Interview with Ed Maguire, PhD


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Dr. Edward Maguire is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He has written or edited three books and more than 70 journal articles and book chapters on various themes related to policing, violence, organization theory, and social science methodology. Maguire recently wrapped up a survey of Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York, Washington, Oakland and Texas. The second phase of the study, funded by the U.S. Justice Department's COPS Office, will result in a guidebook for police agencies on the role of community policing in responding to protests. The Center for Public Criminology interviewed Maguire about the dynamics of protest policing, and the most effective protest policing strategies, in today's tense political climate.

What projects are you currently working on?

We just wrapped up our national study of the police response to the Occupy movement, and so we are releasing from that project several peer-reviewed journal articles, a guidebook for American police departments on how to police protests. That is in press now so it should be out in a few weeks. And an academic book on protest policing. That’s still in progress though, that’s going to take about 6 to 12 months to produce. I have an impact evaluation of the Cure Violence initiative in Trinidad and Tobago, and that’s a project that relies on formerly incarcerated gang members to act as mediators on the street to try to reduce gang violence in that small Caribbean nation, which is experiencing an epidemic of gang- and gun-related violence. So that impact evaluation is currently in process. And then a whole variety of studies in various places that are focusing on the way police interact with citizens and the effect of those interactions on how citizens view the police. So that whole line of research is on a topic that is commonly known as procedural justice and legitimacy.

Why should social science research be a central component of protest policing?

One of the really interesting parts about not just protest policing, but the policing of crowds, is when you ask people about crowds--just their thoughts on the potential for crowds to become riotous or rebellious or to engage in collective misbehavior--people usually dramatically overestimate the risks of crowds, and they underestimate the kinds of pro-social behaviors that members of crowds engage in, like policing themselves, and helping one another, and engaging in kinds of social control. And the social science study of crowds presents a very different picture of crowd behavior than people’s gut feelings about crowds, and especially police officers’ gut feelings about crowds. In Europe there’s a major issue with football or soccer-related violence, they call it football hooliganism. And there’s a lot of social science research on the interaction between crowds and police officers in soccer games that turn violent. The findings from that research are very similar to the findings from our own research on protest policing in the United States. That is, when police engage in crowds in ways that are perceived as unfair, crowds are more likely to rebel and behave violently. So there’s an interesting dynamic that happens after violence between police and crowds. Crowds blame the police, police blame the crowds, and they’re both right. Because it’s a dynamic between what the police are doing and what the crowds are doing, and that dynamic is what produces rebellion and violence. It’s not necessarily the fault of either one, generally speaking, it’s a dynamic that occurs between both of them. And so neither one of them tends to know that that’s happening, and social science research is revealing those patterns that we see when we study those dynamic interactions between police and crowd members. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a soccer game or a protest, we see the exact same dynamics happening.

How do you think you can spread that concept to protesters and police?

Together with my colleague Megan Oakley, who helped me run this study for the last few years, we’ve prepared a guidebook for American police departments. In thinking about how to publish this guidebook, we had a couple of choices. One option was to publish it through a university press or a commercial press. And that might bring us greater sort of glamour, or intellectual rewards from the academic community, but we purposely didn’t go that route because we wanted it to be widely and freely available. And so we chose to publish it through the Justice Department, and when the Justice Department publishes these kinds of things they make them freely available to the public, and they distribute them widely in the policing community. One of the other things we can do is now when we’re holding seminars or workshops, we can order entire boxes of these books and hand them out to participants for free. I just returned from a meeting in England, where I met with police officers from the U.K. and from some other European countries as well as some social psychologists in Europe who specialize in studying crowd-police interactions and crowd violence. And so I talked about the book when I was there, and I had dozens of people ask me while I was there, "Can we get a copy of this book please?" Well, it’ll be available for free in PDF format, so I can distribute it electronically very easily, but it’ll also be available in hard copy format, I can just ship copies to these folks. So we’re looking to have an impact on police not only in the United States, but also abroad.

When, in your opinion and in what you’ve found in your research, are more aggressive policing tactics (such as tear gas, bean bag rounds, etc.) justified?

There are very particular circumstances in which they’re justified, and that’s when police have sort of lost control of a crowd. And so what ends up happening is police often end up deploying these kinds of chemical agents or ballistic agents prematurely. When they deploy them prematurely, they often end up making things worse, not better. And so there’s a really important role in policing these kinds of events, in using dialogue, and using it really as early as possible. We present an entire framework in the guidebook for how to police these kinds of events and it starts with, long before the event is even held, police engaging in dialogue with organizers of events in cases where there are there are organizers. And what we’re looking for is that dialogue to prevent the need for there to be bean bags and chemical agents and so forth. The reality is sometimes crowds get out of control and they do need to be controlled using these types of agents, but what we’re trying to do is treat that as a last resort rather than a first resort and engage in a whole lot of strategic thinking to prevent those kinds of steps from needing to be taken in the first place.

Are there certain police departments that are doing a better job of that than others?

Yeah, and unfortunately what happens is the police departments who are doing a terrific job at handling these kinds of events, by virtue of doing a terrific job are exactly the ones who don’t get covered in the media. The ones that we see being covered in the media are the ones who have lost control. And so an interesting dynamic happened during the Occupy where certain police departments did a particularly terrible job of handling Occupy protests, ended up on the news, and ended up on the news being depicted in all the wrong ways. So we saw something interesting happening where some of the police departments that we went out to visit during our national study also were watching the news. The leaders of those agencies were watching the news and they saw these agencies depicted in terrible ways, and that turned out to be a tremendous motivator for them, and so what we heard in a lot of agencies was, we don’t want to end up on the evening news. We don’t want to be depicted in that way, and certainly not depicted in that way on a national or an international scope. And so what these chiefs told us and these executives told us is when we saw that kind of coverage happening we ended up sort of pulling ourselves together and saying, "How can we prevent that from happening?" You saw chiefs like Ed Davis in Boston and the chief at the time in Salt Lake City, those two departments in particular did a fabulous job of trying to prevent violence by putting high-ranking police executives out on the front lines. These folks shared their cell phone numbers with protesters or particular protest leaders and said, "Look, if things are starting to go bad just call us, and we’ll just work it out." The assistant chief in Salt Lake City told me for instance, he said, "I bought gallons of coffee for protesters, and it was over those many instances of me buying them coffee that we hashed out a sort of effective working relationship that helped us prevent violence." And he went a step further. He said when the decision was made by the city to move the Occupy encampment to a different site, the police actually took the Occupiers around and helped them find a new site that was acceptable to them. So those types of very proactive steps to help prevent that kind of rebellion and the violence that flows from it.

What about police departments that have been doing not such a good job?

The NYPD, which is under different leadership now, and I want to emphasize that it’s under different leadership now, but when the NYPD handled the Occupy protests, it did a horrific job. I watched them with my own eyes engaging in really unprofessional ways with protesters, in ways that were absolutely destined to sort of result in rebellion and violence. The University of California-Davis did a terrible job as depicted in that famous video, or the still photo, of a lieutenant there pepper-spraying seated protesters on the university campus. Certainly the Oakland Police Department, again, under previous leadership, did a terrible job of handling the protests, using violence and in one case breaking the skull of an Iraq war veteran. And so in all three instances, what we saw was a dramatic overreaction to First Amendment-protected activity. And what we’re encouraging agencies to do—we’re not asking agencies not to enforce the law. We want agencies to go out, maintain public safety, and maintain public order in these kinds of things. What we want them to do is to use much more targeted enforcement activity. If you’ve got a small number of people who are starting to raise hell at a protest, your enforcement activity should be directed at that small number of people, not at the entire crowd. And so the basic strategy is to take enforcement activity in very targeted ways against those people who are violating the law, and particularly those who are behaving in violent or disruptive ways while continuing to observe the First Amendment rights of everybody else who is not engaging in those kinds of behaviors. When police do this wrong, what they do is they take action against the entire crowd as a result of the misbehaviors of a small number of people in the crowd. That’s a strategic error, and we’re trying to get police departments to point in a different direction on that.

What do you think is the best approach police departments can take to journalists at a protest?

There’s a section of the guidebook actually that focuses on this issue, because one of the things we see, like for instance in Ferguson, I think there was two dozen or more journalists were arrested and journalists were routinely manhandled by police in the Ferguson area. We certainly saw this a lot in the Occupy protests, where journalists were arrested or were deprived of their ability to engage in their First Amendment-protected activities. And so one of the things that we suggest is just like we want police to engage in dialogue with protesters ahead of time, we want police to engage in dialogue with journalists ahead of time. It can be really difficult for police to know who are journalists, and so one of the things that needs to happen is some sort of a credentialing mechanism so you can identify just who journalists are and so police can just leave them alone in dealing with crowds in these very chaotic situations. But the other thing that should be happening is a whole lot of dialogue ahead of time with journalists, and sometimes that’s not possible with spontaneous types of events, but whenever it is possible, we’d like to see that kind of ongoing, not just dialogue, but a genuine partnership between the media and the police. When the former chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department found it necessary to break up the Occupy encampment in Salt Lake City, one of the things that he did is he brought journalists with him because he was trying to communicate very transparently, "Look, we have nothing to hide. We want the media there to document what we’re doing, because we want them to document that we’re doing it in a humane and transparent manner." That kind of mentality about how to deal with journalists is really professional, it’s really appropriate, and it’s what we try to encourage agencies to do in the guidebook.

Do you think that protests around the country have become more violent in recent years? Why or why not?

I don’t know if they’ve become more violent, but the one thing we do hear from police departments is that they’ve become more about the police. In typical protests over any kind of political topic, police are there to manage the crowd and ensure public safety and order. But this becomes so much more complex when the protest is actually about the police. And so now the police are having to do all of those same things but do them with people who are focusing their, in some cases anger and frustration and hatred toward the very people who now need to manage that event. And so what we are hearing from police is that they’re becoming more difficult or complex, and they’re dealing with what they claim is a sort of a new breed of protester that is engaging with them in a much more frustrated and angry kind of a way, and that presents a lot of challenges for police. And our response to that is under those circumstances it is especially important to follow the strategic guidelines that we present in the guidebook. To engage in dialogue, to behave in a professional and calm kind of a way, to develop partnerships, to control the behavior of the front-line police officers. One of the things that we need to acknowledge here is it is exceedingly difficult on the human beings, the police officers who are on the front lines of protesters, where protesters are sometimes saying really horrible, hurtful kinds of things to these police officers. And so how long can you expect a police officer to stand in front of a protester swearing at them, saying hateful and horrible mean-spirited things against them, before that person just breaks, just reacts in a human kind of a way? So one of the things that we encourage police departments to do is to think about a kind of rotation strategy, and think very carefully about the health and wellness of the officers they’re deploying to these events, not just their physical safety but their emotional health and wellness so when you have them out there on the front lines, dealing with people who are really angry and hurtful, that we can sort of rotate them out and give them some opportunities to get a drink, to get a snack, to have some time away from that kind of emotionally toxic work and put some people in who are fresh. That’s something that I think is especially important with protests being focused more heavily against police themselves.

How could today’s political climate affect the nature of protests and protest policing?

First of all, we’re just seeing significantly greater protest activity in the country right now, and these are really angry protests, people are really fed up and are really feeling threatened, I think, by the current administration and its policies. We have a lot of police departments out there who are not prepared to deal with these kinds of events very well, and so just that uptick in activity could potentially lead to some ugly kinds of incidents. I’m really worried about that, which is why I think it’s really important to get that guidebook out there, and to really start working with police leaders from around the nation to think about how to police these things in different ways than what they’re used to. And so on the one hand, I’m nervous about what’s happening; on the other hand, we’d like to be part of the solution.

Do you think with the current political climate, there’s more of a risk of race or socioeconomic discrimination playing a role in these types of situations?

Yeah. I think those are really salient issues right now, and I think they’re feeding into the sense of fear that I have about protests turning more violent.

What do you think is the best way for police departments to combat those issues?

Very delicately. The one thing I would say about the recommendations that we put forward in the guidebook is they’re not recommendations that are specific to dealing with protests. They’re not recommendations that are specific to dealing with certain crowds or certain issues. They’re really generic recommendations for how to handle crowds. And so whether the protests are related to race or ethnicity or immigration, or government or whatever the issue may be, the guidelines are very generic for how to address those kinds of issues. That being said, anytime I think race or ethnicity are involved at all, there’s a heightened level of sensitivity I think is necessary on the part of departments for dealing with those events.