Evidence-based public order policing: The Met are Doing It Wrong.

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:

  1. Understanding the crowd and their motivations. Understand the culture and the context. Communicate in advance what is and is not acceptable.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


11 thoughts on “Evidence-based public order policing: The Met are Doing It Wrong.”

  1. This is a good post, but it misses some fundamental thinking.

    First of all, what is the purpose of demonstrating? Does it have discreet, achievable goals that can be measured when they succeed or fail?

    It can be shown categorically that demonstrations do not work. This is why, no matter how big they are, or well behaved, people who want change should not advocate demonstrating as a way to bring it about:


    I do not need to go throughout the many examples of failures to change policy, the biggest one being the historic, completely peaceful demonstration that failed to save the lives of a million Iraqis.

    If demonstrating fails to solve a problem it should not be tried again. In no other field of human activity do people keep trying something that has failed, expecting that, “this time it will be different”. A scientific or business style of thinking needs to be applied to this.

    You also fail to address the problem of agent provocateurs. It has been proved again and again that the State plants violent agent provocateurs inside peaceful demonstrations to discredit and deflect attention from the cause that demonstrators are protesting for:





    FALSE FLAG DURING OLYMPICS Provocateurs Infiltrate Peacefull Protest:

    Alleged agent provocateur at anti-Olympic protest in Vancouver:

    Without addressing this problem, any call for intelligent policing is meaningless, since there are compartmentalised elements being despatched to these marches whose explicit orders are to disrupt and foment violence.

    If anyone wants to bring about a change in the way things work, or to fix a problem, they need to address the problem directly, and not with tools that do not get the job done, and that are not even suited to the problem in the first place. That means not using a hammer to slice bread. It means not singing songs to put out a fire.

    To sum up, before any thought is put into the politics of policing demonstrations, the fundamental question of what demonstrations are for needs to be addressed, otherwise, you will simply be going out into the streets to have your head smashed in, you will give the State a reason to clamp down on your liberties even more, and your goal will remain unachieved.

    1. I think the civil rights movement might disagree with you a bit. The self-policing would also deal rather effectively with agent provocateurs.

    2. Historically I’ve always had a similar view of demos. The agent provocateur stuff has always seemed a bit of a tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorist argument to me though, in truth. Scotland Yard is far from water tight and the lack of leaks of evidence on this issue give me the impression that it is rarely done, and never done officially. That said, perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive. PS – It tickles me that one of your Infowar links is to a Daily Mail article. Never thought I’d see the day when the Daily Hate was cited on this blog as a supporting reference, even in the comments section. 🙂

      Anyway – I’ve always been a bit wary of demonstrations. I agree, they never seem to make much of a difference as by the time people are mobilised, whatever is being demonstrated against is so far down the pipeline that it is impossible to derail. The Poll Tax demonstrations are the only ones that coincided with a climb down – and I suspect that even that was due to the government’s unwillingness to pay the legal bills to prosecute those who were part of the 30% non-payment rate in parts of the country than the action of demonstrators (although it does prove that civil disobedience in other forms can work).

      Having also had many friends who’ve been involved in demos, from the Reclaim the Streets stuff in the mid nineties to the anti-cuts stuff now, there has often seemed to be something of a ‘Live Aid’ syndrome – people turn up, they march, then they go home, secure in the knowledge that they’ve “done their bit” for the cause and can get on with their lives. The problems, obviously, haven’t gone away and it seems as if their time and energy might have been better expended on other methods.

      That said… I think a case can be made about the benefits of protest, if only as a rallying point for a cause. People up and down the country are feeling pissed off at government cuts but aren’t necessarily aware of how other feel – they see the demonstrations, they know they aren’t alone. There is an issue about how this realisation can be channelled into action (and there is the issue about demonstrations that are poorly perceived – I suspect that the Fortnum’s occupation did more harm than good in this regard for example), but demonstrations can, I think, be a catalyst for something wider. But as an end in themselves – I agree, not too effective.

  2. Thought-provoking as ever. Having zipped through the paper that you linked to (and apologies in advance if I have missed a pertinent point here), while I’m sure that it addresses the full spectrum of the issue with the current riots. While ESIM makes a lot of sense in terms of handling demonstrations with (largely) ‘police neutral’ crowds – eg. anti-cuts protesters who, while en masse might not be the Plod’s biggest fans, aren’t avowedly anti-police – I wonder how effective it would in addressing public order issues with the current rioters.

    Stripping out the current hysteria and actually talking to the communities where the rioters came from (such as Amelia Gentleman’s thoughtful Guardian piece HERE), a large part of the motivation of the rioters appears to be hostility to the police, particularly with regard to the regular use of Stop and Search. The relative merits and demerits of SUS aside, it is quite evidently a major source of the creation of antagonistic feeling towards the police; as such, I wonder whether the more conciliatory approach detailed in the paper you reference might be rather redundant. A major plank of this approach appears to be the avoidance of creating the impression that the police are ‘the enemy’; if they already are viewed as such due to the practice of SUS laws, then all the hands-off policing you might wish for will be unlikely to change that impression. If anything, it might be argued that the ‘hands off’ approach in this context could be what led directly to the disorder this weekend, where initial police restraint was viewed as impotency.

    In truth, I can’t help but feel that the idea of non-confrontational policing in relation to those at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum is essentially meaningless. The police are, ultimately, the enforcers of public order for mainstream society; if you are outside that mainstream, whether it be through poverty, choice or whatever, they are not ever going to be on your side. By definition, it will be a dynamic of ‘us vs. them’; I’d argue that it is impossible, in practical terms, for it ever to be anything else and that any pretence of inclusion or conciliation is just that – a pretence, and a fairly transparent one at that.

    1. Re: stop and search–I think this is a prime example of something that isn’t hands-off policing. When you are seven times more likely to be searched as a young black man than if you are white, without any extra improvement in safety, it suggests that once again police tactics are provocative. This is another area where the police need to improve.

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