Otto M. J. Adang: “In the management of public order, interacting and communicating are important tactical tools”

Prof. Otto M.J. Adang (1956) is a behavioural scientist. He has been a lecturer in Public Order & Hazard Management at the Police Academy since 2004. Adang is interested in aggression, reconciliation and collective behaviour in relation to public order enforcement. Since 1998, he has led the Violence and Hazard Management research program in conflict situations, which he set up, aimed at the interaction between police and civilians.

Nowadays Prof. Adang holds several responsibilities.. He is chair in Public order Management and Academic Dean MSc Policing at the Police Academy of the Netherlands. Since 1 April 2016, he is also professor by special appointment of Security and collective behaviour at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen. And since 2018 he is a visiting professor at the Canterbury  Center of Policing research.

Which have been, in your opinion, the most important changes in public order management the last 10 years in Europe?

The most important change I have seen in the last decades in public order policing in Europe is the development from a one-sided focus on riot control, where the emphasis is on policing disorder, with a low threshold for the undifferentiated use of less-than-lethal weapons, to a more modern and flexible public order management approach where the emphasis is on promoting order setting limits and boundaries in a friendly and firm way.

Admittedly, not all countries have shown this change, but I see how more and more “good practices” in the management of public events are identified.

Actually, what is a good practice? It is good practice to avoid unnecessary frictions and to facilitate the legitimate activities and intentions of participants as far as possible. Monitoring and observing an event in real time is considered important to identify potential problems and to deal with them from an early stage onwards. This involves communicating with participants and informing them to learn what affects them, to avoid misunderstandings about measures being taken and to gain compliance.

In line with the aforementioned question and regarding the last developments, were we are going now? Which will be, in your opinion, the next steps to do?

We could point out several general trends in western countries. Most of them came from an increasing interest to incorporate current scientific understanding into the policing of public events.

Just to mention the some of the most important trends, we find an increasing flexibility where the police, as a whole, or different units can switch easily between different approaches and can easily move about.  In that sense, gaining in flexibility means make changes in their tactics and strategies in terms of reaction or prevention. For instance, there is a general pattern in giving more attention to evidence gathering to increase the “quality” of arrests and to enhance possibilities for successful prosecution and to prefer a perpetrator-focused approach over a collective approach with mass detentions or containments. Nonetheless, we also find a deeper use of a friendly and firm strategic approach centered upon the facilitation of peaceful behaviour and a graded, differentiated and information led approach which increases police capability for dialogue, communication and low-key, targeted interventions at an early stage. In Sweden the talk is about Special Police Tactics, Berlin developed the strategy of the outstretched hand and the UK prides itself on the British model. “Dialogue units” are formed increasingly. For instance, in Germany’s anti-conflict teams, Sweden’s dialogue police, forward intelligence units in the UK, although these latter have gradually taken on a different role).

There is also a general trend to lend more attention to debriefings after “problematic” events, the identification of good practices and the exchange of learning points between forces.

And finally, as regards the intelligence is concerned, there is general agreement about the importance of intelligence about “known” perpetrators. Yet, there is also general dissatisfaction with the quality of the intelligence and a recognition of the fact that intelligence on “known” perpetrators is insufficient and cannot replace an understanding of sensitivities and crowd dynamics in a given context. The international trends reflect an increasing awareness of the mechanisms which trigger collective violence and which measures are more effective than others.

Taking into account your international and academic experience, which do you think are the best police practices/approach to keep the social peace?

Intelligence is seen as a very important means to identify groups of known troublemakers looking for confrontations. For their risk-perception, it should be clear to them (and others) which effective measures will be taken if they transgress these limits. By getting to know them, their anonymity to authorities is reduced. It is good practice to avoid taking measures that create or emphasize an us vs. them situation as much as possible. Interacting and communicating are important tactical tools in this respect. When violence does occur, it is considered good practice to act in a timely fashion rather than wait for situations to escalate and get out of hand and to do this in a focused and targeted way, aimed specifically at those individuals transgressing limits, be they hooligans or activists employing black-block tactics. On the other hand it is recognized that the opportunistic nature of much of collective violence puts a limit on the usefulness of intelligence: once violence escalates, the number of available options runs out quickly. Because of the uncertainties involved, preparations involving a variety of “what-if scenarios” are considered essential.

And finally, regarding public order management, have you detected any bad praxis in Western Europe that deserves to be pointed out?  To what factors would you attribute this malpractice?

Some clear trends can be discerned across countries in relation to the policing of public events.

Where a need for change is felt, this is not for changes in legislation or new powers. Instead, there is a need for a better understanding and use of existing legislation.

Also, we need bear in mind that new weaponry is usually not the first priority. There are other needs so-called innovative less-than-lethal weapons are not innovative at all, because they essentially represent already existing technology that is not yet developed sufficiently to be used operationally, and because they are intrinsically linked to outdated concepts of riot control.

And finally, with regard to equipment, we need to shift towards an equipment for a better personal protection of police officers, equipment to improve communication with and between police officers, equipment to improve possibilities for communication with participants at crowd events, equipment to improve possibilities for information or evidence gathering, or equipment that helps to increase flexibility.


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