Policing Civil Disobedience



Civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious infringement of law carried out to express opposition to law and policy. The normative literature provides thorough treatments of several key issues related to the post-arrest treatment of civilly disobedient citizens, such as the propriety of imposing various types of legal sanction. An important issue that has received rather less consideration, though, is the matter of how police forces should react to civil disobedience prior to and during its commission. This article aims to encourage reflection on this issue by sketching a normative framework to orientate moral evaluation of the ways in which liberal democratic societies police civilly disobedient protest. The central argument is that the police should, wherever possible, adopt a strategy of ‘negotiated accommodation’ towards civil disobedience. The core requirement of this strategy is that police officers should attempt to engage in dialogue with protest groups before or during their civil disobedience actions. This dialogue must be underpinned by a conscientious and sincere commitment on the part of officers to balance the traditional goals of public order policing with the good of accommodating civil disobedience. The article contrasts the idea of negotiated accommodation with alternative strategies for policing civil disobedience, illustrates its practical implications through considering various examples, and defends it against important objections.