Facing Police at Protests

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Police tactics and behaviour can have a significant impact on a protest.

When planning an action, you should strategise for the possibility of police use of force, arrest and possible use of violence.

If your action might face a significant police response, organise around legal strategies and activist legal support structures.

The legal system can be oppressive, break people down, and make people feel dehumanised. Organise with your group (or broader collective) to have a Legal Support Team. This is one way of empowering people to feel safe and well-informed about protesting.

Police power operates in different ways depending on who is targeted. Your race, gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or stigmatised characteristic can influence how the police behave towards you.

If you are known to the police, whether through protest activities or not, can also influence how you are treated.

Police are part of the state machinery and their use of power can often be arbitrary.

Police will not always act as expected. They can act in in conflict with the law or their own policies and regulations.

Police strategies vary depending on things like:
– the nature of your actions,
– the political climate,
– the media, and
– the demographics of people involved.

Sometimes, police use force and violence to control an action rather than simply arresting and removing people. Using force can sometimes be more efficient for the police than arresting people in large numbers.

It is important to know your rights and hold the police accountable for their behaviour and any abuses of power.

Interacting with police can be stressful. Try your best to stay calm.

You deserve to be treated with respect. Act like you expect to be treated with respect.

If you are speaking on behalf of other people, particularly at a big action, ask to speak with the most senior officer there. You can also ask to speak with the officer in charge or the Forward Commander.

Be prepared to negotiate with police, but be firm and stick to the plan that your group agreed on.

Some compromise with police may not hurt the action – so long as it doesn’t compromise the basic aims of the action.

Police may go-back on agreements. This can be because:
– they are acting under orders from someone higher,
– their good faith with you is not a priority, or
– they were being dishonest from the start.

When this happens, arrests may come unexpectedly. Be prepared.

Police officers have different ways of interacting with protestors. Some are insulting, others are quite friendly. However they are acting, part of their job is to collect evidence and information. Don’t let an insulting cop or a friendly one draw you into a conversation about the action.

Police power can be based on bluff, bullying and intimidation. Police insisting on your “cooperation” means that they want your obedience.

Learning how to challenge police power while also remaining calm, assertive and polite is a very useful skill.

Police Liaison

Police liaison can be an important role. 

Having two people ready to liaise with police when they arrive can help to avoid police over reacting. 

If you are the police liaison, you can ask to speak to the Forward Commander or whoever is in charge on the ground. 

Good police liaison can reduce the risk of police violence and help to find out what police intend to do and where arrestees will be taken.

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.

Some groups may decide that they do not want to have any police liaison. This is a valid decision.

If you do not plan for any police liaison on site, discuss and plan with your team about what you will do if:
– police try to talk and negotiate with people individually
– perceived leaders are targeted by police to act as a liaison for the group
– police give an arrest warning to an individual to relay to the group
– people get arrested.

Monitoring arrests

If anyone is arrested at the action, it is important that people know where they are.

The Legal Support Team should be making enquiries and taking notes of:
– the arrest
– where the person is, and 
– their wellbeing.

To help you do this, you can download the Arrestee Tracking Sheet.

On the ground members of the Legal Support Team (or  Legal Observers) should feel confident approaching people being arrested.

If the arrestee is willing and able to provide information, the following details should be recorded. This is to help in conducting welfare checks and/or organising a lawyer for a bail application:
– whether they are under 18,
– whether they are in “Australia” on a visa,
– whether they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, 
– whether they have any particular medical or other custody needs, and
– whether they are injured or have been subjected to physical or verbal violence or harassment from the police.

This information needs to be kept safe and confidential. It should only be shared where necessary. Plan for how you will collect and keep this information safe.

For general information, large white boards back at the office can be used to:
– record names of arrestees and where they have been taken,
– which lawyers are seeing them, and
– if they have been released.

Similarly, setting up a computer spreadsheet or a database is useful as it can be easily changed, edited and updated. It can also be used across a long period of time, such as when people go to court.

It is important to let the police station know that the arrestee has friends and supporters who will constantly monitor the situation and their wellbeing until the person is released. This may annoy or frustrate the police, so be prepared and stay strong.

These frequent contacts with the police may make them more careful in several ways:
– more careful about violence in the cells,
– more careful about concocting evidence, and
– more eager to release the person.

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

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

The best situation is for a lawyer to be in the police interview with the arrestee. However, this is rarely possible.

At the least, the arrestee should speak to a lawyer before they do a police interview.

If a lawyer has already been organised for this, ideally the arrestee will have their phone number written on their arm.

The arrestee can also ask the police for a list of lawyers available to give “pre-interview advice”.

Everyone has a right to speak to a lawyer when they are in police custody

The legal support team should ask an arrestee if they asked to speak with a lawyer and whether the police complied. If the police did not comply, this should be recorded somewhere so that it can be used in evidence later.

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: “Abandon”, “Passing off”, or taking on responsibility.

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

“Abandon” those arrested are left to organise their own defence.

Although this is a common option, it represents to some extent, a betrayal of those who risk arrest.

In organising an action where people may be arrested, the organising body takes 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 and works against solidarity and respect across the leftist community.

“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 is very difficult 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

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.

But an action isn’t over until the last person has their legal matters finished or is released from custody.

Well-organised activist legal support can help strengthen campaign goals and help create more sustainable and radical campaigns.

Monitoring police behaviour

Legal Observers play a crucial role in monitoring police behaviour at protests. This can involve documenting (with photos or video):
– police who attend without wearing proper identification,
– evidence of of police brutality or violence, and
– the use or display of police weapons.

Given the wide ownership of digital cameras and smart-phones, almost 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 pictures and videos into a manageable format.

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..

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 if the Legal Support Team downloads footage to use as evidence in court, they should also seek to make best efforts to track down the producer of the footage.

Monitoring police violence will also involve collecting the personal details and contact details of people who have experienced police violence and harassments. It also involves contacting and collecting details of any witnesses who may have recorded the indecent. 

Ideally, the Legal Observers would be able to collect statements from these people soon after the event. Testimony which is taken immediately is generally seen as more credible in court. 

In some situations given the level of violence and chaos it may not be possible to do this. It might be appropriate to refer people needing to make statements to the legal Support Office, so that the Legal Support Team can get in touch with them later.

It is legal in Victoria to film or photograph people in public. But remember to be respectful. Some people may not want photos or videos of their arrest (or other incident) shared on social media or used by other people to make a point. 

Try and find out through your networks who the person is, and ask them if you can share footage of what happened to them. 

You can also use editing software to blur out the person’s face and body so they are not identifiable. This may make someone feel okay about the photos and videos being shared online.

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 take 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 also advertised more broadly on websites and social media so that other people who had experienced or witnessed police violence or arrest could also make appointments to come along.

The Legal Clinics operated almost every night for the first week, then three times a week until they decreased in frequency and stopped.

Keeping Records

If there is even a slight possibility of any ongoing legal action with police, particularly for police misconduct, it is very important 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 as soon as possible of the events, within minutes or hours is the gold standard. 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 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.

The evidence will speak for itself – you shouldn’t need to use subjective or overly-expressive language to describe what happened.


When you have an unexpected encounter with the police, you will be safer if you pay attention to your body language.

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

Sudden movements can trigger sudden responses from police.

As well as moving calmly, you can also verbally say what you are doing before you do it.

For example: 

  • “I am just going to sit down while we talk because I am tired”, or
  • “I am going to get my ID out of my bag”

This makes it 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, police animals, or their equipment (vehicles, weapons, radios, flashlights, 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 faster. You have to concentrate to slow down, because you’re probably going a bit faster than you realise.

Make eye contact, to indicate sincerity, try to maintain a neutral 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 may try to humble  or insult you – then you’ll get angrier and so will the officer, it’s a vicious cycle.

Your best bet is to control your expression and tone of voice from the outset.

Other protesters may adopt more confrontational tactics and place less priority on deescalating situations.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a diversity of tactics across or within groups.

Other groups don’t have to adhere to your way of doing things and vice versa.

Ideally, questions about a diversity of tactics as well as communication between groups, safety and solidarity should be discussed between groups during the organising process.

Respecting and trying to understand difference across groups is key to a strong and supportive broader network. 

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Facing Police at Protests

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