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Tuition fees protest - lessons for crowd control
The student tuition fees protest that took place in London on 9 December raised numerous questions about the psychology of policing large crowds. As the demonstrations descended into violence, dozens of people were injured, national monuments and government buildings were vandalised and multiple arrests were made. An objective appraisal of the events was hard to come by, as the Metropolitan Police were subsequently criticised for being both too soft and too brutal by commentators from different ends of the political spectrum.
As we reported last February, the latest government advice to the police on how to manage crowds is underpinned by psychological theory. This advice is contained in a report published by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in 2009, and subsequently incorporated into official training manuals.
The elaborated social identity model (ESIM), developed by Professor Steve Reicher at the University of St Andrews, Dr John Drury at Sussex University and Dr Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool, explains how protest situations are characterised by a shifting dynamic of social influence, whereby the peaceful majority can come to identify either with a violent minority or with the police. Which way their allegiance falls depends in part on whether police action is perceived as legitimate.
Stott tells The Psychologist that research he's conducted with Reicher and Drury shows how a general norm of non-violence in a crowd can change radically in response to indiscriminate policing, which is what he believes happened in Parliament Square on 9 December.
'You cannot understand the events in Parliament Square in isolation from previous protests. But kettling [the police tactic of containing a large crowd in a confined area], by definition, is extremely indiscriminate and it changes people's perception of the legitimacy of the police,' Stott says. 'My question is why are the Metropolitan Police not moving more rapidly toward modes of policing that reflect the latest evidence and theory given that this provides the formal framework for Association of Chief Police Officers guidance on policing crowds?'
Another psychological angle relates to the importance of communication before, during and after large protests. Stott argues that the police need to understand that there is a history behind any large demonstration, with memories of previous police action influencing crowd behaviour. The police need to manage this ongoing historical dynamic that feeds into demonstrators' perceptions of legitimacy. They also need an improved capability to make dynamic, real-time risk assessments, and to respond differentially to different sections of the crowd, such that those provoking conflict can be undermined, whilst at the same time allowing the peaceful majority to continue protesting.
Does this mean there's a need for more intelligence and more informers, as some commentators called for? 'No, we have seen from the collapse of the Ratcliffe trials [concerning a plan by climate protestors to shut down a power station], covert intelligence for these kinds of protest is not the way,' Stott says. 'It's about liaising openly, understanding and facilitating peaceful protest, which is a cornerstone of democracy. But the police don't always have that capability because of a lack of commitment at a strategic level.'
For Stott, the key juncture on 9 December was when crowds of people started pouring into Parliament Square and the presence of fences (apparently left in place by the local authority) around the grass led to crushing and pushing. 'This was when the police needed to communicate with the crowd about what was required, necessary and legitimate. But that didn't happen - there was simply no communication with the crowd. Inevitably, the police were forced to move toward containment. But even if that were necessary, they should have had elements of the police ready to communicate during the containment itself, to assist in dynamic risk assessment, and straight away they should have started working with the crowd to work out who was and wasn't a risk. The vast bulk of the crowd were students who simply wanted to protest and then go home.'
Stott is also critical of the police use of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, which if deployed appropriately could play an important role in real-time communication and ongoing liaison. The first tweet sent by police on the day reportedly said, 'Anyone who engages in crime will be arrested.' Stott says the use of Twitter is to be welcomed but that the problem is with message content. 'The police need people in place with the relevant competencies to use social media to best effect - to communicate at crucial junctures the legitimacy of police action and the illegitimacy of violent action. We can only hope that over time the police learn to accommodate the recommendations flowing from our research more fully.'
HMIC report: tinyurl.com/4dz9947
Dr Cifford Stott's report to HMIC: www.liv.ac.uk/Psychology/staff/cstott.html
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