Facing Police at Protests

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Police tactics and behaviour at a protest can have a significant impact on its outcome. Strategies that take into account police use of force, arrest and possible use of violence need to be developed when planning an action.

Well organised legal strategies and activist legal support structures are vital when planning any kind of action that may face a significant police response.

Some argue that the legal system is designed to break us down and dehumanise us. Organising for your affinity group or larger organised demonstration to have a Legal Support Team is another step towards empowering people to feel safe and sure about protesting.

It is vital to understand that police power operates in different ways depending on who is targeted.

Your race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity and disability can all be factors in how the police choose to behave towards you.

Because police are part of the machinery of the state, the power they exercise can often be arbitrary. Police will not always act as expected – that is, according to the law or their own regulations.

Police strategies can vary depending on the nature of your actions, the political climate, the media, etc. It may be possible that police exert force to control an action rather than simply arresting. Using force can sometimes be a more efficient strategy for the police than arresting people in large numbers.

As a result, it is important to know your rights and hold the police accountable for their behaviour.


Some things to keep in mind

Remain calm as much as possible when dealing with police.

Behave as if you expect to be treated with respect. If you represent people at a mass action, insist on speaking with the senior officer present.

Be prepared to negotiate with police, but be firm and stick to the basics of your plan of action. Some compromise with police may not be detrimental to the action so long as it doesn’t compromise the basic aims of the action.

Police may renege on agreements at times (because they are acting under orders or because their good faith with you is not a priority) and arrest may come unexpectedly. Be prepared.

Police officers have different ways of interacting with protestors. Some are insulting, others are quite friendly. In either case, a part of their job is to collect evidence against you. Don’t let an insulting cop provoke you into a justification for your action or a friendly one draw you into a conversation about it.

Police power can be based on bluff, bullying and intimidation. Police insisting on your “cooperation” mean that they want your obedience. Knowing that police power can be challenged whilst retaining a basic human respect for police can be vital.

Police liaison on-site

Police liaison on site is can be important. Have two people to liaise with police when they arrive to ensure that they do not over react to a situation. Ask for the Forward Commander. Good liaison can reduce the risk of police violence and serve to find out what police intend to do and where arrestees will be taken.

Some groups may decide that they do not want to have any police liaison. If you do not plan for any police liaison on site, consider what will happen and what you will do if police talk to anyone at the action or target perceived ‘leaders’ for liaison.

If people are ‘locked on’, up tree platforms, tripods or blockading, some form of police liaison is important for safety reasons.

Make sure there are clear lines of communication between the Legal Support Team and police liaison people.

Monitoring Arrests

If anyone is arrested at the action, the Legal Support Team should be carefully taking notes of their arrest and monitoring their location and well being at all times. It is vital that everybody is accounted for.

Download Arrestee Tracking Sheet on this site at Support team resouces.

On the ground Legal Observers should feel comfortable approaching people being arrested or arrested by police. Take down their details. Ask whether they are underage, a non-Australian citizen, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or whether they have any particular medical/custody needs. Confirm whether arrestees have been subjected to physical or verbal violence or harassment from the police (if possible).

In protest situations where it is likely that a large number of people may be arrested be prepared for this and find an appropriate way to manage this information. Large white boards to record details of arrestees and where they have been taken, which layers are seeing them and if they have been released is a good idea especially because it means everyone in the legal Support Office will have access to an overview of the arrest situation. Similarly, setting up a spreadsheet or a database is useful, as it allows you to systematically record this information, search fields and will be useful as an ongoing record of arrests which can be updated with new information as you support arrestees through the court process.

Legal Support should repeatedly contact the police to monitor the situation, until the person is released.

If a lawyer is available to do this monitoring police are sometimes more cautious, but any Legal Support person can effectively monitor the arrestee.

Preferably, the lawyer should attend the police station, so that any “interview” with the arrested person can also be monitored. However a lawyer’s phone contact with police on behalf of the arrested person is also valuable, and any police refusal to allow a lawyer access to their client may be used in evidence later on.

Let police know the arrested person has friends and Legal Support who will constantly monitor that person’s situation (even if this may irritate police) until the person is released.

This contact will make police more careful in several ways: more careful about violence in the cells, more careful about concocting evidence, and more anxious to get rid of their embarrassing prisoner.

Case Study

On Friday 21 October 2011 police moved to violently and brutally evict approximately 200 people in City Square as part of Occupy Melbourne. Over the course of the day the Legal Observers sought to monitor and record police violence and track arrests. As over 90 people were arrested over the course of the day, some immediately released and other retained in custody for hours, and most released without charge, tracking, monitoring all these arrests became impossible for the legal support team. While always attempting to have details of arrestees, the Legal Observers focused on knowing to which police station people were being taken so that lawyers could subsequently ring or attend those stations to make sure that everyone taken into custody was also released before evening.

Over the following weeks the Legal Support Team sought to identify who had been arrested, especially given there were serious (and at the time of writing of this manual still unresolved) questions around the legality of the arrests. Also, the Legal Support Team was concerned that many people who had been arrested had also been exposed to and experienced police violence.

Therefore, the Legal Support Team circulated the following request on OM websites and social media, in order to facilitate a ‘retrospective’ tracking of arrests on the day.

Arrests or police violence

People should write a detailed statement about exactly what happened while it's still fresh in their minds.

Include the following where possible:

  • Times
  • What happened in chronological order
  • Where you were
  • What direction you were approached from
  • What police officers were wearing
  • Where you were taken
  • What police said before/after any incidents
  • When/whether you were told you were under arrest
  • Whether you were allowed to call a lawyer or a friend
  • How long you were held for
  • Whether you have seen a doctor
  • Whether you tweeted/updated facebook when you got home
  • Whether there were any witnesses or video footage taken
  • Trawl through the online newspapers, flikr and youtube for footage of yourself being arrested or assaulted
  • Email all of this to us with your NAME in the subject line. Include your phone number and date of birth

Responding to arrests

Activist campaigns in Australia have generally three options when facing the consequences of arrests and charges as a result of the campaign:

  1. “Abandon” those arrested to organise their own defence. Although very common, this approach, to some extent, represents a betrayal of those willing to risk arrest. In organising an action in which people may be arrested the organising body does take on some responsibility. Even where the “organising body” is diffuse, autonomous or network based, people involved see their actions as part of a wider political struggle. Abandoning activists who have a different political perspective, got arrested for the “wrong” reasons or because they were “too militant” is also common.
  2. “Passing off” the responsibility for the defence of those involved to another organisation such as community legal centres. The prospect of taking on large numbers of arrestees, with little or no reward, is not particularly attractive for under funded community legal centres. While an informal network of sympathetic legal workers may provide services in the case of relatively small numbers of arrestees, in larger scale actions or campaigns a coordinating body is required.
  3. Take on responsibility for the legal defence of those arrested and invest the resources of the organisation in their support. For organisations with limited resources this is difficult but possible. Some may argue that providing legal and court support would be diverting resources from the “real” campaign goals. Well-organised activist legal support can help strengthen campaign goals and help create more sustainable and radical campaigns.

In Australia, a mixture of the above practices has been evident. If direct action is to remain an effective option in political issues then abandoning activists to face the legal consequences of political action is not a realistic option, despite how easy it at first appears.

Monitoring police behaviour

As discussed about Legal Observers play a crucial role in monitoring police behaviour at protests. This can involve documenting (with photos or video evidence) police who attend without wearing proper identification, capturing evidence of instances of police brutality or violence.

Given the wide ownership of digital cameras and internet connected telephones, basically every protest attendee (and spectator) now plays the role of observer. Footage from protest incidents can be taken and uploaded to youtube or other file sharing or social media sites almost instantaneously.

These technological changes shift the role of Legal Observers – it has become less crucial to personally document and record all incidents. The role becomes more about finding, collating and putting into a manageable format all the pictures and videos which are circulating in cyberspace.

This proliferation of protest footage on the internet raises a number of related issues, especially in relation to activist privacy. Be aware that police will go through and monitor photos and footage on the internet in order to investigate any illegal actions at protests and to more broadly profile protest movements. Similarly, there are questions around the use of such footage in court, especially if the original producer of the footage can’t be tracked down to authenticate it. Therefore the Legal Support Team downloads footage to use as evidence in court, also seek to make best efforts to track down the producer of the footage.

Monitoring police violence will also involved collecting the personal details and contact details of people who have experienced police violence and harassments and of any witnesses and of witnesses who may have recorded the indecent. Ideally, the Legal Observers would be able to collect an immediate statement from people affected or witnesses about the event. Testimony which is taken immediately is generally seen as more credible in court. However, in some situations given the level of violence and chaos it may not be possible to do this. Then it might be appropriate to refer people needing to make statements to the legal Support Office if there are people available there to take statements or to simply collect details, so that the Legal Support Team can get in touch with them later.

Case study: Occupy Melbourne eviction

During the eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square large numbers of protesters were assaulted and harassed by police. It quickly became clear that it was impossible for the Legal Observer to document all these incidents or even get in contact with everyone who had been assaulted.

The Legal Observers attempted to get in touch with people who had experienced police violence, and in many cases referred them to the Legal Support Office where other volunteers were able to state initial statements. In other cases the Legal Observers took down people’s details.

In the aftermath of the eviction the Legal Support Team organised evening legal clinics to take statements from people who witnessed or experienced police violence or arrest. The people whose names had been taken by Leal Observers were all contacted by email or phone and encouraged to make an appointment to make a statement. The clinic were however advertised more broadly on website, social media etc so that other people who had experienced or witnessed police violence or arrest and hadn’t had previous contact with the Legal Support Team could also make appointments to come along. The Legal Clinics operated almost every night for the first week, then three times a week for a period and until they decreased in frequency and stopped.

Keeping Records

If there is even a slight possibility of any ongoing legal action, either as a result of arrests or to use in an action against police misconduct, it is of great importance to keep records. These may include seeking medical attention immediately, taking photographs of injuries and making a personal and detailed written record of hat happened.

You should include any conflicts you have with arresting officials, the time and date of the incident, how many arrests took place and names of police officers involved where possible.

Also record names and contact details of all other activists involved and any independent witnesses. Where possible, have witnesses also make a personal and detailed record of what they saw.

If there is a court case, these records may become admissible as evidence. Make the notes within minutes of the events, including the time the note or tape was made. If possible, get someone else to verify the time in writing or on the tape. Do not notify the police that you have made this record.

Try to record details of the incident in objective or value neutral language. Do not use highly subjective or value laden language. This may be important in court when assessing the credibility of your observations and recollections.


When you have an unexpected encounter with the police or with any other law enforcement agents, you will be safer if you pay attention to your body language.

If you want to deescalate the situation below are some useful hints:

  • Do not make any sudden movements.
  • Keep your hands in view and open (so it’s clear that you’re not holding anything or making a fist). Do not reach into pockets or bags, unless instructed to do so. If the police ask to see identification, tell them where you keep it before you start to get it out.
  • Never touch the police or their equipment (vehicles, weapons, radios, flashlights, animals, etc.)
  • Breathe deeply, speak slowly, and relax your shoulders and knees. This will reduce the officer’s fear that you may be about to attack or run away. Relaxing under these circumstances is harder than it sounds, because your body usually produces adrenalin when confronted by police. Adrenalin makes you breathe, move, and talk more quickly. You have to concentrate to slow down, because you’re probably going a bit faster than you realise.
  • Make eye contact, to indicate sincerity and maintain a respectful facial expression and speak politely. Again, this is harder than it sounds, because most of us feel angry and/or scared when we’re dealing with police. If you’re perceived as displaying “attitude,” the officer will usually try to humble you – then you’ll get angrier and so will the officer, a vicious cycle. Your best bet is to control your expression and tone of voice from the outset.
  • However, be aware that other protesters may seek to adopt more confrontation tactics and place less priority on deescalating situations. Ideally questions of diversity of tactics, communication between groups, safety and solidarity would be been discussed between participants or affinity groups during the organising process.