Teaching Police to Work With Demonstrators

March 11, 2011

Associate Professor of Sociology Alex Vitale believes police should help people exercise their right to demonstrate, perhaps even do it more efficiently and effectively.

That's why the Korean National Police (KNP) invited him to South Korea last November, right before the start of the G20 Seoul Summit. Supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, Vitale was asked to help the KNP improve its handling of the unrest that inevitably seems to explode around this gathering of international leaders.

Vitale has been examining protest policing in the United States and Europe since 1995. But he was drawn to Korea given the country's history of opposing brutal dictatorships, beginning with the Japanese occupation in 1910 and persisting through a repressive military regime that ended in 1988. Because of this, Koreans are used to taking to the streets over almost any cause and continue to see the police as brutal and repressive. This has made the KNP fairly adept at handling large demonstrations but also wary of the demonstrators who at times attack them with sticks, pipes and even gasoline bombs. Still, the KNP has developed a unique competency in what Vitale calls "the policing of protests within a democratic framework."

Vitale arrived in Seoul well before the summit to make sure he could talk to both sides. He met with demonstrators and human rights groups, as well as Amnesty International, which was also planning to observe the protests. He listened to their concerns about what might occur at the summit and how the city would handle any disturbances. At the same time, he was in discussions with the police officials in charge of handling the demonstrations, who would be on the front lines, and their superiors, who would be directing them. Once the summit got under way, he observed the interactions of the demonstrators and officers from all sides. In the end, the KNP accomplished a rare feat for a G20 summit: No significant disturbances occurred outside the meeting hall.

This February, Vitale returned to Seoul to present his findings and recommendations to the International Symposium on the Korean National Police's G20 Public Order Policing at the Korean National Police University. Afterward, the audience of 80 commanders and academics queried him about his report for more than three hours.

"Koreans look to the West to set standards and measure effectiveness," he says. "They have a genuine desire to enhance their forces."

Vitale has been awarded funding to attend the next G20 Summit in France to study how the French police fare. As he says, "Policing is a craft, it's not a science."

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