The reaction to the riots has been what can kindest be described as knee-jerk, though “absolutely bloody ridiculous and terrifyingly driven by a desire for revenge” is more apt. The police have now been given the power to use what are essentially lethal, dangerous weapons against crowds. Morally this is completely wrong. It is also likely to be ineffective, if not actively making things worse.
The thing is, the standard police approach to policing crowds is already completely wrong. I have been on a lot of protests and have been unlucky enough to end up kettled twice. On neither of those occasions did the kettles cool everything down and quell anger: quite the opposite happened. It’s not fun to have to endure a debate with oneself about whether to piss on the statue of Churchill or the statue of Lloyd George (in the end, I went for sneaky option C, and fashioned a toilet cubicle from metal fencing and tarpaulin. When I got out, there was a queue for the ersatz facilities). While I built, all around me people took poles and smashed in the windows of the Treasury. Horses charged, batons rained down on skulls and the people fought back.
There is evidence behind the idea that crowd control and public order policing is taking completely the wrong approach. This report provides theory, evidence and recommendations, and I would thoroughly recommend you read the whole thing.
Public order policing subscribes to a theory of crowd psychology that has very little evidence behind it. It assumes that once a sufficient number of people are assembled, they will become irrational and easily open to agitation. Crowds, by this theory, are dangerous, a hive mind which must be controlled: “the crowd is a barbarian”. Police are trained in this model, and taught to disperse or contain crowds where they form. This approach is demonstrably ineffective, and as supported by evidence as classic crowd psychology itself.
A better approach to describing crowd psychology is the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM). This theory has roots in Social Identity Theory and Social Categorisation Theory: our behaviour is influenced by identification as a member of a group and roles we take on. We divide the world into “us” and “them”. In a crowd situation, this becomes “police” and “protesters” or “football fans” or “people who fucking hate the police”. As a member of a crowd, one identifies with this group. The police are “outsiders”. When police use indiscriminate, coercive tactics such as baton charges or kettling, the crowd will start to see itself and everyone else in the crowd as posing very little threat, and the police use of force as illegitimate. This leads to a strengthening: the crowd as “us”, the police as “them”. This can empower people to confront the police in a way they would not have done had they been left to their own devices. This can escalate to rioting, caused, inadvertently, by the very tactics the police are using to avert rioting.
The us-and-them mentality extends to the police themselves. The police tend to view crowds as a homogenous, dangerous mass that requires controlling, partly as an effect of their training, but partly as an effect of their social identity as a police officer. A friend of mine, while kettled, once ended up in conversation with a police officer. She asked to get out. “I’m sorry,” he said, “you’re all the same to us. It could have been you who graffitied Nelson’s Column.”
With the weight of evidence suggesting classic police tactics make things worse rather than better, is is clear that police tactics need to change. Fortunately, there is a much better way of policing. It involves taking a graded approach, and, crucially, treating people as individuals rather than members of a crowd. There are four phases to this approach:
- Understanding the crowd and their motivations. Understand the culture and the context. Communicate in advance what is and is not acceptable.
- On the day, visibility of the police should initially be low-impact: they should move in pairs, and wear standard uniforms rather than riot gear. No helmets, shields, or visible batons. They should interact with the crowd positively: smiling and adopting a friendly posture, being helpful with directions when they can. Communication is key.
- If trouble arises, target only the trouble. It is made clear in the report that this does not mean arresting “known” people, the go-to technique for public order policing. Instead, it means targeting those who are causing the trouble, and only those. Communication, once again, is crucial. No acting against the whole crowd.
- If there is still a problem and a riot breaks out, go back to usual police tactics of beating up everyone.
Three interesting things emerge from where this approach is used in practice. First of all, self-policing tends to start happening: members of the crowd will be less likely to accept violent behaviour. Secondly, the police are perceived as far more legitimate: the “all coppers are bastards” effect dissipates. Finally, and most importantly, the situations do not escalate. When the approach was tested in Euro2004, in zones where police were using the approach, the riot gear never came out, and only one England fan out of 150 000 present was arrested. The approach, it seems, averts riots.
There are two things in the report that bother me. First, and most importantly, is the assertion in the report that using this approach will facilitate intelligence gathering. As a believer in the right to privacy, I am not particularly comfortable with this. Secondly, as an anarchist, I do not really believe in the necessity of the police in the first place. This report, though, shows they are not hugely necessary at a mass gathering: it is gratifying to see evidence that, when left alone, a crowd will tend to self-organise and decide on non-violence: this is one of the reasons I am so annoyed to see rioting described as anarchy: anarchy is the state of order naturally emerging, and people working together.
Police tactics for crowd control, as currently used, are provocative. Bringing in bigger, more dangerous weapons which will hit anyone indiscriminately will not make anything any better. If anything, it will escalate the situation, provoking a war between the police and anyone who is not the police.
It is, of course, the government’s traditional approach to evidence. They ignore it at the expense of pursuing populist political point-scoring. It will endanger us all.