Assume a Dangerous Crowd and You Get a Dangerous Crowd

How unsophisticated policing of protests can make things much much worse

Posted Aug 15, 2014

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It was like the 1960s, except that the weapons and gadgetry sported by the police are very much 2014. But what we have observed over the last few days is that none of this modern, sophisticated equipment makes a police force sophisticated. What makes a police force sophisticated in protest situations is how well it understands the psychology of crowds.

Unsophisticated policing assumes that protestors are the same as a mob–unthinking, irrational and inherently dangerous. Unsophisticated policing assumes that all members of a crowd have the same goals, and treats them accordingly. Unsophisticated policing assumes that the only check on anarchy is the police force itself–and that the best means of control is through fear and submission.

All of these assumptions are wrong. Further, they are counter-productive, exposing everyone, including police officers themselves, to unnecessary danger. Outstanding research by social psychologists–including Steve Reicher, Clifford Stott and John Drury–has found that the assumptions made about crowds tend to be self-fulfilling. Assume a unified crowd and you end up with a unified crowd. Assume a dangerous crowd and treat it as dangerous–weapons drawn, orders shouted by megaphone, heads knocked–and you get a dangerous crowd. 

As put it in a 2007 article in Policing: A Journal of Practice and Policy:

“If one believes that all crowd members are potentially if not actively dangerous, then one will (1) treat all crowd members alike and hence create unity amongst them, (2) react to the violence of some crowd members by imposing restraint on all, thus increasing the likelihood of violating ingroup conceptions of legitimacy and uniting the crowd in hostility and opposition to the police, and (3) increase the influence of those advocating conflict in the crowd and undermine self-policing amongst crowd members.”

So what are crowds actually like? They rarely start out unified–but are instead made up of disparate subgroups with disparate goals. They rarely contain many members intent on violence and destruction. Certainly there may be some such individuals–who would like to escalate aggression, vandalize or loot–but most of the time, most protestors are there to peaceably express their frustration, anger or disappointment at something they consider unjust. And in a democratic society, this is a most important right.

What sophisticated crowd management understands is that crowds will seek a unity–a common identity and sense of direction–and that it could go either way. The group may solidify around peaceable goals and “crowd out” members advocating aggression and hooliganism. These sorts of crowds are self-policing, setting and enforcing their own pro-social norms for behavior. When this happens there is more than just a thin blue line between protest and anarchy. Alternately, however, crowds may coalesce around more hostile and aggressive norms, pushing out advocates for moderation. Which of these identities wins out has a great deal to do with the way the crowd is treated.

It is not, of course, inevitable that aggressive policing leads to an aggressive crowd. Non-violent protest movements around the world consciously choose to respond to repression with non-aggression–and they gain moral authority and are often successful because of it. However, when this happens it is usually due to strong moral leadership from within the group, fostering the strength to resist an oppositional identity. 

And in this sense, as much as events as Ferguson have felt reminiscent of the worst of the 1960s, they have also been all the more worrying because we are without the best of that era.  Without the non-violent ethos of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King, there is the very real danger that aggressive police tactics will lead to retaliation and violent escalation.

Fortunately–for now–it appears that things are getting a bit more sophisticated out there. It’s about time. In 2014, we should (and do) know better.