Armored cars. Riot gear. Gas masks. Heavy artillery. The scenes coming out of Ferguson, Missouri show a city under siege with local and state police officers in full metal jackets; ramrod straight ordered to keep the peace after the police shooting death of an unarmed black man.
But does police in full combat regalia help control the situation or escalate it?
That’s the topic of a major study being researched right now by the University of California, Berkeley. Called “The Deciding Force Project,” the study is reviewing 200 police versus protester incidents across the United States to try to determine what factors cause a demonstration to escalate into violence.
Nick Adams is the lead researcher of the project. He told my Sacramento, CA news radio station KFBK he was moved to conduct the research by the events of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements of 2011 which both produced major clashes between protesters and police.
“We’re finding police have a lot of capacity to set a tone. When police show up in riot gear you get a different kind of interaction than when they show up in their regular uniforms,” Adams said.
The UC Berkeley study examines how a city and government responds during a major demonstration as well as what police and protesters do. It looks for patterns in the response.
In Ferguson, we are seeing images of officers in riot gear setting up “skirmish” lines — when police are locked side by side to hold back protesters.
“These things end up being provocative to a crowd of people not used to fighting,” Adams said.
The Deciding Force project is building a database that shows patterns in police/protester interactions to determine how certain actions ignite violence. One such example is how an emotional outburst can escalate into a volley of rocks and tear gas.
Adams claims police on local, state and national levels are truly not equipped to properly respond to mass protests. He has another, albeit altruistic, proposal: Have the police, media and protest organizers work together.
“To make sure the grievances of legitimate concern is heard as opposed to focusing on individuals who are creating major problems,” Adams said.
But for now, the research shows the odds of violence increase drastically when police show up in riot gear. And the tension in Ferguson continues.