Student riots and police tactics

Student unrest in London last November and December was not caused by the police using less confrontational tactics but by a failure to implement those tactics thoroughly.

That is the finding of a paper being presented today at the annual conference of the Society’s Social Psychology Section in Cambridge by Dr Clifford Stott from the University of Liverpool and Dr Chris Cocking from London Metropolitan University.

The two researchers interviewed 30 students who attended the tuition fees protests, using a mixture of focus groups and individual interviews, collecting qualitative data that was analysed thematically. Themes investigated included: perceived legitimacy of in and out-group behaviour, and perceptions of how inter-group conflict developed.

They say; “Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published Adapting to Protest in July 2009. This report emphasised the need to police demonstrations in a way that safeguards the rights of individuals during protests.

“Some media commentators interpreted the scale and intensity of the disturbances as evidence of flaws in the report and the psychological theory of crowds that underpinned it. They argued that more aggressive policing styles were required.

“We set out to examine these arguments by exploring the experiences of students who attended these protests.”

The researchers’ findings refute this media analysis and support a psychological understanding of crowd behaviour instead. The data suggest that collective action during the student protests can only be adequately understood as the outcome of a failure by the Metropolitan Police to adopt the recommendations of the HMIC. This set up a dynamic whereby interactions from earlier events fed directly into the subsequent protests, a process that culminated in a riot at Westminster on 9 December 2010, when the vote was passed.

The study also explores the implications of this analysis for understanding the student protests and discusses the role of social psychology in the analysis of intergroup conflict and supporting the maintenance of human rights. Exploration of this issue is all the more important in the wake of the riots in England in Aug 2011, where simplistic explanations of the origins of the disturbances amongst some politicians and elements of the media may have hindered the rational debate of complex social problems.

For more information on these issues see:

Dr Cocking’s blog on the representation of crowds in the media

Dr Stott’s Facebook page