Why police choose certain approaches

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

In no particular order, these include the:

Police tactics can be influenced by 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. 

Conversely, if the government is publicly supportive of the issue then police are more likely to take a facilitative approach. 

Government support for an issue cannot guarantee that police will be facilitative. For example, the police response to trans-rights protestors in February 2023 in Melbourne was violent and excessive despite the Victorian government’s public statements of support for trans rights. 

See Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s statement of concern about the police response to trans-rights activists – and media release by the Victorian government.

Subtle or overt political pressures on the police command can influence their actions at a protest.

Although police in theory are operationally independent from government the attitude of the government to protesters is likely to influence police.

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 – then attitudes to protesters is more likely to be relatively tolerant.

If, on the other hand, police training implies that protesters are akin to insurgents or terrorists, that crowds are inherently dangerous, and concentrates or tactical issues related to riot control – then the attitude to protesters is more likely to be harsh.

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.

Different teams of police are trained to do different things. Being mindful of what police teams are present at a protest, including when a team arrives or leaves, can give you a clue as to what tactics they are planning or prepared to use.

Check out Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s guide on the who’s who of Victoria Police.

 

The type of equipment and weapons available to police can influence their tactics on the day.

Some believe that carrying riot gear (like riot shields, helmets, pellet guns) makes it more likely that police will use high levels of force because it prepares them for violence (See the book “The Case against Paramilitary Policing” by Tony Jefferson 1990).

The availability of weapons like capsicum spray may also influence the level of force that police use.

Simple things such as observing police officer suddenly putting gloves on can indicate that they are preparing to touch protestors. 

Similar to the type of police involved, being aware of what weapons police are carrying (and when new weapons appear on site) can give an indication of what level of force they are prepared to use. But remember, there are standard weapons that most police carry and these won’t necessarily give you any insight.

Check out Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s Victoria Police weapons ID guide.

If police are outnumbered this may disincline them from using high levels of force. Similarly, high numbers of arrests means lots of paper work, which can also dissuade police from using force and arrests. 

On the other hand, determined and outnumbered police may decide to resort to weapons such as capsicum spray to disperse a crowd and to exert their control of a situation.

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.

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.

Police also contribute to negative stereotypes of protestors to justify harsh and violent policing.

For example, the 2019 protests at the IMARC conference in Melbourne saw heaving police use of force with several protestors injured and was accompanied by police making misleading media statements negatively stereotyping protestors. See Melbourne Activist Legal Support’s report and statements by police to the media here and here

Although the media will generally give greater weight 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.

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.

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.

The police as a system also has a fairly strong occupational 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 towards anti-capitalist protesters.

Police may also be more likely to feel comfortable with concerns they can directly relate to like pay and conditions, than the dissolution of capitalism.

A commitment to nonviolence does not guarantee a tolerant police response.

Violence or verbal provocation from protesters does not justify police violence but it can increase the likelihood that police will use harsher tactics.

Once a decision has been made to use force, police may not differentiate between activists using different tactics or engaged in provocative or non-provocative acts.

Police intelligence units keep tabs on those who attend protests.

Police have been known to single-out or take harsher approaches to people they know and/ or consider to be 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, 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’).

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

Regardless of non-violence/ the presence of media/ legal observers etc., police can still apply extremely violent tactics and methods whenever they choose or are ordered to do so.

Police decisions to move from a facilitation to violence can come quickly and without warning. It is always worth anticipating and planning for this.

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