Vol. 76, No. 1External submissions

Sweden’s approach to policing protests

Having dialogue police officers in a crowd can provide them with the opportunity to see police behaviour from the demonstrators' point of view. Credit: Stockholm Police Department


A large number of police officers and demonstrators were injured and violent confrontations caused extensive damage. Police opened fire on demonstrators.

The government ordered a special committee to review what went wrong, and their report shed light on the importance of facilitating dialogue between the police and political organizations and other opinion groups.

This led to the creation of the dialogue police in Stockholm. Police negotiators were asked to do the dialogue work. They concluded that as long as it's more advantageous for demonstrators to choose aggressive techniques to reach their goals, they will always choose an aggressive approach.

They felt it was important to build a dialogue so that protest groups would see the benefits of following the rules of democracy rather than doing the opposite. Police can ensure that such a condition exists.

Fulfilling this goal turned out to be challenging, as it was met with resistance both inside and outside the police organization.Creating a dialogue Dialogue involves communication between two parties rather than one party telling the other one what to do. The dialogue police officers tried to mediate between the commanders' interests and the goals of the demonstrators in order to control the demonstration. But within the police organization, the dialogue concept challenged some basic assumptions.

One opinion is that threats to law and order should be met with force and any attempts at dialogue showed weakness. Furthermore, when the dialogue police officers tried explaining the demonstrators' viewpoint to commanders and advocating for their interests, they were seen as betraying police.

On the other hand, activists perceived the dialogue police as intelligence officers who were gathering information to report back to police. Some also felt the dialogue officers were there to trick them.

Building trust, openness and transparency was critical. The dialogue police were gradually accepted both internally and externally but only once it became clear to commanders and demonstrators that the chance of each reaching their respective goals was higher with the presence of dialogue officers.

The resistance against dialogue police also came from another group: politicians. By using force, those in power can avoid engaging in the social and economic issues that often cause protests. Even if dialogue work can be negative for politicians who do not want to get engaged in a matter and want the police to sort it out, the dialogue work can still prevent an escalation of violence.

Trying to resolve protests with violence can lead to catastrophic results. In the long run, those who advocate for a democratic solution have much to gain if police have a solid dialogue police function in place.

A complex process

It's possible to see dialogue police work as a process divided into tasks that should occur before, during and after an event. These tasks are not only significant for a specific event but can also affect subsequent events.

Minimal communication between police and demonstrators can easily give rise to misunderstandings that can lead to confrontation.

Dialogue before an event can contribute to order since it can open the doors to different kinds of agreements. Contact can also help reduce the risk of stereotyping on both sides.

Before an event, the police and demonstrators can discuss a number of issues, such as transportation to and from the event, first aid, meeting places and various set times. Agreements can even been made ahead of time about arrests for civil disobedience actions to minimize violence but at the same time get media attention, if that's the goal for demonstrators.

During a demonstration, dialogue police have a lot to accomplish.

The position taken up by dialogue police officers in a crowd can provide them with a good opportunity to see police behaviour from the demonstrators' point of view. For example, a large number of orders are issued to protestors during an operation. These orders can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

In a chaotic situation, police actions that are caused by thoughtlessness or misapprehension can easily provoke a counter action.

Observations made in connection with dialogue police work show that it's difficult for a protest "ringleader" to influence a large crowd without "help" from the police. Militant activists are well aware of the need to get "aid" from the police and their tactics include provoking the police to attack the crowd.

Because dialogue police have considerable knowledge of both the demonstrators' and police agency's plans, along with considerable awareness of the current situation, this enables them to analyze the likely consequences of police actions or non-actions.

The spatial location of the dialogue police officers can give them a leg up in terms of their awareness of critical circumstances in a specific situation. In this context, the dialogue police have the important role of ensuring that information channels to the police command are short. This designated function makes it easier for participants to know where to turn to ensure that information will immediately reach the commander.

After an event, the dialogue police can provide feedback both to police and demonstrators and can also influence the police to make statements in media that can be positive for coming events.

The dialogue police gain extremely good insight into different groups and the prevailing values in those groups. This means that they're in a good position to understand what effect police actions can have on these groups in the short term and the long term, and provide advice accordingly.

Beware the pitfalls

A fruitful dialogue takes time to build but even when it works well, violence can still occur. Both internally and externally, those who are against the aim of dialogue will try to discredit dialogue work and may even try to get the dialogue to fail.

There's another problem when something is successful: it risks being over-used without reflection. In Stockholm, the dialogue concept was tried in preventing hooliganism in sports. Unfortunately, hooligans have a completely different driving force compared to those who want to create opinion for an idea.

Making provocative media statements is another pitfall. This very problem resulted in damaging the relationship between police and the football clubs in Stockholm. It's important to be humble and to realize that there's no universal solution.

For external credibility, it's unfortunate if dialogue police officers are perceived as intelligence gatherers, as this isn't their role. Dialogue police work can provide valuable information through an open and transparent dialogue if we remember why the concept was introduced.

Dialogue police work is fraught with potential problems and these must be addressed if the dialogue concept is to reach its full potential.

Policing demonstrations

When a group of 50 youths left the Capital Pride Parade in Ottawa and headed towards the Russian Embassy for an impromptu demonstration, Cst. Laurette Jones and other members of the RCMP's Demonstration and Special Events Unit (DSEU) arrived on scene just minutes beforehand.

Established to respond to the high number of demonstrations and special events in the nation's capital, the DSEU's job is to ensure public safety and protect the sites designated under its federal mandate during protests and special events. This includes Parliament Hill, the Supreme Court and embassies.

The protesters intended to tie rainbow ribbons to the embassy's fence in a political art protest. The DSEU had to act fast as their mandate includes the protection of the embassy under the Vienna Convention.

While the general public sees the uniformed member in action only on the day of an event, Jones says that between doing the background research, reaching out to organizers and liaising with partners, most of the unit's work is done in the weeks leading up to it to ensure a peaceful protest.

"If we work really hard ahead of time, we see the payoff the day of the event," says Jones.

At the Russian Embassy, Jones asked to speak with the organizer.

"I was able to meet with him right there to discuss his plans, and, along with our partners in the Ottawa Police Service, we came up with an alternative," says Jones.

She says it's their job to respect people's fundamental rights and freedom to their opinions, to their expression and to peaceful assembly, no matter what their own beliefs are.

Rather than fixing anything to the fence, it was determined that they were able to put the ribbons on the trees in the park adjacent to the embassy.

"Their rights are still respected, they get to express themselves and they feel supported in that role, but they are still respecting the law," she says. To Jones, it was all in a day's work.

– Deidre Seiden

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