In the coming weeks we can expect to see politicians and pundits lining up to give us their smash-and-grab clichés for the recent urban riots in the UK.
They’ll undoubtedly give a warm welcome to our old friends economic decay, disengaged youth and opportunistic crime, and those of a more psychological persuasion might name-drop ‘deindividuation’ – the process where we supposedly lose self-awareness and responsibility in large crowds.
This belies the fact that crowd behaviour is a complex area that is surprisingly poorly researched.
But what we do know about is the interaction between large crowds and the police and you could do much worse than check out the work of psychologist Clifford Stott who researches how crowds react to policing and what triggers violence.
In his 2009 report on the scientific evidence behind ‘Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing,’ commissioned by the UK constabulary, he summarises what we know about public disorder and how the authorities can best manage it (you can download it as a pdf).
He notes that the old ideas about the ‘mob mentality’, deindividuation and the loss of individual responsibility are still popular, but completely unsupported by what we know about how crowds react.
People don’t become irrational and they do keep thinking for themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the influence of the crowd has no effect.
In terms of policing, one of the clearest effects to emerge from studies of riots and crowd control is that an indiscriminate kicking from riot police can massively increase the number of people in the crowd who become violent.
This is probably because the social identity of people in a group is fluid and changes according to the relationship with other groups.
For those into academic jargon, this is known as the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowd behaviour – a well-supported theory with an overly complicated name but which is surprisingly easy to understand.
Imagine you’ve just got on a bus. It’s full of people and you have to jam into an uncomfortable seat at the back. There are people going to work, some vacant students heading home after a night on the beers, some annoying teenagers playing dance music through their tinny mobile phone speakers and some old folks heading off to buy their groceries.
You’re late and you missed your train. You feel nothing in common with anyone on the bus and, to be honest, those teenagers are really pissing you off.
Suddenly, two of the windows smash and you realise that a group of people are attacking the bus and trying to steal bags through the broken windows.
Equally as quickly, you begin to feel like one of a group. A make-shift social identity is formed (‘the passengers’) and you all begin to work together to fend off the thieves and keep each other safe.
You didn’t lose your identity, you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.
The problem police face is that in most large threatening crowds only a minority of people are engaging in anti-social acts. Lots of people ‘go along for the ride’ but aren’t the hardcore that kick-off without provocation.
If the police wade in with batons indiscriminately, lots of these riot wannabes suddenly start to feel like they’re part of the bigger group and feel justified in ripping the place apart, mostly to throw at the coppers.
Suddenly, it’s ‘them’ against ‘us’ and a small policing problem just got much much bigger – like attacking a beehive because you just got stung.
The trick for the police is to make sure they’re perceived as a legitimate force. When they have to charge in, they’re doing so for a reason – to target specific criminals. The ‘them and us’ feeling doesn’t kick in because most individuals don’t feel that the police are targeting them. It’s the other idiots the police are after.
And herein lies the problem. The psychology of crowd control is largely based on the policing of demonstrations and sports events where the majority of people will give the police the benefit of the doubt and assume their status as a legitimate force.
Clifford Stott’s report has lots of advice for forces who want to establish and maintain this impression. The cops should start out in standard uniforms, should be scattered around the crowd and should make an effort to interact. If trouble looks like it’s brewing, non-violent folks should be allowed to leave and the police ‘have a word’ with the specific people involved. Force is only ramped up in proportion to the threat.
I’m no expert and I’ve been watching the UK riots from 5,000 miles away from the safety of Colombia (a sentence I never thought I’d write) but it strikes me that most of the rioters probably never thought of the police as a legitimate force to begin with.
This goes beyond establishing police legitimacy on the day and means many of the standard assumptions of behind crowd control probably don’t work as well.
But the fact that thousands of young people across the country don’t have faith in police is a much deeper social problem that can’t be solved through street tactics.
I have no easy answers and I suspect they don’t exist. Politicians, start your clichés.
Link to homepage of psychologist Clifford Stott.
pdf of ‘Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing’.