Whatever can go wrong will: situational complexity and public order policing

Cody Warner, John D. McCarthy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Police response to public protest in the USA has been seen as stemming from both threats to the interests of political and financial elite as well as threats to the maintenance of public order. Indeed, many of the same features of protest events are used as indicators of both types of threat, leading to substantial uncertainty regarding the interpretation of threat at public gatherings. In this study, we draw on over 16,000 protest events identified from daily issues of the New York Times (NYT) from 1960 to 1995 to develop a more complete picture of public order policing. In doing so, we identify several dimensions of protest events that lead to more complicated and complex interactions between protestors and police. These features, including a diverse tactical repertoire, diverse protesting groups and event size, create crowd management difficulties that contribute to an overall more aggressive police response. Tactical diversity is an especially strong predictor of police action, while protest event size is found to interact with threatening protestor behaviours that largely necessitate a police response. We conclude by placing these findings firmly within a public order management approach to protest policing, thereby clearing up some of the ambiguities in existing protest policing research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)566-587
Number of pages22
JournalPolicing and Society
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 20 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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