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The 50 Years of Crowd Control Research Police Are Ignoring

Thelasko shares an excerpt from FiveThirtyEight: Researchers have spent 50 years studying the way crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave — and what happens when the two interact. One thing they will tell you is that when the police respond by escalating force — wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters — it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. But if we know that (and have known that for decades), why are police still doing it?

There’s 50 years of research on violence at protests, dating back to the three federal commissions formed between 1967 and 1970. All three concluded that when police escalate force — using weapons, tear gas, mass arrests and other tools to make protesters do what the police want — those efforts can often go wrong, creating the very violence that force was meant to prevent. For example, the Kerner Commission, which was formed in 1967 to specifically investigate urban riots, found that police action was pivotal in starting half of the 24 riots the commission studied in detail. It recommended that police eliminate “abrasive policing tactics” and that cities establish fair ways to address complaints against police. Experts say the following decades of research have turned up similar findings. Escalating force by police leads to more violence, not less. It tends to create feedback loops, where protesters escalate against police, police escalate even further, and both sides become increasingly angry and afraid.

Anne Nassauer, a professor of sociology at Freie Universitat in Berlin, has studied how the Berlin Police Department handles protests and soccer matches. She found that one key element is transparent communication — something Nassauer said helps increase trust and diffuse potentially tense moments. The Berlin police employs people specifically to make announcements in these situations, using different speakers, with local accents or different languages, for things like information about what police are doing, and another speaker for commands. Either way, the messages are delivered in a calm, measured voice. Communication is also a cornerstone of what police know as “the Madison Model,” created by former Madison, Wisconsin, chief of police David Couper. His strategy for dealing with protesters was to send officers out to talk with demonstrators, engage, ask them why protests are made, listen to their concerns and, above all, empathize. The report notes that many police departments in the U.S. did try different strategies in the 1980s and 1990s, but they ultimately ended up responding with force anyway.

“The ‘negotiated management’ model of protest policing called for officers to meet with protesters in advance to plan events together to specify the times, locations and activities that would happen, even when that included mass arrests,” reports FiveThirtyEight. “But the era of negotiated management basically fell apart after the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, when protesters blocked streets, broke windows and successfully shut down the WTO meeting and stalled trade talks. When protesters violated the negotiated terms, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets and took away the wrong lessons, [said Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University]. ‘What a lot of people took from that in policing is, we can’t trust these people. We need to be smarter and overwhelm them to nip these things in the bud,” he said. ‘We sort of went backwards.'”

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