November 13, 2021

“Uncomfortable conversations”: Police Scotland’s lessons from the COP26 demonstrations


Dear PERF members,

About a year ago, Will Kerr, a good friend who I had met in Northern Ireland years ago, called and asked if I would be willing to serve on a committee called the Independent Advisory Group, or IAG. Its mission was to assist with public safety preparations for COP26, the U.N. Climate Change Conference that would bring thousands of international delegates (including President Biden and 120 other heads of state) and tens of thousands of demonstrators to Glasgow, Scotland for two weeks. COP26, which was scheduled to wrap up this weekend, was the largest gathering ever of world leaders to discuss climate change and possibly the biggest security and public safety challenge that Police Scotland ever faced.

Will is someone who knows policing, especially in highly charged environments. A former Assistant Chief Constable for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Will had overseen police operations in Belfast. He is now Deputy Chief Constable for Local Policing in Police Scotland, and as many of you know, PERF has a close and special relationship with Police Scotland. So I agreed to join the IAG.

I know, some of you are thinking, “this committee sounds awfully bureaucratic and boring.” I initially had some of those same concerns myself. But after a year of serving on the IAG, including participating in some spirited discussions this past week as COP26 demonstrations were ongoing, I can report that this group was anything but bureaucratic and boring.

To the contrary, I came away thinking, what a brilliant way to reimagine how police engage with communities around events we know will be controversial. The process itself demonstrates a higher level of seriousness and transparency with the public. But how do you manage something like this effectively? That is key to success when it comes to demonstrations.

A different type of advisory committee

The IAG is a different type of committee in a number of cutting-edge ways.

First is the makeup of the group itself. This is not your typical police advisory committee, heavy on police representation and sprinkled with a few reliably supportive community members. The core group of 19 includes human rights lawyers and campaigners, disability rights advocates, university professors, the chief executive of the City Council, and of course, leadership of Police Scotland and its oversight authority.

As we all know, for any committee to be successful it must be chaired by someone who is well respected by all members and yet is humble and funny and open to different perspectives. For the IAG, that person is John Scott, a highly regarded attorney who has provided independent assessments of Police Scotland’s use of biometrics and its emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. John was the perfect person to moderate this group and keep us engaged and relevant throughout.

Because of the pandemic, all of the IAG’s meetings took place on Microsoft Teams. In some ways, that made the discussions more wide-open and democratic. All people had to do was “raise their hands” in Teams, and they would be recognized. This allowed for all voices to be heard.

The meeting agendas were also unique. This was not a group that was expected to just review and rubber-stamp policies and procedures that Police Scotland had proposed. The IAG played a central role in shaping those policies and determining how they would be implemented. IAG members not only helped to formulate police training for COP26; they also were invited to observe the training themselves. So were other community leaders and politicians.

“I brought in politicians from across Scotland to experience our public order training in advance of COP26,” Will Kerr told me. “Some of them, including the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, even put on full PPE and joined the shield line. Most described the experience as ‘revelatory.’”

The IAG also developed plans for how to use civilian monitors during the protests and how they could report back information in real time.

The IAG’s role during the COP26 demonstrations

One thing that made COP26 so challenging was that the conference lasted for two weeks, and there were demonstrations, large and small, throughout the event. By far the largest demonstration was the “Global Day of Action for Climate Justice,” held last Saturday, November 6. Media sources estimated the protest crowd to be at least 100,000. (For context, the entire population of Glasgow is around 600,000.) The day before, a youth march brought thousands of young people to the streets.

What’s important – and revolutionary – is that the work of the IAG didn’t stop once the conference began. In fact, our role became even more interesting and useful during the two weeks of the event.

Think about all the things that happen during demonstrations and all the questions that people tend to ask. Why were there so many cops? Why did the police act the way they did? Why were protesters held for periods of time? Why couldn’t they march to certain locations? Why did the police stop them?

With COP26, there was this pre-existing group of people who knew each other and could convene on short notice to serve as a forum for identifying and addressing issues right away – not a week or a month or a year after the fact. A member of the IAG participated in one of the demonstrations and sent a live video feed of the on-the-ground activities back to advisory group. This spurred questions and discussions about whether the actions of the police were proportionate and the optics of a large number of officers moving a small group of demonstrators. Were that many cops really necessary?

In some instances, outside experts called into the meeting. Civilian monitors were part of the overall response strategy, and some of them joined the IAG meeting to give first-hand accounts of particular situations. They would ask questions such as: Why did the police not allow the marchers to stop? Why was the public order unit needed? What is “public space” and who “owns” it – the police or the demonstrators? And when there is a conflict, how does it get resolved? The Police Scotland representatives could respond to these types of questions, and the group could discuss.

There are a number of legitimate issues that have been raised by demonstrators about police actions at COP26. Those issues need to be better understood by all sides, so that this whole process becomes an opportunity to learn and make successive events better. That is why the IAG will continue to meet in the weeks ahead.

Given its diverse membership and hands-on approach throughout COP26, the group will be in a unique position to explore in-depth how a year’s worth of planning played out in the end. How could things have been done differently, and how can we improve the next time?

One issue the group will likely examine is the role of mutual aid agencies that were called in to assist Police Scotland. While skirmishes between police and protesters were relatively rare, and only a few dozen arrests were made over the course of the event, some of the complaints about police actions seemed to involve personnel from outside Police Scotland. This has long been an issue in the United States as well. How do you effectively train and acculturate officers from the outside who are coming in to a dynamic and potentially volatile situation?

But that’s Scotland, not the United States

Now, some of you are probably thinking, “All of this is fine for Scotland, but it will never work in the United States.” (Of course, PERF heard some of the same sentiments in 2016 when we rolled out our Guiding Principles on Use of Force, which were based in part on what we learned from Police Scotland.) The past two years have demonstrated that the U.S. can have contentious and sometimes violent protests, and many of the more aggressive protest leaders are unlikely to come to the table with the police and others. Some recent protests have been essentially leaderless. These are all challenges that police leaders everywhere will need to address.

Yet, I learned something very interesting from this whole experience with Scotland. When you get people together, thinking and talking, something positive happens. There is an appreciation that we are all in this together. Again, you need a good moderator and people who respect each other. But honestly, as a friend from Chicago once told me, you make friends before you need them. And even if a demonstration goes badly, the police department has positioned itself as a learning organization that has mechanisms in place before something happens rather than after.

Community engagement was a key theme of the webinar on managing demonstrations that PERF hosted in April. And community engagement is the centerpiece of a report PERF will soon be publishing that analyzes the demonstrations that took place in 2020 and presents recommendations for managing future protests.

This is a complex issue, and one that has implications far beyond one protest event. Will Kerr certainly understands that, and all of us would be wise to heed his words:

“My message to operational commanders is that it takes a mature and confident organization to proactively reach out and have what can be some very uncomfortable conversations. Those conversations, difficult as they are, lead to better policing and better community relationships longer-term. That’s because the police are, and are perceived as, more open, transparent, and non-defensive."

Have a great weekend.