From ‘Iron Fists’ to ‘Bunches Of Fives’: A Critical Reflection on Dialogue (or Liaison) Approaches to Policing Political Protest
This article focuses on the recent academic assertion that police attempts to engage in dialogue before and during protest events (ostensibly to facilitate the participants’ preferred means of political expression) are perhaps more realistically concerned with collecting useful intelligence about demonstrators’ likely motives and activities, and preparing advance justification for possible police interventions. A case study is presented of the work carried out by a 15-person South Yorkshire Police ‘Police Liaison Team’ (PLT) in relation to the ‘anti-Lib Dem’ political protest occurring in the major English city of Sheffield in March 2011. Using a combination of participant observation and interviews with police and demonstrators, the study highlights compelling similarities between the tactical approach and underlying objectives of the PLT and those subscribed to by public order specialists in the Metropolitan Police Service in the early 1990s. In common with their ‘Met’ counterparts, the PLT used carefully cultivated exchange relationships with protest organisers as means of gathering intelligence, securing compliance with police preferences for the routes of marches and establishing parameters of ‘acceptable’ behaviour. However, by using the relatively new tactic of immersing themselves in the crowd, PLT members were also able to maintain ‘open’ lines of communication with protesters and provide a stream of unerringly accurate ‘dynamic risk assessments’ to remote senior commanders. This tactic helped to ensure that there were few unsettling ‘surprises’ on both sides, that there were no unnecessary, indiscriminate or over-punitive police interventions, and that the police operation was ultimately regarded by protest organisers as having been exceptionally tolerant and ‘facilitating’.
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