Do women make better riot police?
In London, women commanders are tasked with keeping the peace amid five days of protest by environmental activists. In April, G-20 protests turned deadly.
After months of taking a beating over allegations of heavy-handedness, Britain's largest police force is trying a new tack: handing women commanders the reins.Skip to next paragraph
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In a bid to maintain control of a potentially explosive situation, the Metropolitan Police Service is taking a "softly, softly" approach this week as environmental campaigners undertake five days of action against targets ranging from government buildings to the offices of multinational mining firm Rio Tinto.
The hope is for an outcome sharply different from that of London's Group of 20 conference in April. Scotland Yard's reputation took a hit after sharp clashes between hundreds of riot police and protesters – many of whom accused the police of unprovoked attacks – resulted in the death of a newspaper vendor who was simply trying to make his way home.
The move is based on the theory, according to some experts, that policewomen often view their work as a public service, while policemen approach their task from the perspective of "control through authority."
But beyond repairing policing's image, the handling of the event by the two women is also regarded as a landmark moment for women's progression in policing.
"Until relatively recently, we simply did not have enough women at higher ranks to be able to make a judgment about their leadership at these types of very high profile events, so this is relatively unusual," said Jennifer Brown, a professor at Britain's Surrey University who has closely researched gender issues in policing in Britain, where 25 percent of police officers are women, and elsewhere.
"In a way, it's rather hard for the officers who are in these positions of leadership this week because it's being seen not only as a test of the Metropolitan Police Force's capacity to effectively police events like this, but it has now put the women in a very visible position."
This week, activists were permitted to make their way peacefully from assembly points around London to this year's Camp for Climate Action at a south London park, whose location was kept secret until the last moment and then publicized by mass text message.
On the orders of the policing operation's female tactical commander, Superintendent Julia Pendry, only a handful of police officers were on scene – supervising from a distance and with not a baton or helmet in sight. A Twitter account is being used by the police to send operational information to anyone taking part in the camp.
The camp was later paid a visit by Officer Pendry herself, who drank tea with activists, including some she hosted last week at a police riot-training center.