The police have long been associated with notions of courage, bravery and honor. They are the men and woman in blue who help us preserve order and uphold the law. Images of police arresting burglars and apprehending drug kingpins often come to mind when discussing the police. They are the line of defense that protects the common citizen form the undesirable influences from the criminal outcasts of society.
Although it is a fact that the police do on a regular basis come into contact with people who have committed a criminal offence, however the police also have other duties that take on a more ambiguous role; namely policing public order situations. This task is both mentally and physically challenging mainly because of the sheer logistical and numerical factors of manpower and normal citizens involved.
This is compounded by the fact that the line in which criminal behavior and the legal right to protest have been blurred causing the police to face a host of problems which were generally unheard of when dealing with other criminal activity. History has often been riddled with numerous protests, ranging from the Clunes riot in 1873 up till today with anti-war protests against the war in Iraq. Protest and riots traditionally been seen as a means in which the politically unrepresented masses communicated grievances to the ruling elite: "collective bargaining by riot" (Reiner 1998).
The police in the case of policing public disorder are often in a dilemma as protesters, pickets and possibly even rioters may be considered the moral equal of other citizens (Waddington 2000). In addition, protesters are also viewed in a less harsh light, sometimes they are even hailed as heroes, since they are commonly seen to be fighting for the common good of the people "… what distinguishes them is that protest is a conspicuous act of citizenship… pickets, protesters, rioters do not serve purposes that are selfishly malign, but principled…
usually acting on the behalf of the collectivity [sic] and possibly suffering (or risk suffering) individually in doing so" (Waddington 2000) This serves to hinder the police operations, especially more so when a protest turns violent because the police now are seen as an agent of repression that gets in the way of political or social reform. However, the police are not only confronted by the problem of the status of protesters, they are also plagued by internal moral struggles that occur within themselves.
The police when facing a public order situation have the objective of maintaining the public order; protecting the life and property of all parties; and protect the civil rights of all involved in the public interest (Mombossie 1968) however to achieve such objectives the police have to control the crowd with neutrality and impartiality. "It is their duty to see that persons have the right to enter and leave at will, if they so desire. It is also their duty to see that strikers have the right to picket in a legal manner. The only purpose that officers are detailed to a strike scene is to maintain the peace.
The issues of the strike are of no concern to the officers" (Mombossie 1968) This view sets the construct for the ideal police force, fair, impartial and immune to political advances. Unfortunately, the police have yet to evolve to such a state. The moral issues' surrounding certain protests raises the question: should the police uphold the law and execute their duties as ordered or should they stand up for what they believe in? An example of this would be the 1995 protests involving the export of calves to be reared in veal crates.
In the view of the government, farmers' representative and exporters, what they were doing was legal. Nonetheless, the export was judged by the community as immoral (Waddington 2000). The protesters then opted to stop the trucks transporting the calves by lying on the roads effectively prohibiting the trucks from reaching their destination (Waddington 2000). Members of the police tasked to remove the protesters face a moral conundrum, by removing the protesters they were effectively sanctioning immoral acts that although legal, did not appeal to the moral consciousness of society.
On the other hand, had some members of the police chose not to remove the protesters; it would have severely undermined the police's authority and reflected badly on the organization in general. The two principals of maintaining the peace and upholding the law usually go hand in hand, however this may not necessarily be so in the case of a protest. Pickets and protests can usually amount to grievous criminal offences such as, assault; and willful damage to property. It is difficult to imagine a protest worthy of the name that does not breach some kind of law or other (Waddington 1998).
Although it might be useful to keep in mind that the law encompasses such a wide area, that the common man may be penalized for a variety of reasons ranging form jaywalking to murder. Yet, for the majority of protest that occurs, most are deemed 'peaceful' and the number of arrest are low or virtually non existent. The policy of non arrest is a formal policy adopted by senior officers and communicated to their subordinates through briefings (Waddington 1998). This would then ensure that a protest would operate smoothly without protesters viewing the police as overbearing or oppressive.
The anti war protests that took place in Melbourne's Central Business District (CBD) in the earlier part of the year illustrates this point, of the estimated 10,000 strong protesters, there was not a single arrest made or incident of violence reported. The police also assisted the protesters by warning the general public of the protest march and diverted traffic away from the CBD during the protest. This is an example of where the police have compromised the upholding of the law to maintain the peace.
The deliberate 'bending of the rules' in regards to policing public order situations serves not only to preserve the peace but it also limits the possibility for disorder and violence that might result in damage to property and injury to participants, including the police (Waddington 1998). In addition, the police also tend to shy away from confrontation as it may provoke serious repercussions. "… official inquiries the inevitably follow any outbreak of disorder… will review the decisions they made in the "heat of battle" from a position of clam detachment and with the benefit of hindsight.
Confrontation is, therefore, a "recipe for trouble": an arrest for a minor offence could spark a riot in which damage and injury could result and an inquiry that threatens careers" (Waddington 1998) Although, the notion of cooperation is better than confrontation, the police still have the problem on deciding when to assert its authority. If the police were forced to cooperate and make concessions with protesters all the time, then this would render the police force redundant when dealing with public order situations.