#IndexDrawtheLine: Reforms needed in police handling of protests


As protests continue to rock many countries, at times leading to use of excessive force including tear gas and rubber bullets by law enforcement officers against protesters, people have openly raised questions on police abuse. This month’s Draw the Line question focused on the excessive use of force during protests and the role police can play in striking the balance between keeping the peace and protecting free speech.

Being a witness to recent protests that turned ugly after use of batons, tear gas and rubber bullets against civilians protesting rigged elections in Pakistan, it was interesting to compare various responses on the #IndexDrawtheLine Twitter feed offered by participants from different parts of the world.  An article shared by Fiona Bradley during the debate on Twitter discussed attempts made by Chinese authorities to censor use of police force against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The use of tear gas and counter protesters to disperse demonstrators has also changed the popular opinion regarding the city’s police that was once considered to be the best in region. On the other hand, an Amnesty International report revealed cases of excessive use of force by Brazil’s police throughout the protests that erupted before and during the Fifa World Cup this summer. This clearly depicts the extent to which police can be used by local authorites against civilians’ voicing their opinion publicly.

In an interview for the PBS Newshour, Margaret Huang, deputy executive director of campaigns and programs at Amnesty International’s US arm, raised an important point about the tactics deployed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, during protests during there. “The police’s reaction might have been an overreaction. It may have actually been a violation of international standards for appropriate police response. If your purpose is to disperse people, tear gas is not a great tool for that,” Huang said. “It’s worth noting that tear gas is actually a weapon that’s not allowed to be used in warfare”, she said, “because it can be indiscriminate in who it targets. So the fact that police agencies in [the US] use it for crowd dispersal raises huge concerns about whether that’s a useful or appropriate response.”

Another important concern that has been raised is the increasing militarisation of police that is counter productive and looks more like an intimidating combat against foreign enemies in a war zone. In this case, should protesters have their own force to protect them in case the police start firing rubber bullets and tear gas on non-violent protesters or should there be appropriate training on dealing with such scenarios, keeping in mind the wide difference in domestic and military operations?

It is generally accepted that the state has an obligation to prevent injury and loss of life during public gatherings while maintaining public order to prevent social disruption and damage to property, according to the United Nations. Disgraceful police excesses will continue unabated during  public gatherings unless authorities bring police tactics in line with basic human rights standards whether they belong to US, China or developing countries in south Asia and the Middle East.

A few participants from Pakistan offered the point that their country’s police cannot be trained on the lines of “protect and guard” instead of  “us versus them” unless officials are appointed on merit without any political interference. But in the case of countries where political interference during recruitment isn’t the problem, one can not help but wonder about the steps required to make the police fall in line with defined international standards.

In the wake of G20 protests in London during the year 2009 that resulted in the death of news vendor Ian Thomilson, the Metropolitan Police came up with a 60 page report Adapt to Protest which advocated the need of major reforms required to deal with policing of protests. The report made a number of immediate recommendations that stressed facilitating peaceful protests, improving communication with the public/ protest groups through dialogue and moderating the impact of containment for proper access of food, water and other essentials. It acknowledged the dire need of giving importance to human rights during operational decisions and training that is needed to equip officers with tactics for effective policing and facilitating of protest activity. Such steps need to be introduced by law enforcement and then implemented independently which is not possible without the cooperation of political authorities and the public.

In this age of instant communication, people are bound to question images and videos of police abuse during mass protests accessible through internet and live television. The only way for police to strike the balance in maintaining peace and protecting civilians’ right to free speech and assembly is to start approaching it as a healthy expression of democracy instead of a menace that needs to be stifled and discouraged.

This article was published on 10 October 2014 at indexoncensorship.org