As a young police officer, I was once told that the most effective weapon a police officer has is their tongue and when it comes to policing protest early and effective dialogue has proven to be an effective method of reducing conflict. Since the HMIC reports that followed the G20 protests in London in 2009 (Adapting to Protest and Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Model of Policing), there has been a renewed focus on ensuring clear communication with protestors. This is not a new tactic but since these reports the methods used have changed, with social media being adopted and a dialogue police model, similar to that used by the Swedish Police, introduced.
The police have sought to liaise and work with protest groups to facilitate their protest. However, there has been a tendency to frame groups according to their level of engagement and the Police’s prior experience with the group. In the Austin judgment (see Policing Protest and Human Rights) reference is made to the robust policing being because the groups involved had failed to engage. Similarly, during the G8 Conference in Scotland, the police treated different groups differently due to their previous knowledge of the group rather than levels of engagement. One of the criticisms levelled following G20 in London was a failure to communicate during the protest since then the police innovative tactics and methods have been developed to address this.
Following serious disorder around a European Summit in 2001, a model of dialogue policing was developed whereby officers developed and maintained close links with protestors before during and after protest. The dialogue police have five objectives
Negotiation – to provide a link between police commanders and protestors to facilitate peaceful protest
Mediation – to explain actions, perspectives and opinions to both police and protestors to help
Initiation – to suggest possible solutions to avoid or mitigate risk of disorder
Communication – to act as a link between protestors and police
Sensing – to read the crowd dynamics of groups and the impact of police actions on these
In the excellent ‘Dixon of Devonshire Green? Dialogue Policing at the Sheffield Liberal Democrat Conference’ Gorringe, Stott and Rosie identify all five of these objectives being used and an epiphany amongst police officers deploying the tactics as they witness abstract academic theories coming to life. One example they use is the sudden change in crowd dynamics as the number of public order officers suddenly increases, a sense of apprehension engulfs the crowd and the mood quickly begins to change, however, the dialogue police are able to allay the fears by explaining that it is just a shift change. When the police numbers increased the following day, it is met with chants of ‘doughnut time.’
This tactic helps the police to differentiate the crowd, identifying those causing trouble and encouraging the protestors to self police. At the Lib Dem Conference, they used this tactic when a flare was discharged, pointing out dangers and risks to others and encouraging the crowd to challenge this behaviour.
Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Model of Policing recommended that the police explore new methods of communicating with protestors, suggesting the use of social media amongst others. Many protest groups are very social media aware and websites/twitter feeds such as Sukey (Polly put the kettle on, Sukey took it off again) use social media to organise protests.
The police have become very adept at this, with some forces leading the way. West Midlands Police used this very effectively to communicate with opposing groups during an EDL protest and UAF counter protest, receiving praise from the community. The specific advantage is to allow police to quickly challenge false information and rumours with the potential to change crowd dynamics.
South Yorkshire Police argue that their effective use of social media in policing the Lib Dems conference built up a level of trust that allowed them to inform and reassure the community during disorder in August, as a result, there was no disorder in Sheffield.
Effective and open communication is the key to facilitating peaceful protest and the use of protestor liaison officers and innovative communication methods allows the police to build and develop relationships which have a longer and deeper impact on the community beyond the protest event itself.