Public Order operations, such as those currently challenging the French police in suburbs ofutside of Paris, are about the pro-active policing of order. Their goal is to gather intelligence and work through liasions to shape both the ground and community relations and prevent escalation of violence. This requires hard work by the community, the police and politicians alike. Especially as matters come to a head, clear and positive actions by the police are essential. If violence does occur, then it must be dealt with in an appropriate and professional manner.
In attempting to maintain a low level of escalation, the French police have increased the risk to their officers. The expectation has been set that shotgun attacks will be tolerated, and so 30 such incidents have now occurred over the past few nights. The French police will eventually meet such lethal force with their own. There will undoubtedly be an outcry, similar to the public outrage that faced the police and military in Northern Ireland some years ago when a loyalist protester barricaded himself in a gunshot-resistant wooden sangar and fired crossbow bolts at members of the British Army baseline. Unsurprisingly, the Commanding Officer of the battalion under fire (recently returned from Iraq) rightly classified this as use of lethal force and instructed his overwatch team (lethal cover for the non-lethally focused Public Order troops) to neutralise the threat. Later, the individual was arrested for attempted murder.
Public Order operations commanders have as much responsibility to their officers as to the crowd. When lethal force is used against them, a rubicon has been crossed. The offending individuals must be identified and neutralised to send a signal that such behaviour cannot be tolerated. The argument may be made that the precipitous use of lethal force may escalate the situation further, which is fair. However, police must still have the tactical freedom, and the capability, to engage with lethal force in response to a clearly identified threat.
There are lessons to be learnt in preparation for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions next year. It is highly likely that anti-war and G8-style protestors will disrupt at least one if not both of the conventions. The former are generally not particularly organised nor violent, but this might change as frustrations about the Iraq War continue to mount. G8 protestors, on the other hand, represent the Ivy League of protestors: organised, effective, and much better trained and rehearsed than an average police department’s public order capability. These departments must ensure that they have the appropriate decision-making, command and control, training and use of force processes identified and trained early. It is essential to clearly address the hypothetical ‘what if’s’ to prevent being caught unprepared when a situation arises. Organised and planned rioting can destroy the reputation of both a city and its police officers – a phenomenon seen this and last decade in the United States.
If they haven’t done so already, Minneapolis and Denver should start looking to create appropriate threat response capabilities.