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The Roots of Violent Protest: Violent Cops


Will it surprise you that research suggests the biggest reason for violence in protests is that the cops start it? No, I don’t suppose it will.

You will be shocked, simply SHOCKED, to learn that after decades of researching effective methods for police response to large crowd actions, researchers have found — and you’re never going to believe this — that when cops show up in military gear and get aggressive, they actually make protest violence worse!

That’s one of the findings in “New Directions in Protest Policing,” a 2015 paper that reviews decades upon decades of police history and the conclusions of multiple separate commissions. Police that dress like they’re going to war, who try to control First Amendment expression rather than facilitate it, and who act in arbitrary ways can inflame violence and jeopardize their own safety and that of the public.

The paper was written by Edward R. Maguire, an Arizona State University professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and it dives all the way back to the nation’s founding and the civil unrest that led to the creation of the United States.

He notes that in the last 50 years, police responses have shifted between a couple of different models: In the ’60s and ’70s, there was the “escalated force” model, which assumed that protesters would be compliant if they saw that they were hopelessly outmatched by the police; that was followed in the ’80s and ’90s by the “negotiated management” model, in which police remained in close communication with protesters so that neither side was surprised by the other; then the ’90s gave rise to the “command and control” model in which police saw their role as dominating protests no matter how much force is required.

We have Seattle police to thank, in part, for the development of “command and control” (Miami played a role as well). The 1999 WTO protests in Seattle were decentralized, and police had few protest leaders to communicate with; so they launched into mass arrests and deploying chemical agents. Gosh that sounds familiar.

As it turns out, when crowds see police as unfair, unpredictable, and a threat, people no longer regard cops as legitimate authorities and are more likely to disobey. So when Fargo’s deputy police chief is caught inciting riots, for example, or when Colorado police are seen firing the first shot at people who are just standing around, they’re endangering everyone.

Minneapolis deciding to abolish its police department yesterday is a remarkable and amazing developing in American history. Policing is deeply, irrevocably broken in this nation. It’s going to be a long struggle to rebuild it into something that works for the people. It’s a struggle very much worth having.

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