HONG KONG – Police around the world, who once routinely handled demonstrations such as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests with batons and tear gas, face new dilemmas in an age when dissident crowds are armed with smartphones, Facebook and Twitter.
Tough tactics, flashed around the world by social media, can incite demonstrators and undermine a government’s legitimacy, as happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Kiev’s Maidan. Tactics for defusing conflict include avoiding riot gear, deciding early which actions merit arrest and soothing protesters by opening lines of communication, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. In Hong Kong, authorities eased an early crackdown, and protesters Monday began allowing access to government buildings.
“The days of a strong show of force no longer apply,” said Wexler, whose group consults law enforcement officials to devise model practices. “Today, police have to be much more strategic and think about ways to de-escalate situations.”
The initial response of Hong Kong police underscores what authorities have come to understand: Trying to intimidate or manage a crowd often has the opposite effect, Wexler said.
Hong Kong officers in riot gear lobbed tear gas at crowds on Sept. 28, then took a less aggressive stance as demonstrations continued.
Police around the globe have ample experience with controlling dissent in recent years.
In the U.S., the response is generally determined by the actions of the protesters, said Raymond Kelly, a former New York City police commissioner who oversaw protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention and the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
After 1991 riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, which erupted after a Jewish driver accidentally struck and killed the 7-year-old son of Guyanese immigrants, the department issued a manual still in use today. It addresses tactical formations and warns officers that they should act as a team, Kelly said.
“You learn some of it by trial and error, but I think generally speaking, police are better trained now and have better tactics,” said Kelly.
Kelly said one example of a botched response was in Ferguson, Missouri, when police responded to protests over the Aug. 9 killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer with military-style gear, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Images of armored officers pointing guns at protesters with their hands up, a gesture repeated in images from Hong Kong, fueled days of unrest.
Wexler’s organization produced a 2011 report that includes recommendations for crowd management, from taking time for planning and training, to shutting down vehicle access to streets with high pedestrian traffic and keeping officers mobile. Force should be a last resort, he said.
Other tactics that police have adopted include acquiring expensive sound equipment to better communicate with protesters for blocks, said Clark McPhail, an emeritus sociology professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Police walk a fine line of avoiding excessive aggression while protecting people and property, said Eugene O’Donnell, professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“What success is and how you define it is obviously very dependent on the time, place and circumstances of the demonstration,” he said.
In other countries, police response has had momentous consequences.
Decades of onerous security under former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak helped trigger a 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought out throngs of protesters and eventually led to Mubarak’s ouster.
Police formed a line and shot tear gas at unarmed protesters, beat them with batons, pulled them by their hair and used “state-sponsored thugs masquerading as civilians,” said activist Wael Eskandar, who participated in the protests.
“Police have always reacted violently to protests, but the level of police violence has been inversely proportional to the backlash of the public,” Eskandar said.
Police brutality plunged Ukraine into civil conflict and revolution just as protests in the capital, Kiev, began to wane over then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union last November.
The Berkut riot police force used batons and shields to clear a few hundred demonstrators, mostly students, from the main Independence Square, or Maidan. Anger at the violence reignited the protests, and as many as 500,000 people took to the streets the next day.
“That beating on Maidan affected further events very much,” said Oleksiy Hrytsenko, a former activist now serving in the Ukrainian Army who said he was among the protesters beaten in the first days. “The people’s initiative had been withering and it was a new impulse. A lot of people in Ukraine realized they are completely unsafe.”
Of course, while repression can stop a protest, it comes at a price.
In 1989, China sent soldiers and tanks to break up pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and hundreds of people are believed to have been killed.
While it’s difficult to compare actions in countries with varying levels of free expression, most large departments try to avoid militaristic responses, said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. His group includes 77 municipalities in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
That involves engaging protesters and trying to reach an understanding about the parameters of the demonstration that allows dissenters to exercise their rights while maintaining order, Stephens said. Some departments recruit protesters to help monitor a crowd. Police learn from past successes and failures, he said.