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Researcher examines riot misconceptions

Brian McKenzie | Monday, November 5, 2007

Notre Dame sociology professor Daniel Myers presented a lecture titled “Cops, Protest and Rioting” to a crowd of about 50 people Saturday morning.

He focused American riots in the 1960s, saying they were often started when white police officers were accused of misconduct against black suspects.  Crowds would gather and the situation would spiral out of control because the police had insufficient reinforcements.

Meyers wanted to “look at riots and protests and what’s behind them in a more serious way,” he said.  But he said that even the word “riots” was controversial because “many people think it’s a pejorative word and it gives excuses for repression.  They want to think of it as a rebellion against unjust authority.”

“But I want to take a broader view,” he said, adding that people tend to think of riots as “enormous crowds. But only 200 of the 4,000 riots in [the 1960s] involved 1,000 or more people. Even 15 people can do a lot of damage.”  

Another myth, he said, is that most riots occurred on college campuses. However, three times as many riots occurred in secondary and primary schools than on college campuses, he said.  

He assessed several theories about what worsens and alleviates riots. He found that having more police officers per capita consistently reduces riots. The “police capability” is important to establishing order, he said.  

His data suggested that assistive equipment like ambulances, stretchers and water hoses reduced the severity of riots.

“You might think that police training would reduce rioting, but it actually increased it,” he said.

Police departments using escalated engagement policies try to establish order and respond to provocations forcefully, he said.

“Then you’re asking for a riot,” he said.

 One method to prevent riots from growing out of control, Myers said, is to negotiate protest routes with protest leaders.

“Police administrators I’ve talked to that have adopted negotiated management have found much less conflict,” he said.  

One member of the audience criticized negotiated management because police negotiators restrict some streets to facilitate protests, closing them to normal traffic. The audience member said that police had the responsibility to protect the rights of citizens to use public property even if that required shooting protesters.

Myers responded that “there is a tension between what is right under the law and what will make things better or worse. Sometimes we need to take a step back and have a broad perspective,” he said.

John Leuck, who attended the presentation, said it was “very even-handed.  It was very scholarly, not politicized.”  

Leuck, a retired Marine, mentioned that the Marine Corps trains for riot control because Marines are charged with evacuating Americans from dangerous situations. “All the troops go through it,” he said.

Betsy Johnson, a Kent State alumna, said the statistics Myers used “weren’t quite what you’d expect or what the media portrays. The media tends to focus on the loudest voices and that might not be the most accurate.”