Police are often the provocateurs of violence during demonstrations, according to new research.
The Deciding Force project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying clashes between law enforcement and protestors in 192 cities during Occupy demonstrations in 2011.
The research team found that protests tend to turn violent when officers use aggressive tactics, such as approaching demonstrators in riot gear or lining up in military-like formations.
Recent events in Ferguson are a good example, the study’s lead researcher said. For nearly two weeks, activists angered by a white police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager have ratcheted up their protests when confronted by heavily armed police forces.
“Everything starts to turn bad when you see a police officer come out of an SUV and he’s carrying an AR-15 [rifle],” said Nick Adams, a sociologist and fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Data Science who leads the Deciding Force Project “It just upsets the crowd.”
Adams said many law enforcement agencies aren’t aware that they set the tone of a protest and end up inflaming it.
In one October 2011 protest over the clearing of an Occupy encampment outside Oakland City Hall, officers fired tear gas and projectiles into crowds, injuring several activists. One of them, Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, was critically hurt and settled a lawsuit against the city in March for $4.5 million.