In the last few years, a wave of protest has swept the world: The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, anti-austerity rioting in England, police and protester clashes in Spain and Greece, labor unrest in China, and civil strife in Ukraine. There is good reason to believe that the outcomes of such protest movements depend on the ways in which they are policed. But researchers have been unable to satisfactorily explain why police respond to protest movements as they do. The Deciding Force Project aims to explain the dynamics of protester/police interactions to inform strategies that people and their governments may take to avoid unnecessary escalations, distrust, and violence in the future.
The scholarly literature on protest policing has identified four main factors influencing police/protester dynamics: the political and governing context under which police operate, police departments’ cultures and their capacities, the characteristics of the movements they face, and the on-the-ground interactions of police and protesters. To date, however, no scholarly consensus has emerged to explain the circumstance under which these factors matter more or less in determining protest policing. Movements too often feature different aims, strategies, and/or tactics as they challenge different political regimes with varying degrees of control over their differing police forces. So, researchers have had little comparative leverage with which to understand how a range of variables influence the unfolding of protester and police interactions.
The Occupy movement of 2011 presents a rare opportunity for the comparative study of protest policing. The movement spawned hundreds of encampments with similar goals and tactics across relatively similar American cities in a short period of time. The Deciding Force project uses the comparative leverage provided by the Occupy movement to investigate when, in the course of a protest campaign, and under what circumstances, political context, police characteristics, movement characteristics and on-the-ground interactional dynamics matter more or less in determining police and protester behavior.
Our team is classifying information from over 8000 news articles describing over 35,000 events in which police and the Occupy movement interacted. In addition, we are collecting and classifying data on legal and city government actions (like curfew orders, the dropping of charges against protesters, etc.), as well as data on variables describing the governing contexts in which protests occur (including city and police department budgets per capita, city political culture, police department culture and training, etc.)
Using statistical techniques including multi-level event history and sequence analyses, we will be able to answer questions still pending in the protest policing literature -- questions like: Do police departments use a signature set of tactics or an array of protest policing repertoires? How much violence is associated with different policing approaches? And, which interactive sequences are most likely to lead to violence or compromise?
We are not for or against police or protesters in general. We are for more peaceful and productive interactions between these parties. And we hope and expect that our research will foster conversations within and between these parties to diminish violent escalations during future episodes of political contestation.