Five books on Policing Public Disorder – recommendations from David Waddington

This article was originally published on, on 29 May 2010, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

David Waddington on Policing Public Disorder

About David Waddington: David Waddington is Professor of Communication at Sheffield Hallam University. His most recent book, Policing Public Disorder, is a study into the way in which police tactics are likely to affect the amount of order or disorder occurring at protest events and crisis situations. Waddington’s other research interests include contemporary industrial relations and the regeneration of former mining communities. Here he talks about the nature and implications of the ways in which the police manage political protest and other ‘crowd order’ situations.

How did you become interested in policing public disorder?

I suppose my interest stems from the fact that I came from a mining community originally, so in a way industrial conflict is a part of my identity. Back in 1972, when we had the first of the major strikes of the recent era, I became intrigued by what was going on. I applied to do a PhD on strikes at the University of Aston and I attended lots of picket lines around this time, which generated in turn an interest in the policing of industrial disputes. From there, I answered an advertisement for a research associate at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. It was in the wake of the 1981 riots: they wanted someone to help them out on an Economic and Social Research Council conducted study, called ‘Communication Processes In and Around Public Disorder’. That’s how it all began. One thing I can most definitely say now is that the approach that the police take and the tactics on the day play a pivotal role in how a protest or picket-line confrontation develops. This is one of the things that make my subject area so interesting and important to study.

Tell us about your first book, Riot! Civil Insurrection From Peterloo to the Present Day.

Ian Hernon is a political lobbyist, and he’s done a sequence of books on various forms of social conflict. Riot!’s significance lies in its provision of an excellent corrective to some commonly held misapprehensions. I was recently reading a book review in a police journal by a fellow academic, which asked the rhetorical question, ‘What is a rioter other than a criminal?’ I think that many people would automatically take that negative perspective. Hernon is acknowledging that although riots are sometimes just passionate outbursts or ‘explosions’, more often than not they are a response to some form of oppression. As he puts in his book, the riot throughout history has been the manifestation of ‘social inequality and political impotence’. It’s a very good corrective to this idea of the riot as sheer hooliganism and irrationality.

Why do people hold these negative opinions of riots and protests?

I think it’s because to suggest that riots are justified and rational is to lay the establishment open to charges of oppression and to peddling inequality. There is concrete academic evidence to show that institutions such as the police (not all of them but certainly junior to middle ranks) tend to think of rioting as irrational behaviour. There is this view that when people are in crowds, they are suddenly enveloped by the red mist. This kind of perspective is actually very unhelpful, not least to the police themselves.

Tell us about The Policing of Transnational Protest.

This is a collection of essays, which came out of a workshop that took place in Sweden in the mid 2000s. A number of academics, including myself, had gathered to discuss the policing of international protest and its repercussions in the post-Seattle period. The Seattle protests took place at the 1999 World Trade Organisation talks, and were a real watershed event. It was a situation where a major city was host to leaders from around the world, who were left virtually stranded in their hotels because the city was ostensibly taken over by protesters.

Why do you think the book is important?

The Policing of Transnational Protest is important because it charts the events and decisions that explain police tactics today, such as we saw at the protests at the G20 in London. Many international police forces regarded Seattle as their ‘Pearl Harbour’ and became determined not to let the same thing happen again. International protest events are relatively new, and the police are wary of the protesters at this kind of event because they are not as cooperative as they’d like. They don’t have hierarchical organisations and they don’t have recognised leaders with whom the police can organise negotiations. A pair of American academics, Pat Gillham and John Noakes, came up with a very handy description of police tactics now used in Europe and America, which they call ‘selective incapacitation’ and which they discuss in The Policing of Transnational Protest. Selective incapacitation involves an emphasis on surveillance, segregation (known as ‘kettling’), selective arrests, and keeping protestors hemmed in in order to control them. The book is talking about how these tactics have evolved, why they are not perhaps as sensible as they seem to be, and why it would be wise to change them.

Tell us about your next book, Football Hooliganism: Policing and the War on the English Disease.

Football Hooliganism is about the behaviour of English football fans abroad. On the domestic front there has been less of a concern than there was in the 1970s and 80s, but there is now a worry about the allegedly disreputable behaviour of British fans abroad. These two very well-regarded social psychologists, Clifford Stott and Geoff Pearson, have actually gone and studied these events first hand, and they take exception to the idea that the use of banning orders was an effective deterrent. They argue that the behaviour of the police in various countries affects the behaviour of football fans. They use a ‘social identity’ approach, which in essence is the idea that if the police are seen to go in illegitimately then this causes a common identification and a shared fate among the crowd, who are apt to respond in unison.

What do Pearson and Stott recommend as a better approach?

Pearson and Stott found that one of the problems is that police behaviour is often indiscriminate and unnecessary. They say that football supporters by and large go away to have a good time. Sure, they stretch the norms of customary behaviour – they can be boisterous and offensive. They suggest that the police understand and show tolerance of this. If the police need to intervene, it has got to be done in a clearly communicated way, in which they strive to facilitate the aims of the fans in another way. A final watchword they use is ‘differentiation’. If someone is a legitimate target for arrest and they really are up to no good, then everyone will be able to see that and the crowd will generally support the police.

Riotous Citizens is a case study by two colleagues at Leeds University. It is a study of the major riots of 2001 in Bradford, which became infamous in part because of the severe penalties meted out to the so-called rioters (unprecedentedly long sentences were handed out). This book gives a detailed inside story. From my point of view, as a theorist of policing of public disorder, it’s a very provocative book. Several of us over the years have been putting together a general theory of what we think is a good overall explanation of the policing of public disorder. Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain reject this theory, saying that patterns in protests don’t exist – an assertion I refute entirely! I do nonetheless recommend that people read the book to look at the principles of effective policing nominated by the authors and see how they might relate to what the police did well or badly in relation to the Bradford riots.

Last book: Liberty and Order: Public Order Policing in a Capital City.

Liberty and Order is written by a namesake of mine, Peter Waddington (whose nickname, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, is ‘Tank’). Tank is an ex-police officer who has a reputation for speaking up on behalf of the police and the difficult job that they do with regard to public order. Despite the fact that I am an acknowledged rival of Tank’s, I think it’s a very good book – not least because it outlines the fruits of a two-year study when he accompanied public order patrols throughout London in the early 1990s. It gives a very good insight into how police negotiate ‘backstage’ with protest organisers and use various interactional ploys and the specialist knowledge they’ve got to hand to ensure that demonstrations proceed, as near as damn it, when, where and how the police would prefer them to. Tank refers to the police use of ‘professional guile’, which he defends on the grounds that, in essence, it’s merely what business people get up to on an everyday basis. Liberty and Order provides a very valuable backstage insight.

What insights does he bring into the police perspective on events?

Tank shows that it’s not a piece of cake being a police officer on a picket line, or outside a football stadium. The fear factor is significant, and events can be confusing. This is enhanced by the equipment the police wear: steamed-up, scratched helmets with visors down, which are very uncomfortable. They are invariably dealing with people who would rather the police weren’t there and are sometimes prepared to let them know it! It’s a very tense situation, the difficulty of which we shouldn’t under-appreciate; although of course this doesn’t absolve the police of their responsibility to respect and, better still, facilitate the right to protest.

Interview by Georgie Day


One thought on “Five books on Policing Public Disorder – recommendations from David Waddington

  1. j s pandey

    As a police officer in India I know our primary task is management of public order which uses most of our resources.Both the Waddingtons have given us remarkable insights into this complex task.


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