If the police state the number of participants for large demonstrations, then the organizers’ figure is usually well over. Why both statements can only ever be an approximation.
When many people demonstrate in public, the overview is quickly lost. If their number is in the tens of thousands, counting them is out of the question. Then the number of participants is estimated. As a rule, the information provided by organizers and the police differs – and sometimes blatantly.
Why the information differs
Estimating crowds is fraught with many uncertainties. In research, the average between the values of the police and the organizers is usually assumed, says protest researcher Sebastian Haunss from the University of Bremen.
Sometimes the numbers differ particularly widely. The organizers of the protests against right-wing extremism and the AfD in Berlin last Sunday spoke of 350,000 demonstrators, and the authorities said up to 100,000 participants.
“The police only give a rough estimate,” explains Berlin police spokeswoman Anja Dierschke. The authority collects these numbers so that it can restructure or reorder emergency services if necessary and gain experience for future rallies. “Our job is not to judge a demonstration as successful or unsuccessful based on the estimated numbers,” said Dierschke.
According to the findings of protest researcher Haunss, the numbers of organizers are systematically too high and those of the police are systematically too low. “The differences are often particularly large at demonstrations that are more popular than initially expected,” he says. The organizers wanted to mobilize a particularly large number of people. The police are also not always neutral during demonstrations and may sometimes have political interests in underplaying protests. She is planning a certain number of officers for the protests and doesn’t want to end up looking like she underestimated the situation.
The Berlin police do not accept this argument. “We calculate our deployment of forces in advance based on past experience and the organizers’ information,” says the spokeswoman. If a demonstration is peaceful and safe for everyone, the number of emergency services ultimately plays a minor role. Last Sunday there were around 300 officers in the capital.
How is counted
According to Haunss, it is easier to determine the size of demonstrations. From the edge of the track, the rows passing by are counted and multiplied by the average number of people moving forward per row. The scientist puts the estimation error with this method at around 10 to 15 percent.
Judgment is much more difficult at rallies. They only appear to be static; there is a constant coming and going. “The fluctuation of people cannot be recorded methodically,” says Haunss. The longer the protests lasted, the less certain the information was. They only show the status at a certain point in time.
First, it is determined how many people are in one square meter – and then extrapolated to the total area of the protests. Three people per square meter is roughly the density at a well-attended concert, says Haunss. For example, things can be more crowded in front of a stage than further back.
The police are well aware that this method, which they also use, has its pitfalls and that the number determined only reflects the time of the survey – not the entire demonstration. Typically, officials from the edge of the rally estimate people per square meter. Sometimes – like last Sunday – a helicopter is used to get a picture from above. Drones and artificial intelligence are currently not used in Berlin.
However, thanks to the many rallies in the capital, the police can draw on experience. The officials know approximately how many people can fit in the space around the Victory Column or on the lawn in front of the Reichstag.
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.