Heavy Police Presence at Protests Shapes Public Perceptions of Violence, New Study Finds

A new study reveals that police behavior at Black Lives Matter protests significantly influenced how the public perceived these demonstrations. The research suggests that a heavy police presence, even at largely peaceful protests, leads observers to view protesters as more violent and troublesome.

Rhode Island News: Heavy Police Presence at Protests Shapes Public Perceptions of Violence, New Study Finds

June 20, 2024, 2:31 pm

By Uprise RI Staff

In the wake of the tragic police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, a wave of protests erupted across the nation under the banner of Black Lives Matter. As demonstrators took to the streets to demand justice and accountability, they were met with strikingly different responses from law enforcement.

In some cities, police chiefs marched alongside activists, holding signs affirming that Black lives do indeed matter. But in many others, protesters were confronted by officers in full riot gear, flanked by armored vehicles and wielding tear gas and rubber bullets. Even at largely peaceful demonstrations, the presence of militarized police created an atmosphere of tension and impending conflict.

Now, a groundbreaking new study suggests that these contrasting approaches to protest policing did more than set the tone on the ground – they actively shaped how the broader public perceived the Black Lives Matter movement. The research, based on an original dataset of over 1,000 BLM protests between 2014 and 2017, reveals that the level of police presence was a key factor in whether observers believed protesters were violent or peaceful.

In an experiment, respondents shown an image of armed officers at a protest were significantly more likely to describe demonstrators as having “violent intentions” and being “out to cause trouble” compared to those who saw the same protest without police. Notably, the protest itself was described identically in both scenarios, indicating that the mere presence of a militarized force was enough to create the impression of violence in the absence of any aggressive actions by protesters.

This finding held true even though the vast majority of BLM protests have been peaceful. Of the demonstrations analyzed in the study, over 80% had no reported protester violence. Yet the data show that police responses varied dramatically, with some protests seeing no law enforcement presence at all while others were met with mass deployments in battle-ready gear.

Strikingly, common sense assumptions about what might drive this variation were not borne out by the data. Factors like the size of the protest, whether it took place after dark, or if demonstrators engaged in disruptive tactics like blocking highways explained little in terms of predicting the level of police response. Instead, the study authors conclude, law enforcement appeared to be exercising broad discretion in their handling of BLM protests.

This discretion, the research suggests, has real consequences for public opinion. While images of heavily-armed police did not necessarily cause a drop in respondents’ expressed support for BLM, the significant uptick in perceptions of protester violence is troubling on its own. Past research has shown that the appearance of nonviolence is a key factor in a social movement’s ability to gain support and achieve its goals.

The study also uncovered racial differences in how strongly respondents reacted to seeing militarized police at protests. White participants were more swayed by these images, becoming much more likely to perceive demonstrators as violent. Black respondents, on the other hand, showed little change in their views in response to police presence, perhaps reflecting the fact that Black Americans already have much more fraught relationships with and skeptical views of law enforcement.

These findings paint a worrying picture in which police have broad latitude to crack down on protests in ways that may feel disproportionate or even retaliatory to those on the receiving end. But even more concerningly, the research illuminates how the theater of militarized policing can work to undermine movements like Black Lives Matter in the court of public opinion, fueling media narratives that focus on unruly demonstrators rather than the injustices being protested.

In doing so, the study authors argue, law enforcement can play an outsized role in “framing” how the public understands and reacts to social movements. Simply by showing up ready for battle, police may be sending the message that those demanding change are a threat rather than citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

As protests erupted on college campuses across the nation this Spring over Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people, police treated these young folks as if they were an armed resistance waging war. As the findings in this study appear to confirm, observers were led to believe by the over-the-top police presence that students acted violently when in fact 97% of all college protests featured no acts of violence at all. Elected officials and police departments must reckon with the power law enforcement has to shape public perceptions, and the rest of us must recognize that law enforcement actively engages in psyops like this to trick observers into believing their narrative rather than what actually occurred. Policies reining in the use of militarized equipment and violent tactics are necessary not only to protect protesters on the ground, but their very legitimate calls for justice and change.