Civil Unrest: Combating a Growing Problem

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Feb 19

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I had the misfortune to be in Brussels on 4 April 2014 and witness the violent pitched battles flare up during the European Trade Union Conference.

That day 50,000 people from 21 EU member states congregated to send a message to EU leaders that they were sick of austerity and wanted real action to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality.

It turned nasty as protestors threw rocks and firecrackers, to which police responded with water cannons and tear gas, resulting in injuries to 27 people, eight of them serious, paralysing traffic in the Belgium capital and locking down the American Embassy.

The insidious tentacles of civil unrest have spread rapidly over recent years. From the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled long-established authoritarian regimes, to the western-backed civil war which swept through Libya and still grips Syria, to the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests in Europe.
665 g20 protest   toronto canada 2010
Signs of European political unrest were evident in 2001 when Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester, was shot and killed by police at a summit in Genoa, Italy and in 2002 thousands of demonstrators poured into Barcelona ahead of a planned mass anti-globalisation rally as European leaders wrapped up a summit on economic reforms.


Since then things have deteriorated. In 2008, a remarkably similar situation occurred in Athens, when the shooting dead of a young student by a special security officer sparked youth-driven demonstrations. These protests have become a regular part of Greek life with people of all ages and professions taking part following the discovery that Greece had been living beyond its means and enjoying a period of false prosperity.

More recently, anti-austerity protests attracting people of all ages and backgrounds have erupted across major European cities – Berlin, Hamburg, Madrid, etc – and protests against social inequality have been organised around the world.

As recently as 10 April, street battles in Rome injure at least 80 people, both police and protesters. Tens of thousands also marched simultaneously in France.

Beware, civil disorder can occur anywhere, as demonstrated by the weeks of political unrest in Switzerland in the run up to their 2008 elections.

Global social instability is a complex sociopolitical problem beyond the scope of this article, but media coverage suggests problems are getting larger, more frequent and volatile as security forces become less tolerant of dissenters.

Even in the UK, where we endorse policing by consent, water canons have been mooted as a deterrent. Many experts believe such a move would only escalate trouble.

London riots

The phenomenon of civil unrest will bring major security headaches for professionals – both public and private – responsible for protecting people and assets.

The London riots, which resulted in around £100m worth of damage and significant disruption to the lives of Londoners, clearly exposed the pitiful inadequacy of existing security measures.

In one night alone, the police received 20,800 emergency calls – a 400% increase – as rioters went on a destructive rampage, causing criminal damage, arson and theft. Physical barriers, bolts, bars, shutters were torn aside and burglar alarms wailed in protest as looters embarked on an illicit Supermarket Sweep.

Even CCTV was less successful than mobile phone footage in identifying the 2,987 miscreants subsequently arrested for a miscellany of offences.

Clearly, it is worrying that many people  so readily abused society’s legal and moral codes. It’s a deep social problem where tackling the underlying causes is the only remedy.

Situational awareness

Nevertheless, for the security profession the need to manage these situations is likely to grow. Defence will be about managing situational awareness – or “what you need to know not to be surprised” as Jeanot, Kelly and Thompson put it in  2003.

It’s about recognising a threat as early as possible and taking measures to avoid and/or mitigate its impact.

Situational awareness is increasingly important in critical risk management and business continuity. As threats both real and perceived continue to escalate, so developments in technology, security strategy and procedures have evolved to manage situational awareness and combat the increased jeopardy.

The ongoing convergence of security technology and IT enables us to develop surveillance-based, integrated systems which raise ‘situational awareness’. Cutting across business silos to provide operational intelligence they become part of the business process – adding value to clients’ enterprise rather than cost (which is generally the case with security expenditure).

To this end, security professionals need to understand and deploy a complementary mix of physical security protection systems, logical security measures and bolstered policies and procedures.

They must encourage and build a security-aware culture, developing vigilance throughout their organisations and ensuring staff know what to do if they encounter a disruptive incident.

They require stringent policies and procedures designed to minimise the risk of staff abusing the use of IT and communications systems, relaying what they can and cannot do and the consequences of abusing the system.

Defined policies

They also need to understand the threats of social media, as well as the positives. Defined policies and procedures make it easier to identify misuse.

Good communications policies can help executives decide when or if to close operations for the sake of safety and resilience, and keeps staff and customers informed.

In addition, we need to look at emerging technologies. For example, intelligent software systems – PSIM (Physical Security and Information Management – that manage the operation and convergence of security and IT technology.

Developments are underway for these systems to monitor streams from social media sites and manage various security and surveillance systems, including intelligent video analytics.

Mobile phone networks are developing cell congestion monitoring to detect crowds and the direction they are moving. Such technology could tackle riots by alerting authorities to a build-up of persons in a particular area.

That said, security is ultimately about delivering an appropriately manned intervention capable of opposing or negating the effects of a disruptive incident.


This article was first published on IFSEC Global at:

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