The Influence of the Police Officers’ Biases and Expectations over the Protest Violence

Introduction

People protest to raise awareness of the issue and to express their objections. Most protests are not violent, and thus the police officers do not attend the majority of protest events (McPhail and Wohlstein 1983: 586; Earl et al. 2003: 581). To prevent protestors from turning violent, the riot police officers select potentially violent protests and prepare to intervene whenever necessary (Earl 2003: 581). In demonstrations where protestors and police officers actively interact with each other, what are factors that lead to violent protesting and repressive policing? In South Korea, large-scale protests broke out in 2016 and 2017 during the impeachment process of President Park Geun Hye; while anti-Park protests remained peaceful, pro-Park protests turned violent. When the police officers interacted with Candlelight protestors who held the agenda that they agree with, they felt uncomfortable about repressing the protestors. When they faced the Korean Flag protestors who caused chronic cases of violence, they used repressive tactics to minimize potential physical threats. From the perspectives of the police officers, this paper argues that individual police officers’ biases and expectations may influence the probability of protest violence and police repression.

Background

On October 24th, 2016, JTBC, one of the major news channels in South Korea, debunked the illegal affiliation between President Geun Hye Park and her spiritual advisor called Soon Shil Choi. JTBC discovered the tablet PC with the evidence that proved how Choi made numerous illegal interventions to government affairs as a shadow cabinet. Park and Choi also forced corporations to make significant donations to the foundation they owned called Mir Sports Foundation for the retirement plan (Ahn 2016). The revelation of the scandal led to a series of large-scale protests for months. On March 10th, 2017, the Supreme Court of Korea ruled against President Park and impeached her from her position (Lee 2017).

From the first Saturday of the week JTBC revealed the corruption, people started to organize weekly protests to demand the impeachment of President Park. Various labor unions, human rights activists, and liberal political parties held the protests called “Candlelight,” and the number of participants grew exponentially every week. On December 3rd, 2017, 1.8 million people gathered in front of Blue House — the presidential residence. Despite the risk of violence that a large-scale protest could cause, the protest ended without any vandalism or casualty. A series of the Candlelight protests that had continued until April 29th, 2017 remained peaceful and safe (Lim 2017).

Opposing to Candlelight Protests, the supporters of President Park organized another series of protests called “Korean Flag.” They made their voices to prevent the impeachment of President Park. Several fan clubs of President Park and conservative political parties organized the protests every week, but with the scale not as large as that of the Candlelight protests (Lee 2017). Unlike the peaceful Candlelight protestors, Korean Flag protesters behaved violently, which led to three deaths and many injuries during the riot in front of the Supreme Court on March 10th, 2017 (Yonhapnews 2017).

Literature Review

Current studies on protesting and policing suggest numerous factors leading to violent protests and repressive policing, but only several factors fit into the South Korean context. The researches of scholars specialized in protesting and policing suggests six factors that lead to the protest violence and repressive policing: 1) Large scale protest 2) Radical/revolutionary goal of protestors 3) Threat to political elites 4) Previous experience of violence 5) Category of protestors 6) Failure to negotiate.

The level of threat that the police officers perceive directly relates to the possibility of repression. If the number of protestors is too large, the police officers are more likely to feel threatened. Then this factor leads to a higher likelihood of repressive policing(Earl et al. 2003: 583; Lee 2013: 475). The size of the protest matters, as larger crowds are harder to control than smaller crowds (Eggert et al. 2018: 141).

If the goal or the ideology of the protest is too radical, the conflict between the police officers and protestors is more likely to occur. The police authority believes a moderate group of people are more reasonable to deal with than a radical group of people. As a result, radical protestors experience repressive policing more frequently than moderate protestors (Earl et al. 2003: 581; Lee 2013: 488, 489).

The police officers also tend to prepare heavier for protestors who target political elites. Public protests that criticize or ridicule power holders pose a threat to their authority. As a result, when protestors demonstrate around administrative buildings, the presidential residence, or even international/supranational institutions (embassy or United Nations), the police presence increases (Earl et al. 2003: 583; Eggert at el. 2018: 140).

The police agency compiles the data about previous cases of violence of particular groups of protestors. Based on that data, the police officers prepare strategies and gear before the protest happens. When they deal with a specific group of protestors that have practiced self-policing and behaved peacefully, they maintain a low profile (Wahlstom 2011: 31). If certain protestors previously have caused physical troubles, the police officers increase the number of troops and intensify the types of gear that they bring. The police agency may even disapprove of the gathering when they cannot trust the protesting organization. The more heavily armed the police force is, the more likely to repress the protest (Eggert at al. 2018: 137, 139).

Based on the previous experience, the police officers create and use the stereotype to deal with particular groups of protestors (Wahlstrom 2011: 36). The stereotype categorizes protesting groups into different levels of threat. If authorities perceive risks from specific categories of people depending on the cultural or historical context, the conflict between the police officers and protestors is more likely to occur (Lee 2013: 476). The police agency associates categories based on a wide variety of groups such as race, religion, political ideology, and many more (2013: 478). The scale of the protest may not matter as much if the categorically driven biases toward specific protesting groups elevate the police force’s perception of threats (2013: 489). For example, the civil rights activists in South Korea who have protested against the dictatorship in the 1980s continuously had physical conflicts with the police force until the 1990s (2013: 481). Due to the cumulated records of violence between democratic reformists and the police officers, they had categorized protests related to political reform as a potential threat.

The previous experience of peaceful protesting builds trust between police officers and certain protesting groups. What the police agency ultimately aims to accomplish is the management of peaceful and predictable demonstrations. As a result, negotiation management rose as the popular protest policing tactic (Earl et al. 2013: 470; Lee 2013: 475)). Before the rally takes place, the police officers provide instructions on the parameters that protestors need and the amount of noise they can create, and the organizers suggest the extent they aspire to perform during the protest (Misner 1969: 584). Through frequent interactions and dialogue, the police officers and protest organizers minimize the risk of turning into a violent situation (Eggart et al. 2018: 139, 141). The middle point is often hard to meet because both parties have to fulfill different goals and manage power balance. The series of successful negotiations that suffice the demands of the police officers and protestors build trust that decreases the possibility of a chaotic outbreak (Wahlstrom 2011: 36).

The factors that lead to violent protests listed above may present insightful perspectives on how the protesting and policing culture may function in the international context. However, they do not perfectly fit into the contexts of the impeachment process in South Korea for two reasons. First, South Korea is a racially homogenous country, which narrows the categories of the protests into the political reformation, economic reformation, and the civil rights movement. Therefore, studies on racial conflicts in Western academia may not fit the Korean historical context. Second, most of the riot police officers are the conscripted soldiers who only serve for 21 months. That is, the length of past interactions with a specific protesting group is limited to the short term, which causes the gap with cases in other countries where most riot police officers work for a long time. Such differences between South Korea and the rest of the world narrow down the six factors of violent protesting into two: 1) Previous experience of violence 2)Category of protestors. This study explores these two factors in the context of South Korean protestors and police officers during the impeachment process through interviews with former riot police officers.

The result from interviews suggests another factor contributing to the violent protest, which is “the failure to understand biases and expectations of individual police officers.” The current studies on protest and policing view the police not as the collection of individuals, but as the institution. The generalization of the police force as a single institutional overlooks the importance of individual care of police officers’ mentality.

Data and Method

As the riot police officer who participated in both Candlelight and Korean Flag protests, I had an opportunity to be at the center of the historical events in South Korea. Because the major news media spotlight protests in the perspectives of protestors, the majority of people do not understand the dynamics between the police officers and protestors. Protests that the news media broadcast tends to be fierce and violent, so the general public may think most protests are violent. However, the 21 months of my experience as the riot police officer helped me to earn new insights different from the general misconceptions. I realized that the way police officers deal with protestors is not consistent, and they categorize different protestor groups into “good protestors” and “bad protestors.” After several interactions with specific protestors, they use their own bias and expectations to determine the level of repression that they desire to enforce. I hypothesized that two elements help police officers to formulate the bias and expectations: 1)The level of agreeability to the agenda of the specific group of protests 2) Frequency of violent interactions with the particular group of protestors. To further develop the objectivity of my insights, I conducted interviews with eight former riot police officers who have participated in both Candlelight and Korean Flag protests.

While the general public expects protests to be violent and unruly, the reality I experienced was different. Most of the protests I have attended were peaceful, and the police corps that I belonged to did not show its presence in front of the protestors. Especially for the Candlelight, the protestors did not pose any severe violence toward the police force or other citizens, and the police officers did not forcefully repress the crowd. I actively endorsed the police agency’s policy of non-intervention, because I agreed with the agenda of the protestors, and even felt guilty to control the rallies. However, I still had to fulfill my duty as the police officer, and that dissonance caused me to feel uneasy. The feeling of uneasiness also occurred at protests other than Candlelight if the protestors and I have shared the ideology. Therefore, I hypothesized that the biases and expectations of the police officers toward a specific agenda might influence the level of violence during the protest (hypothesis 1). To explore the validity of the hypothesis, I asked the following questions to interviewees:

1) As the riot police officer, have you attended protests that you did not want to control?

2) Have you agreed or disagreed with the agenda of the protest?

3) How did you feel?

4) What kind of protest did you feel most mentally conflicted?

5) How could you continue to serve the duty despite the conflict?

Despite the low occurrence of violent protests, I have experienced protests that turned violent, especially during the Korean Flag protests. Every time the news media reported the court ruling or event that damaged President Park’s authority or reputation, they protested to voice their support to President Park. Unfortunately, their protests often ended up becoming so violent that the police force had to intervene. I wondered if the frequency of violent interactions with the specific group of protestors in the past also influences the police officers’ biases and expectations (hypothesis 2). To understand what causes the violent protest and repressive policing, I asked interviewees the following questions:

1) Between protestors and the police officers, who are more responsible for the violence of the protest?

2) What determines the level of violence during the protest?

3) How can the protest stay peaceful?

The interviews aimed to avoid the generalization of the police force as a single institution and discover how much influence does the individual police officer has over protests. The argument should define the officers’ thoughts about their duty and about the treatments they receive from the agency. Therefore, the interview included the following questions:

1) Have you felt like you were an influential individual in the protest?

2) Has your socio-political stance changed after your experience as a police officer?

3) What perspective did you alter or learn?

4) How did you deal with the mental conflicts you experienced from the protests?

5) How did the police agency instruct you to deal with protestors?

I gathered interviewees through the personal connections with the former police officers and Facebook communities of the riot police officers. The interviewees are therefore South Korean males in the age of 20s who have participated in Candlelight and Korean Flag protests as riot police officers. To protect the anonymity of interviewees, I codified their names when transcribing their responses. Each interview took 30 minutes, via phone call conversations. All of the interviewees who had worked as Korean police officers were still in South Korea, and I was in Middlebury, Vermont. The in-person interview was impossible because of the physical distance. Because all of the interviewees could only speak in Korean, I conducted interviews in Korean and translated the conversation to English. After performing all the meetings, I used MS Excel to analyze the answers that the interviewees provided. After grouping the answers into different categories and keywords, the set of data turned into visual charts to ease readers’ understanding of the results.

Results

The results provide data that support two hypotheses. First, the biases and expectations of the police officers toward a particular agenda may influence the level of repression during the protest. For protests with the ideologies that the police officers agree with, they make the best efforts not to provoke the protestors. Second, the frequency of violent conflicts by a specific group of protestors may formulate bias and expectations of the police officers. For the protestors that have caused the violence in the past, the police officers fully gear up despite the danger of provoking protestors.

According to interviews, all interviewees replied they had attended the protest that they did not want to participate, and the 75% of them said they felt mental conflicts from those protests. The rest 25% responded that the protests did not bother too much as long as they were peaceful.

Chart 1

According to Chart 1, 50% of the mentally conflicting protests were those that held agenda that interviewees agree with, 25% for disagreeing agenda, and 25% for both types of agenda. That is, when the police officers face protestors who fight for the agenda that they support, they felt mental conflicts. The phrase “mental conflict” is called “gal-deung(갈등)” in Korean. This word also includes the meaning of regret and disappointment. All of the interviewees admitted that the Candlelight protests held the agenda that they agree with, and felt the mental conflict involving the sense of guiltiness. Interviewee A said, “I felt like I was jailed by my duty because I could not freely support Candlelight protestors.” He admitted that he hoped for peaceful protests and wanted to use physical force only when it was necessary to protect his and his teammates’ safety. The Candlelight protests ended up with zero casualties and minimum police interventions, which supports the validity of hypothesis 1.

For the question that asked which side is more responsible for the violence that happens between protestors and the police officers, the response exactly split in half. 37.5% said the protestors are responsible, 37.5% said the police officers are responsible, and the rest said both sides are guilty. This question leads to another question that asked, “What are the causes of violent protests and repressive policing?” For those who said the protestors are more responsible than the police officers, they answered protestors often lose control by the group mentality which leads them to project their anger on the police officers. Interviewee B said, “Sometimes they turn violent just because we are the police officers. Then I have to control the crowd to protect myself actively.” For those who said the police officers are responsible, they claimed that the police force has to be smart about the presence. “If protestors see that we are heavily geared, they get even more violent,” said Interviewee C.

50% of the interviewees witnessed the protesters becoming angry because of the police presence nearby. The presence of the police officers raises the possibility of violent behavior among protestors, and the level of hostility increases even more when the police officers are geared up with a helmet, shield, and pepper sprays. However, the police officers cannot give up the presence or gears for two reasons. First, police officers have duties to protect citizens. In response to the question, “How could you continue to serve the duty despite the conflict?” Interviewee D said he felt the obligation to maintain public order because it was his job. Second, they fear getting themselves hurt during protests. As mentioned by Interviewees A and B, the police officers actively control the protest especially when they face serious physical threats.

In summary, the police officers grow negative biases and expectations toward the group of protestors who pose physical threats to the citizens and themselves. In the case of Korean Flag protests, Interviewee E remarked, “Frankly speaking, those Korean Flag protestors are responsible for all the damages and deaths cause during Supreme Court Riot.” During the Supreme Court Riot, three protestors died and several police vehicles got destroyed (Yonhapnews 2017). Interviewees claimed that the Korean Flag protestors have been violent not only for that specific day but also for many past protests. Interviewee E and many others said the Korean Flag protestors refused to negotiate or communicate with the police officers in the field and often broke the laws regarding the activity parameter or noise level. Because they could not trust the Korean Flag protestors, the police officers fully geared up and set up numerous barricades. They knew they could aggravate the protestors with their coercive attitudes, but they expected that the protest could turn violent. The police officers’ attitudes toward the Korean Flag protestors may also support hypothesis 2.

While the interview results show that the police officers mentally suffer from participating in protests, the police agency does not spend much effort on mental care for each officer. For the question, “How did you deal with your feeling?” the majority (46%) of the respondents said they talked about their feelings among themselves. They also alleviate stress by consulting with family members or by doing thoughtless activities like watching movies or playing video games. There is no evidence of institutional care for police officers. Also, 62.5% of interviewees said the institution did not teach anything about how to deal with protestors. As a result, 87.5% of the participants claimed that their socio-political perspectives changed because of their experience as riot police officers. Some of them gained negative views on radical conservatism, and some even grew hostility toward the media. The protests that the police officers participate in influence their thoughts and beliefs in a way that can formulate biased attitudes toward a specific group of protestors. However, the police as an institution lacks the care to minimize such effects.

Discussion

“The previous experience of violence” and “the category of protestors” are two factors in the South Korean context that lead to violent protests according to the current literature. However, the pre-existing studies tend to see the police as a single institution and undermine the importance of individual police officers who directly interact with protestors. After conducting interviews with former riot police officers who experienced Candlelight and Korean Flag, this paper argues that the current discourse on protesting and policing should also emphasize the influence of biases and expectations of individual police officers over the protest violence.

Based on my personal experience as the riot police, I suggest two hypotheses that can explain how exactly the police officers’ biases and expectations influence protests. First, I hypothesize that the pre-existing biases and expectations of the police officers toward a specific agenda might affect the level of repress during the policing (hypothesis 1). The interview results show that the police officers do have mental conflicts and a sense guiltiness when they have to control the protests with the agenda that they support. The Candlelight protests, the protest with an agenda that all of the interviewees supported, ended without any casualties or physical damages, which may support hypothesis 1.

Second, the frequency of violent interactions with the specific group of protests in the past can formulate the police officers’ biases and expectations (hypothesis 2). Interviewees admitted that they ended up despising Korean Flag protestors because they had frequently aroused physical conflicts, violated rules, and refused to communicate with the police officers. The conflict hit its peak at the Supreme Court Riot that caused casualties, which may also support hypothesis 2.

“The previous experience of violence” factor is based on the statistical data of what type of protestors have caused the violence before (Wahlstom 2011: 31). From that data, the institution creates “the category of protestors” such as race, gender, or political ideology. However, these factors did not apply to protestors of Candlelight. The organizers of the Candlelight protests were the labor unions that had a long history of violent conflicts with the police institution, but the Candlelight protests were peaceful. These two factors did not apply to Candlelight mainly because the institutional collection of data did not consider what individual police officers think of the agenda that protestors hold. The riot police officers are individuals who have their values and beliefs, and categorizing the threat based on the institution’s history of conflict may not thoroughly apply to all of the police officers who may perceive the protestors differently.

Conclusion

Biases and expectations that individual police officers have toward the protestors may have an influence over the probability of the protest violence and police repression. If the police officers agree with the agenda of the protestors due to the pre-existing values and biases that they have, they may feel uncomfortable about repressing the protestors. That can lead to a stronger effort to maintain peaceful protests by actively negotiating with the protestors and minimizing their presence that can provoke protestors. If the police officers grow biases and expectations toward the specific group of protestors due to frequent cases of violence, they may grow hostility toward the protestors. The police officers whom the research interviewed admitted that they prepared more gears and actively controlled the protestors despite the risk of provoking protestors by their presence.

The studies on protests tend to consider the police as a single entity, which may have undermined the influence of individual police officers. Furthermore, the police institution itself showed a lack of personal care for each police officer. The officers claimed that no program or aid helped them to alleviate their stress. Also, they did not receive any formal instructions or tips on how to handle protestors from the institution. The protests that they participate in influence their thoughts and beliefs in a way that can formulate biased attitudes toward a specific group of protestors. Helping the police officers to resolve the stress and mental conflicts may help them to maintain objectivity and maximize the effort to manage protests peacefully.

Thank you for reading!

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I write about me. No matter what topic I write about, they are essentially about how I see, hear, smell, feel, and think.

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