Why Cops Should Trust the Crowds

Back in my second year of college, this was at the end of the second semester in Syracuse — because the weather was nice, no one was attending classes and people were drinking outside in shorts and t-shirts — there used to be an annual block party on Comstock Ave.  The peeps renting houses would get a permit, block off the street, hire a few bands and then for $10 you could go drink at any of the houses and mingle.  It was by far one of the social events you couldn’t miss.

So on that particular year, the permit ran out at midnight.  The cops kindly asked students to leave the area. Except no one wanted to leave and resented the cops for breaking up our good time.  And in what seemed like only seconds, the crowd devolved from a drunk, fun-loving atmosphere to one of violence and hatred towards the cops and firefighters.  Beer bottles were thrown, chaos ensued as cops took students down and shoved them in paddy wagons, firehoses blasted the students, the crowd got so out of control that apartments were broken into, couches were set on fire, etc. 

It was an ugly scene.  I’m convinced that if the police and fire hadn’t agitated the crowd they would have eventually dispersed quietly throughout the night, just another mass gathering of drunk students.  Instead, the night turned into an ugly reminder of how quickly mobs can turn from peaceful to unruly with a gentle prodding from the authorities. 

Michael Bond of New Scientist writes that this is more often than not the case when crowds get out of control.  They are pushed their by authorities

The “unruly mob” concept is usually taken as read and used as the basis for crowd control measures and evacuation procedures across the world. Yet it is almost entirely a myth. Research into how people behave at demonstrations, sports events, music festivals and other mass gatherings shows not only that crowds nearly always act in a highly rational way, but also that when facing an emergency, people in a crowd are more likely to cooperate than panic. Paradoxically, it is often actions such as kettling that lead to violence breaking out. Often, the best thing authorities can do is leave a crowd to its own devices.

“In many ways, crowds are the solution,” says psychologist Stephen Reicher, who studies group behaviour at the University of St Andrews, UK. Rather than being prone to irrational behaviour and violence, members of a crowd undergo a kind of identity shift that drives them to act in the best interests of themselves and everyone around them. This identity shift is often strongest in times of danger or threat. “The ‘mad mob’ is not an explanation, but a fantasy,” says Reicher.

Let’s not fool ourselves.  Police officers exist to serve and protect the interests of the state.  Most of them are good people and do their jobs in an exemplary manner, but when your used to seeing bad stuff day in and day out, it’s only natural to expect bad things to occur in any given situation.  Combine that mentality with a mob and it’s an equation for disaster. 

Just look at Iran.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jamesfurbush July 17, 2009, 7:57 pm

    Sure, there's always going to be a chicken vs. egg in these types of scenarios. From my limited experience sometimes the crowds are just violent (always after a sports championship) and sometimes they're peaceful and the presence of authorities pushes them over the edge. But it should be the responsibility of the police to ensure that the crowd doesn't become violent and I think that's what this study is getting at.

  • Amy July 17, 2009, 6:40 pm

    I wonder what would have happened, had the college students obeyed the permit restrictions and voluntarily dispersed at midnight without prompting from legal authorities?