I wrote the article below on how to prepare for and do police liaison in 1995. I have added an end note on ‘Police Threats’ that I feel is particularly relevant to experiences of the Occupy movement in 2011. For more detail on Nonviolent Action: Minimizing the Risk of Violent Repression see the relevant article by Robert.
(Originally published in Nonviolence Today 47, November-December 1995)
Last year, Kate Kelly and I (from Australian Humanitarian Aid for Bougainville) decided to do police liaison for the first time, and Rob Burrowes supported us in what was for us quite a scary and challenging role. We did some solid preparation before speaking to the police about the action we were planning, and I have written up this process, since I have found it very useful in doing police liaison since then, and I thought it could be useful for other activists.
Preparation for Police Liaison
If people haven’t previously done police liaison, or if they have but don’t feel confident about it yet, it is very useful for them to do a facilitated discussion exploring the feelings and issues involved. The following is a sample agenda for this.
Agenda (2 hours approx. depending on the number of people)
1) Personal sharing – How are participants feeling today? (1 and 2 can be combined)
2) Sharing – Why do you want to do police liaison? What do you want to get out of this session?
3) Working out or presenting the agenda – facilitator either works one out on the spot according to what people have said they want or presents the following format and checks that it includes everything people want to do.
4) Feelings – What are people’s feelings around dealing with the police in general and particularly in a liaison situation? Give each person plenty of time and reflectively listen to their feelings.
5) Why do we do police liaison? – let people brainstorm, then fill in any major gaps. People will probably come up with a combination of reasons related to principles, tactics and strategy. The list should include points related to:
* openness and honesty
* taking responsibility for, and pride in, our actions
* minimising the risk of violence
* developing relationships beyond the stereotyped roles people normally play
* increasing opportunities over time for individual police to decide that they support your cause.
6) How do we do police liaison? – Brainstorm every issue that needs to be covered in a meeting with the police, or present the following general agenda for people to comment on/adapt to the particular circumstance.
1. Arrange a meeting with the police who will be dealing with the action. Find out which police to talk to well in advance of the action. Ask for about half an hour of their time (depending on the complexity of the action).
2. Work out in advance who will be talking through each part of the meeting so that new people, particularly, can prepare what they are going to say.
3. Points to be covered in the meeting with police:
Introductions – use police officers’ titles unless they ask you to use their names, encourage them to use your first names. Shake hands.
Chitchat – Try to chat about something not related to your action to make things a bit more relaxed before you begin (it helps if you already have a relationship with the particular police officer from previous actions).
a) Agenda – Run briefly through the different points you’ve planned to talk to them about to make sure they give you space to say what you need to, and to reassure them that you’re not going to rave at them for half an hour about the issue.
b) Who is organising the action – Explain briefly what your action group does. If you have no previous connection with this particular police officer, explain the group’s connection with the Australian Nonviolence Network and find out if the police are familiar with other ANN groups such as the Melbourne Rainforest Action Group. Explain how all ANN groups use the same nonviolent discipline in their actions.
Find out if the police officer is aware of your group’s previous actions, give them names of police involved as a reference.
c) Why we are doing the action? – Explain briefly the issues involved in the action (plan for three or four sentences). Judge whether the officer is ready to hear more or less about the issue – if you feel that the officer does not want to hear about it, don’t push it and go straight on to what will be happening in the action.
d) What the details of the action are – Give the police a time-line and a diagram of how the action will be set up (if this is appropriate) and go through these step by step. Be prepared to give an estimate of the numbers you expect at the action – this is usually the first question the police ask.
e) How we will be carrying out this action – Talk about your adherence to nonviolent discipline, specifically:
* no physical violence
* no abuse of police or workers
* no damage to property
* intended response to arrest
* role of peacekeepers
* asking people to take part in the action only on the basis of accepting nonviolent discipline.
Give the police a copy of the ‘nonviolent discipline’ leaflet you will be handing out to people at the beginning of the action.
f) Police officers’ questions or concerns – Ask if they have any concerns and discuss these. If police ask you to change any part of the action, take time to consider whether or not the changes would affect the fundamental integrity the action. You might discuss the issue among yourselves there and then and come to an immediate decision, or ask for time to refer back to the whole group to get a consensus decision, depending on how complicated the issue is and how confident you feel in making an appropriate decision on the spot.
g) Requests of the police – Is there anything they can do for you (e.g. organising parking spots for cars, talking to other parties involved…)?
h) Concluding bits – Swap names and phone numbers. Arrange to send any extra information they might need or organise a future date to talk to them again if necessary. Indicate that you will be responsible for police liaison at the action and that you will be available for consultation before, during and after the action.
Additional note, 29 October 2011:
Police threats – If, during your liaison with them, police threaten to behave violently towards activists if the activists perform a certain action (such as trespass, climbing fences or obstruction) reiterate the activists’ commitment to nonviolence and state that, obviously, it is the police officers’ choice how they decide to respond. Depending on the political climate in your local situation, this type of threat may be given only in order to scare you off: if you maintain your calm determination to proceed as you have planned, despite arrest or violent responses from the police, there is considerable likelihood that no actual violence will occur (though activists most probably will be arrested). Obviously, if the police have been ordered to behave violently by political authorities above them, they may do so, but violence will be more difficult for them to enact if they see your relative fearlessness of their violent response and your calm determination to act according to your conscience while remaining nonviolent despite their provocation. Refraining from insulting police during the action and being willing to give up an immediate physical goal in favour of achieving a longer term strategic goal (by having mass arrests without physical tussles, for example) will also reduce the risk of police violence. If the police still behave violently despite the activists behaving in such a dignified way, this is likely to gain wider public sympathy and support for the activists and their cause.