How the Police see crowds and how this affects their strategies towards public order policing


The following article is written by an academic at a British University who specialises in the study of crowd behaviour, and has done participant observation studies into crowd behaviour from the activist perspective, giving her experience of public order policing at demos. While this is not intended to be a definitive account of the tactics the Police will use during the G8 summit at Gleneagles, it is hoped that this may be useful in showing those going how the Police see crowds in general and how their perspective can affect the way they attempt to police them. It will also be argued that this perspective is fundamentally flawed and also counter-productive in that it often causes the disorder that they claim to be there to prevent. Several references follow at the end which should be available in any University library.

Police ideology of crowds:

Police forces in the UK view crowds in a uniform way that reflects their role in society as well as their bias against them, and this view is likely to be manifested in how the policing of the protests is planned and implemented. This view is often shared by large sections of the media (both tabloid and broadsheet Press included) and both local and national government. Crowds are seen as inherently dangerous because of the potential threat they pose to the status quo, and they need to be contained and/or controlled to prevent disorder spreading. While the majority of crowd members are perceived to peaceful, law-abiding citizens, they are susceptible to being influenced by a ‘violent minority’, and so every crowd member is a potential (if not actual) threat to law and order. If any disorder starts it could quickly spread to all crowd members who will uncritically follow the example of the violent minority. These theories are heavily influenced by a 19th Century French historian called Gustave Le Bon (1895) who wrote about the crowds involved in the Paris Commune in 1870. He believed that to be involved in a crowd is to descend into irrational behaviour, where previously civilised people behave in barbaric and mindless ways. Therefore crowds should be controlled at all costs to prevent such disorder spreading. LeBon’s work is still extremely influential today, not just among the Police, but in wider sections of society as well. This can be seen by looking at coverage of any large-scale crowd disorder in the last 20 years, where emotive words are often used to portray the negative and dangerous nature of crowds. A brief look through most Press coverage of riots will reveal phrases such as ’hate-filled mob’, or ‘mindless thugs’.
Psychologists (e.g. Stott and Reicher 1998) have interviewed Police officers from various forces in England and Scotland about how they see crowds, and at times they seem to be almost paraphrasing LeBon’s irrationalist view. For instance, one officer who was present at the Poll Tax riot said the following,
“when you are in a group like that, I am sure that, the fever of the cause,[ ] the throwing and everything else, they get locked together and think ‘oh, we are part of this’ Something disengages in their brain. I am not a medical man or an expert in crowd behaviour, but something goes, and they become part of the crowd” p.517

Another officer when later asked if they think people are susceptible to being directed by the crowd replied,
“Yes, definitely. Before it all happens they are fired up. You have got the megaphone and the chanting and everything and it gets them all going, adrenaline goes up and they will do anything, it’s like sheep” p.518

These two quotes reflect what are often widely held views amongst the Police that crowds represent a potential danger, even if disorder hasn’t yet started, as once it is started by a ‘violent minority’, it is likely to spread like wildfire amongst the gullible majority who will not be able to control themselves. Therefore crowds are often treated with wariness and suspicion by those in positions of authority.

Criticisms of the Police view:

This irrationalist view of crowds that is held by the Police is hotly disputed by psychologists who have studied crowd disorder in Britain since the inner city riots of the mid 1980s up to the present day. From interviews with those present, most studies have come to quite different conclusions about crowd behaviour and how and why disorder breaks out on some demos and not others. For instance, in a detailed study gathered from interviews with those involved in the St. Pauls’ riots in Bristol in 1982 (Reicher, 1984), it was found that crowd members had clear limits to their behaviour, even though there was quite intense conflict with the Police. The Police were forced out of St Pauls’ after a raid on a local café went wrong, and had to retreat from the whole area for several hours until they regained control. The crowd did not chase the Police beyond the limits of St Pauls, but stayed in the area and took control of the streets. They began by re-directing traffic, and initially helped the fire brigade put out fires that had started (although the fire brigade were later driven out of the area). Looting and damage to property did happen, but the targets were mostly banks and dole offices rather than local small businesses, with some corner shops being actively defended by the crowd against random individual attacks. Crowd members interviewed often stated that they were tired of constant Police harassment of the local community, and felt it was time to act as a community against them to drive them out and take charge themselves. It was argued that crowd members went from having a personal identity to having a group identity, which made conflict with Police not only desirable, but also possible, and supported by a large number of people in the crowd. However they did not descend into mob hysteria where ‘anything goes’ and were able and willing to regulate their own behaviour as they saw fit. This regulation of behaviour was also in the Poll Tax riot in 1990, where some small shops and newsagents in the West End stayed open to serve people, while banks and car showrooms in the same street were being emptied by looters!
How the Police see crowds affects their tactics and can even turn small outbreaks of crowd militancy into wide-spread disorder. This is because the variety of tactics they use (baton charges, mounted charges, cordons and ‘kettles’) etc. tend to treat the crowd as a whole and are indiscriminate in their use. These tactics are often perceived by the crowd as an unjust attack on all of them, and so previously disparate groups of people in a crowd can become united against a common enemy- the Police, and become much more militant towards them. For example, officers involved in a baton or mounted charge do not (indeed cannot) often discriminate between peaceful or violent crowd members, as their role is to clear the area and disperse the crowd as a whole- you cannot disperse half a crowd! Indeed, some officers interviewed in the study expressed a belief that anyone left in the area once they charged was ‘fair game’, as they should have dispersed earlier. (Here, it is perhaps worth dispelling the myth, that horses will not charge sit-down protestors. If you get in the way of a mounted charge, you are very likely to get trampled on- charging horses do not stop if you sit down- watch footage of the Poll Tax riots if you don’t believe this!)
Even the use of supposedly ‘surgical’ snatch squads which is intended to remove individual ‘troublemakers’ in order to prevent disorder spreading can unite a crowd against the Police. This is because it is nigh-on impossible for a snatch squad to enter a crowd, arrest the right person they are after, and quickly get them behind Police lines without getting in the way of other crowd members who resist the snatch squad, or don’t know what’s going on, and get caught up in the melee by accident. Many riots have begun after Police mistakenly believed that snatching who they thought were the ringleaders would nip any trouble in the bud.
A PhD study of The 1990 Poll Tax riot in London (Stott, 1996) argues that what happened is a classic example of how Police over-reaction to a perceived problem actually created far more problems for them. At a rally before the march in Kennington Park, the majority of the crowd were in favour of a non-violent protest, and those who favoured conflict were in the minority. However, after a series of blunders by the Police (such as baton charging a sit-down protest at Downing St, and driving riot vans at full speed into the crowd in Trafalgar Square), a full-scale riot kicked off with estimates of up to 5000 people fighting the Police, and the majority of the crowd (which some estimated at 250,000) giving either passive or active support. The Police attempted to disperse the crowd, by pushing people out of Trafalgar Square into the West End, but this resulted in wide-scale looting throughout the evening. People who had been present on the day were interviewed for this study, and there was a general belief that the Police had behaved illegitimately to them, and so more militant tactics were deployed. It was argued in the study that crowd members began the day with many different identities, of which a non-confrontational nature was the most representative. However these identities shifted into a larger collective identity, as the repeated Police attacks gave them a common cause and common enemy. Violence became seen as not only legitimate, but also possible and perhaps necessary as a form of collective self-defence (the idea of collective self-defence has been successfully used by some lawyers defending those on trial for public order offences). A later enquiry of the Poll Tax riot concluded that the Police quickly lost control of the situation, and there are even rumours that the officer in charge on the ground on the day was found in a phone box, a gibbering wreck after the riot!


It is hoped that the examples used show how Police perceptions and mismanagement of crowds can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, and how their view of crowds influences their tactics, which may very well result in the disorder they claim to be there to prevent.
However, a few words of caution are needed here to qualify these studies of crowd behaviour. Firstly the idea that Police behaviour alone provokes riots can attract criticisms that it is quite disempowering, because sometimes significant numbers of the crowd are already ‘up for it’ and prepared to use militant tactics against the Police without much provocation. The June 18 city of London riot in 1999 is a good example of how a comparatively small crowd of up to 20,000 caused disproportionately large amounts of damage and disorder without significant Police provocation beforehand. Crowd theories recognise this by arguing that crowds can have a pre-existing militant identity, but this usually only happens when there are enough like-minded crowd members for such a militant identity to be seen as representative. So in this case, the day was pre-advertised as direct action to stop the City, and it could be argued that the crowd already had a collective identity that would support more militant action before any Police intervention. However, such situations are comparatively rare in Britain, and evidence suggests that in most demos where large-scale disorder occurs, there has usually been some action by the Police against the crowd as a whole which has united them and resulted in them fighting back against the Police.
Another potential criticism is that the Police often either tolerate or deliberately provoke disorder, as it suits their ends in discrediting the protestors and their cause. This conspiratorial theory is considered unlikely by most crowd researchers for the following reasons. Of course, the Police are not going to admit that they deliberately start riots, even if they did, but it is much easier to explain their public order tactics as cock-up rather than conspiracy, which then cause events to spin out of their control. Once riot Police are deployed and the crowd as a whole subjected to charges, snatch squads, etc, it is very difficult to switch back to more conventional policing. Shortly before the 1994 CJB riot in Hyde Park, the officer in charge took 1000 riot Police off duty- 1/3 of his total force, as the demo appeared to be winding down. However, he later ordered officers to charge the crowd after a stand-off over a sound-system entering the Park, which provoked several hours of rioting and looting. To deplete your force does not seem like a wise tactical move if you are planning on provoking a riot. It could also be argued that it is not often in their interests to start riots, especially in the centre of London, near all the government buildings, because of the dangers of losing control of the crowd, and the high probability of those in charge losing their jobs as a consequence!
What seems more likely is that they allow their fear of the crowd to influence their public order tactics to such a degree that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and they end up creating the ‘irrational mob’ that they fear. This is not to say that in the aftermath of riots the Police do not use the situation to their advantage. They usually do so by going along with the often hysterical coverage of riots in the Press, such as blaming protestors and asking their readers to ‘grass a yob’ in the rogues gallery. It would be almost unthinkable for the Police to admit that their tactics helped cause the riot, or for the Press to push this line. However this is very different from arguing that the Police deliberately engineered the riot from the very start to further their own ends.
A final possible problem is the question, ‘why do the Police hold such a view of crowds, if it is responsible for causing the disorder they’re supposed to prevent- surely with their experience and surveillance of crowds they would learn to change their tactics?’ This can be answered in two ways.

Firstly there is evidence that some areas of the Police have listened to some of the criticisms levelled at them and changed their tactics, but so far this has been mainly limited to policing football matches. Crowd theorists’ central argument is that crowds will behave well if treated well and are allowed to get on with the common goal around which they have gathered. This has been applied to fairly effectively to English football crowds, where the Police have learnt to allow the crowd to regulate itself, and not to wade in at the first sign of minor trouble, which would escalate the situation. While violence between rival football fans certainly happens, it is often ritualised with its own limits (there is often a ‘no knives’ rule, and so stabbings are rare), and rarely spreads to large-scale disorder if the Police are not present. However it isn’t considered that this more softly-softly approach can be used as effectively for protest crowds. This is because the Police are highly unlikely to stand back and allow crowds on demonstrations to just get on with it, (especially post 9/11), even if their intervention risks escalating the crowd. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke has already stated that protestors will not be allowed to march all the way up to the summit at Gleneagles, and protestors were kept far away from the G8 Interior ministers’ meeting in Sheffield this week, already generating questions amongst protestors about the legitimacy of the policing tactics.
The final answer goes beyond psychological theories of crowds and into wider political concerns. The Police’s role in maintaining public order means that crowds on demos can be a threat to this role. Protesting crowds are usually united in their desire for change of some sort and this can cause them to be opposed by the apparatus of the state, of which the Police are a part. Therefore there always exists the potential for conflict between these two conflicting roles, even if it doesn’t actually ‘kick off’. While psychologists and sociologists recognise the potential crowds have to change society change for better, it is difficult to persuade institutions such as the Police of this while they maintain their role of de facto guardians of the status quo. While these two roles remain in opposition to each other, the Police are unlikely to radically alter their perception of crowds, and while their public order tactics may become more sophisticated, the underlying ideology that drives them is likely to remain the same.


Le Bon, G (1895, trans 1947) The crowd: a study of the popular mind
(this is the classic text used to describe crowds as irrational mobs- hotly disputed by many crowd theorists, but an interesting read to see how the Police base their theories)

Northam, G (1988) Shooting in the dark.
(excellent coverage, if a little dated, of how British Police have become more like a para-military force since the early 1980s)

Reicher, S (1984) St. Pauls’ a study of the limits of crowd behaviour. In Murphy J et al (eds.) Dialogues and debates in social psychology.
(quite readable account of the St. Pauls’ riot in 1982)

Stott, C & Reicher S (1998) Crowd action as inter-group process: introducing the Police perspective. European Journal of Social Psychology vol 28 p.509-29
( written for an academic audience, so some psycho-babble- but interesting as it has extensively quotes Police officers about how they see crowds)