress, highly intensive and hostile situations. If an officer needs to pause to ask themselves the question “What would the IPCC think”? then that is a fraction of a second between spending time in hospital or going home at the end of your shift.
    When reviewing actions taken in the United States I can easily see how the heavily equipped, militaristic style of preparedness could cause a vicious circle of hostility and aggression especially in the face of ‘peaceful protest’ and would ask the question whether the use of High Visibility public interaction would serve as more of a deterrent rather than ‘robocop’ style of shields, armour and helmets.

  2. Interesting article and response from both. Food for thought though. What happens when the peaceful yellow line is disturbed by fear, (perceived by those going about their business) and escalating disorder, albeit attempted breaches of boundaries by those within the ranks of the peaceful protesters/demonstrators. What happens when there is a need and a desire to quell the existence of fear and escalating disorder by those tasked to uphold peace and expect order?
    Invariably you will get an overriding desire to protect life, by those who support those in yellow and those that believe in that existing expectation of peace.
    Someone’s going to get hurt and normally this starts off emotionally but ultimately, as is to be expected with us humans, some will react physically whether it be those actually affected or those aggrieved by the disaffected!

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