Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Can police and protestors solve a common problem? Interview with Carsten Alven, a Dialogue Police Officer in Sweden

8 February 2013

After the Gothenburg riots in 2001, the Swedish Police realised that they needed to develop a new tactical approach to manage protests and crowds. Eventually a new tactical unit, the so-called Dialogue Police Unit, was established. 

Stefan Holgersson and Johannes Knutsson describe the goal of the Swedish Dialogue Police as follows: 
"By using a counterpart perspective, the police want to avoid actions that cause escalation. The aim is to achieve de-escalation. In this connection, dialogue police officers have an important function. Their task is to establish contact with the demonstrators before, during, and after the demonstration and to act as a link between the organizers of the events and the police commanders. Compared to the old tactic, the new uses a number of situational techniques that are known to have preventive effects. A dilemma for the dialogue police officers is pressure from the commanders to act as intelligence officers. Another is that other officers may be skeptical to their role. Development over time suggests, however, increasing acceptance." Dialogue Policing - a Means for Less Crowd Violence? Stefan Holgersson, Stockholm Police Department Johannes Knutsson, Norwegian Police University College.
I have had the privilege of working with Carsten Alven, a Dialogue Police Officer, on several occasions and interviewed him recently at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm: 

The last time I saw you you were on your way to Gotland to mediate in an environmental protest. How did it go?
Yes, after I got home from the workshop I had only one hour to pack and then took the ferry to the island. There was a stand off between local and environmental activists and a mining company at a stone quarry. The farming community and a large part of the population on the island supported the action. I did not have much sleep that night, because early the next morning I was informed that the newly arrived Greenpeace activists had chained themselves to the trucks and bulldozers.
So what did you do?
We talked to the protesters about their aims. They said that not least they wanted media attention, which we then tried to help them arrange. The media interviewed them and published the stories online. I showed them the media coverage on my iPad and asked them whether they were satisfied that some of their aims were achieved. Some of them then unchained themselves.
And what about the the rest?
The police removed the chains and they were arrested. 
But how did the arrest of protestors influence your role as dialogue police?
One has to draw the distinction between legality and legitimacy. Whilst the police acted according to the law by arresting the protesters, we as dialogue police acknowledged the fact that the protesters had legitimate concerns. When you respect people’s right to express their views you build trust and a space to open dialogue. It is a fact that that laws keep changing. What was illegal a couple of years ago is now legal and vice versa. People have the right to question and oppose legislation, but if they break the law they will face the consequences. When the police only focus on the law without regard for people’s concern about the legitimacy of the laws they do not contribute to any solutions. The focus then becomes on apprehending the law-breakers.
So when police are only wearing their professional jacket instead of also their “human” jackets they miss the opportunity to connect to people as citizens with rights?
Yes, they then tend to see people as law-breakers, criminals and “enemies” instead of creating the notion of a common problem that needs to be solved together. 
Narrative therapy conveys the message that people are never the problem. The problem is the problem and what needs to be resolved is our relationship with the problem. 
Carsten: In this case the problem is respecting the rights of everyone involved to express themselves. The answer lies in the conversations—dialogue—to arrive at a common solution to a common problem. Most police do not put enough effort to invest in the quest for a solution to the common problem. They don’t see it as their role to bridge the gap. 
So how do you as dialogue police influence your colleagues to approach matters in a different way?
We are in regular discussions with my colleagues. The current debate is about how to increase police efficiency. For them it means that more people should be charged and convicted. The current conviction rate is about 15%, which does not reflect well on the police. While one would argue that their primary function is to prevent crime, they are more interested in getting people convicted. One example is that they rejected a proposal to warn motorists on returning ferries not to drive while under the influence of alcohol. A proposal to notify motorists to that effect and to offer assistance in finding alternative drivers for them was rejected. No, the police would much rather let them drive 400 meters and then arrest them for driving under the influence of alcohol. That, in my view, is not crime prevention. But it looks good on the reports and police need to show that they are winning the fight against crime, but are they?
So you’re concerned that the police only focus on the negative things?
Precisely. Instead of strengthening the forces of society to create the common good for all, they choose to be reactive and punish people. It is easier to illustrate how many people you have arrested than to illustrate what you have prevented. Police are measured by the number of convictions, but convictions do not prevent crime and do not heal the effects of crime. The role models of police are the images of brave men and women on the frontline apprehending criminals and protecting the public. Because this role model is so deeply engraved in police culture, very few realise that the whole point of policing is that it should not be necessary to reach that frontline. Preventing crime does not make you a hero. You may get credit for mediating in tough situations, but all the hard work that goes into prevention—the many hours of building relationships, assessing the situation, putting proactive systems in place, etc.—is not public and newsworthy. The fact that you prevented violent clashes is not recognised, because the clashes never happened.
So prevention does not mean that you want to prevent people from demonstrating/
Not at all. In fact, you actually encourage people to express their views and feelings. You do not try to suppress it. And even more, you actively help people to make the demonstration as successful as possible. For example, in the Gotland stand-off, police blocked the road 1.5 km from the demonstration site to prevent the farmers of blocking the only road to the quarry first and thereby making it impossible for the police to reach the demonstration. It was a hot day and many people came out in support of the protest action. We as dialogue police helped to arrange transport for the elderly folks who could not walk the distance and we made sure there was enough water to drink. 
So your first response is to treat people with respect?
Of course. The first response should always be to respect people and their civil liberties. This does not always happen in the police, unfortunately. Police tend to violate people’s rights to choose where and when they want to protest and then confine them to an area far away from the site of action.
But is that not a good thing?  In South Africa we experience many violent demonstrations. The most recent one was the farm worker strikes in the fruit producing Western Cape. When the protestors roamed the streets and roads in December a lot of property was destroyed and violence was used. When the strikes resumed in January, the loss of property was less because the police contained the strikers to residential areas, away from the farms and factories. 
It seems like the rules of the game are perfectly clear to the activists and that they act logically by adhering to those rules. People use violence because they see that as the only way they can get the attention of authorities. Once people understand this as the rules, then they play within those rules and even go beyond that. When the society is able to change the rules to make non-violent protests achieve the desired results the situation can be resolved constructively, but if police react with violence it is familiar territory for the protestors and they will respond with violence.  Violence between police and protesters is often a case of misunderstanding. To a bystander, a crowd might well seem to behave irrationally, while at the same time behaving perfectly rationally in the view of the participants. 
We live in a violent society where the political and socio-economic temperature flares up to the point of spontaneous combustion. Violence spreads like a wild fire in summer time and the actions are often spontaneous, uncoordinated, leaderless, hard to influence and very susceptible to opportunistic political or criminal infiltration. The police can only step in to “restore law and order”, which entails traditional public order policing methods such as rubber bullets, teargas and sometimes live ammunition as in Marikana. 
You cannot take out an insurance policy when your car is already on fire. Likewise, you cannot expect to prevent violence when violence has flared up already. The bulk of prevention happens prior to the action. That is the time when you should have your ear on the ground, meeting with key leaders in the sector and discuss ways to ensure that people express themselves peacefully.  A real challenge with this focus on prevention is that most organizations are reluctant to spend money if on prevention of things they don’t even know will ever occur. Policing is not about putting out fires. It is about preventing the fires from starting in the first place. That requires the involvement of the whole society. You cannot only hold the police responsible and blame them when fires break out and things go wrong. 
Are you also saying that police are like someone who only has a hammer and that every situation is a potential nail?
Precisely. If you have only one tool you tend to try to be on the lookout for situations where you can use that tool. That kills creativity. And creativity is needed if we are to change police culture and the culture the society and how they look at themselves and the police. 
What is the profile of the dialogue police in the rest of the Swedish police? Do you get the support that you need?
The rank and file are not convinced that our approach is effective to prevent crime. The top leadership supports us, but we do not get the financial support we need. We were supposed to attend a potentially explosive demonstration between two opposing ideological political groups the other day, but there was no money to deploy us. When the dialogue police unit was established in 2001 after the riots in Gothenburg in response to an EU summit and a visit by US President GW Bush,  there was a lot of growth and excitement about the results of the first dialogue policing attempts. That awareness of why dialogue policing was so effective has subsided somewhat. Having said that, we are expanding the focus areas from the original political, religious and ethnic conflicts to hooliganism and sport fan clubs. Three of my colleagues and I are departing tomorrow for Berlin to exchange ideas on how to prevent fan club violence. 
We get a lot of support from foreign academics who come to Sweden for research. There is scientific evidence that we are effective. 
So what is your strategy to influence your colleagues?
It is a struggle. For example, police typically don’t make a distinction between the person and the behaviour. They would blame us for having coffee with or meeting a “trouble maker”. We then tell them that while we do not agree with the behaviour, that individual has exactly the same rights and freedoms as everyone else and that needs to be respected. When you enter into a conversation with someone you move beyond the behaviour to ask about intentions. What does he/she want to achieve? What values are important to you? Can we jointly find alternative ways of meeting your needs and aspirations? Are different outcomes possible while you still achieve your goals?
There has been a shift already. In the past the focus was on protecting the public order. Now the focus is on protection of civil liberties and democratic values. It is not an empty slogan. The priority should be on civil liberties, not the protection of public order. 
I’m not so sure that one is more important than the other, especially in the South African context where public violence and destruction of property and lives are so prevalent…
You’ve got to give police and protestors reason to trust each other. When you don’t trust you don’t give others the responsibility to show you are worthy of trust. The way to build trust is to dialogue. The beauty of dialogue is that you take part in it voluntarily. You become the architect of  your own future and the protector of the solutions. 
But dialogue has to also address the issue of power? You know the saying that power is like cow manure. When you heap it up it stinks, but when you spread it out it fertilizes the fields. 
In police academies all over the world the police train how to give orders and take command of situations, but not so much how to really listen and how to engage in a genuine dialogue. So police is used to give orders and tell people what to do. When tasked to engage with their clients they now need to share power and that is not easy. When you seek solutions with others through dialogue they also need to have the power to propose and act differently. That is often hard for police to accept, especially if you view people as subjects who need to be disciplined. 
It looks as if you are really good at building relationships with the public and the potential capacities for friction in society, but are you paying sufficient attention to dialogue in the police service?
It is hard to engage in real, genuine dialogue with your peers and police management. We need to put in as much effort to internal dialogue as external dialogue. I don’t quite know how to rectify this. For example, the criminal intelligence unit wants to use dialogue for intelligence purposes. They consider every carrier of information intelligence, and expect us to gather intelligence for them and upload our information into the intelligence software. For us as dialogue police information and intelligence need to be separated. We need a separate information gathering system. We can’t use dialogue as our source for intelligence gathering. Intelligence gathering methods are bound to create mistrust and suspicion. All of our work could be ruined. 
Coming back to the internal dialogue issue, surely it is possible to nurture relationships of trust with key senior people who would be your advocates and champions?
There is unfortunately no internal dialogue insofar as this matter is concerned. The gains that we made by demilitarising the police after the 2001 Gothenburg riots came as a result of rigorous internal debate. We were part of the innovation and inventions. Unfortunately dialogue died out after that. Now we are just part of the status quo. 
And how is that linked to the “police culture”?
There is a saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast. The strength of dialogue is that it can broaden the conversation about how we do things and how we understand the situation to include not only the police but also the public. It is hard for those who are defined by the group culture to reinvent themselves and to be creative in changing the culture. Police culture, in particular, has thicker walls than most other cultures because there is so much at stake: public and political pressure, history, uniforms, hierarchy, expectations to see robust and tough people on the frontline, pride and loyalty are all contributing to the DNA of police culture. That culture does not stay in the police environment. Police carry that culture into their personal and public spheres. Anyone who challenges “the system” is seen as a trouble maker and a threat who is best dealt with by isolating and ostracising him or her. 
So, for many police, dialogue is seen as a short term response to a crisis instead of a longer term approach to achieve lasting solutions. You don’t build a career by investing time and energy into lower profile behind the scenes longer-term work, but through short term impact with high visibility. Nor do you build a career by advocating for change. This is also the case with politicians whose attention is mostly focus on getting re-elected at the next election. There is little traction to prioritise longer-term strategic thinking and proactive action. 
Maybe the conversations could shift the focus from career (what’s in it for me) to legacy (what’s ultimately the benefit for society)?
I come back to the point of how do we shift the rules of the game? How do we make it beneficial to my career to work for dialogue?  For that we need genuine dialogue!  I’ve been thinking of writing a book on this. 
There is no better time than now to start!

1 comment:

Carsten Alvén said...

I remember that you, Chris, once asked me what dialogue policing was to me.

Despite being one of the most experienced dialogue police officers, despite being familiar with most of the research on the subject, and despite the fact that I've through the years given lots of lectures and seminars on the subject, I wasn't able to give a straight answer. I had to carry the question with me for quite some time.

Finally, the other day I think I narrowed it down. The core of dialogue policing to me is - to respect the other (with an open heart and an open mind). Respecting the other person, whether law-abiding or law-breaking, whether police friendly or mistrusting the police, Respecting the other opinion, whether reactionary or conservative, whether hateful or loving. Respecting the other culture, whether familiar or unfamiliar. Having an open heart, for the ones who have earned it, but perhaps even more for those who have not yet earned it. Having an open mind, to be able to think outside the box, to see possibilities where there are problems, to be brave enough to challenge old dogmas, and to be curious about the other.

The methods we use within dialogue policing all aim at the very same thing - trying to create an organizational system that secures the respect of the other.