This blog has been written following comment on a previous blog, The Cycle of Conflict, by Dr Clifford Stott. It is not a definitive answer or academically based, but my thoughts and observations, intended to engender debate and discussion, I emphasise that these are my own thoughts and ideas. Dr Stott commented
“plans and briefings always emphasise the policing style to be used, which is usually a positive community focused approach”.
I think there is a powerful piece of work to be done on the disconnection between this approach at policy level (in the strategy, briefs, etc) and what can and is maintained on the ground. It seems to me that keeping a neighbourhood policing approach intact in ‘public order’ situations is a central challenge.
How do police commanders ensure that a community or neighbourhood policing style is used when deploying public order units? In my opinion, although the police are really good at dealing with non-contentious demonstrations where conventional police resources are used, problems arise when a demonstration is seen as potentially contentious. Public Order officers have to balance conflicting discourses; the strategic intent to use community/neighbourhood policing style with the ‘win at all costs’ discourse provided by training and deployment.
Win at all Costs
Commanders tend to start the policing of contentious protests using conventional policing, that is officers drawn from regular duties; public order officers are held in reserve and only deployed when tensions escalate. They are used when things go wrong, deployed to solve the problem.
But how do they solve the problem? Public order trained officers usually train twice a year and this training tends to focus on Common Minimum Standards, the tactics required for mutual aid deployments. This training tends to escalate from low level tactics such as cordons, through street tactics using shields and public order helmets, building entries and clearances to apprehending dangerous persons. These tactics are generally followed by an exercise to test the officers. The exercise will escalate through the tactics mirroring the previous training, using a ‘train hard, fight easy’ approach.
This approach to training was criticised in the HMIC report ‘Adapting to Protest’ which argued that training should encourage de-escalation and be more realistic. An approach to training which emphasises escalating conflict leads officers to anticipate escalating conflict when deployed and to believe that conflict is the solution.
Another issue with training to common minimum standards is that it is strongly focused on rigid command structures, with individual officers expected to simply obey commands. Police officers in their usual roles are expected to make dynamic decisions with grave consequences (i.e. depriving people of their liberty), however they are not empowered to make decisions in public order situations. In situations of mass disorder (i.e. London, August 2011) rigid commands structures arde necessary, but in protest situations, more empowerment may mean less violence and disorder, personal involvement gives officers an investment in achieving a good solution.
To ensure that strategic objectives in command situations are achieved at an operational level officers need to be empowered and trusted to make operational decisions, education needs to focus on solving problems by de-escalating conflict and officers should be deployed from the start rather than being held ‘until things go wrong.’ Public order officers are given conflicting discourses, the strategic discourse in the briefing and the operational discourse from deployment and training, thus they choose the discourse they are comfortable with. Strong leadership is required to ensure the strategic discourse is followed.