If Cops Understood Crowd Psychology, They'd Tone Down The Riot Gear

A militarized police force changes the mentality of the crowd it's designed to protect.

One of the clearest lessons from Ferguson is that the militarization of local police has become a major problem across the United States. Images of grotesquely armed forces staring down peaceful protestors in the streets have given way to interactive maps of the armored vehicles and assault weapons distributed to police departments in recent years. On Saturday, President Obama announced a White House review of that unsettling trend—too late this time around, but appropriate nevertheless.

The conventional wisdom behind forceful crowd control deserves a review of its own. Rather than passively controlling a protest, heavy riot gear actively changes the dynamics of crowd behavior, according to the best new behavioral evidence. The twisted outcome is one that too many police forces have yet to learn: the military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it.

Let's step back a moment to the classic psychological theory on crowds, which gave rise to many of the tougher approaches taken today. Originating during the political instability of 19th-century France, and later adopted by most 20th-century social scientists, this thinking held that people in a crowd lost their individuality and became suggestible to the aggressive behavior of those around them. That view gave rise to phrases like "mob mentality" and "deindividuation"—the idea of a crowd as a singular entity rather than a collection of independent people capable of thinking for themselves.

Riot police in Ferguson, MOBilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The danger in this simplified thinking is that it treats the most peaceful member of a crowd the same way it treats the most violent one. While the anonymity of crowds can no doubt inspire aggression on occasion, even a cursory glance at events like Ferguson reveals crowd behavior to be extremely complex. Sure, there are always a few jerks stirring up trouble, but there are far more peaceful protestors—there from all walks of life, there for whatever personal reason.

The accepted wisdom on crowds began to shift when social scientists studied collective action more closely. During a wave of riots in Britain in 1980, for instance, individuals failed to behave the way a classic mob mentality approach to crowds would suggest. Psychologist Stephen Reicher documented some of the curiosities in careful detail. Sometimes a crowd acted as a collective whole; other times it effectively policed itself—shunning rogue members that threw rocks at innocent buses, for instance—in a way that showed individual values had not been lost in the mix.

Eventually such observations led to a more nuanced theory of crowd behavior called the Elaborated Social Identity Model. The term is a mouthful but its principles are simple enough: the social identity of people in a crowd shifts with the situation.

Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn't necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. "You didn't lose your identity," writes Bell, "you gained a new one in reaction to a threat."

Here's where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It's not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk—it's that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they're united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.

Riot police in Ferguson, MOScott Olson/Getty Images

Psychologist Clifford Stott surveyed the latest evidence on crowd behavior in a 2009 report for British officials. Stott explained that an aggressive approach by authorities leads "directly to a change in the nature of the crowd's social identity," a shift from me and you into us and them. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle: As the crowd gains a sense of unity, the authorities become more aggressive against the unified mob they initially feared, which in turn enhances the crowd's sense of unity. Any rioting that results will be perceived as an inevitable outcome of bad crowd behavior, writes Stott, when in fact that behavior was "largely and inadvertently initiated by police tactical responses."

This insight has led to a new set of best practices by crowd police (much of it outlined by Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces). The key is establishing a "graded" intervention approach that only escalates if absolutely necessary. The first grade deploys low-visibility officers—those in standard uniforms rather than those with helmets, shields, and batons—who integrate with the crowd and establish legitimacy. Another grade of targeted interventions of isolated troublemakers can follow. Yet another with police in paramilitary gear can remain nearby but out of sight, as a last resort.

When officials applied these principles to crowds of soccer hooligans at the 2004 UEFA European Championship, the results were impressive. Stott reports that only a single English fan was arrested for violence, and that riot units never once drew their batons. In a 2008 paper, Stott and collaborators attribute the lack of disorder directly to the "non-paramilitary policing style adopted in cities hosting tournament matches." It wasn't that violent fans didn't show up; rather, the peaceful ones, properly monitored, marginalized the jerks on their own accord.

That's certainly not to compare the rightful protestors in Ferguson with soccer hooligans. Nor is it to suggest that the police shouldn't be equipped to defend themselves against physical danger during a mass protest. Nor still is it to suggest that there's always an easy universal way to handle these very complicated social situations. But the underlying point remains pretty clear from the evidence: militarized crowd protection changes the psychology of the very crowd members it's designed to protect, and not for the better.

Police in Riot Gear in Downtown Portland, Oregon, during an Occupy Portland protest on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street November 17, 2011. [Photo: JPL Designs via Shutterstock.com]

Add New Comment


  • anonymousdatingprofile

    The basics here apply to individual engagement as well.

    Take, for example, an ordinary traffic stop. Police never know what to expect so they're trained to treat every stop as if danger is imminent. Initially that might be the best course of action. However, too often they don't turn off or tone down their purposely aggressive demeanor when it is clear the situation and vehicle's occupants pose no danger.

    It's not difficult to imagine how the vehicle's occupants feel -- as if they're being treated like criminals. No law-abiding citizen appreciates mistreatment. At that point even the kindest of citizens can easily become curt and defensive.

    Police might find the average engagement with every day citizens much more productive and pleasant if they learn to quickly identify situations and adjust their demeanors accordingly.

  • William Juhl

    I think the assumption that police always want to de-escalate is obscenely naive . This tactical information has been all over the place for the better part of a decade. It absolutely defies logic to suggest that a bunch of heavily armed police showing up to a vigil held in memory of someone shot by police was anything short of deliberate provocation. The police in Ferguson may have been acting out of blind hatred as David Oliver suggests but my guess is that it was a calculated plan to demonize the population and justify heavy handed tactics that were already routine.

  • You are assuming that placating the masses is a good thing for society as a whole. Take Malcolm Gladwell's example (in his book David and Goliath) of the protests (or riots) exacerbated by Martin Luther King. He knew the impact that the images of cops clamping down on protests in the deep south of America would have on his cause.

  • This is an interesting article that references the current leading model of crowd psychology (ESIM) & how it argues that police responses to crowds can begin & escalate disorder. I recently wrote a piece on how the increasingly militarised policing after the shooting of Michael Brown contributed to the escalation of the recent disorder in Ferguson, and I also drew parallels with the 2011 riots in England. The article can be accessed via the link below if of interest.


  • Don Ziolkowski

    This is completely irrelevant to the situation at hand.

    Soccer hooligans are against the opposing team and the opposing teams fans. The police are just a nuisance getting between them and the enemy. The idea does have merit when the police aren't the enemy.

    Do you really think that putting isolated or small groups of police inside the crowd of people protesting the police was going to help control that crowd?

    perhaps they should just go straight to tier 2, arresting the trouble makers, cause I imagine a group of white officers going into a crowd of people protesting white police on black people brutality wouldn't at all be galvanized by them going in and pulling a black trouble maker out of the crowd.

    Lets go to tier 3 then, oh wait that riot gear...

    Well just do it regular uniforms, then wait for 5 minutes, they throw a rock, ok now you have what you started with.

    This is completely irrelevant, the whole article, doesn't apply at all to the situation.

  • Well written article.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the crowd control methods employed by the police forces in this instance were an extension of their day to day interactions with the community. There's a piece in Motherjones today(http://goo.gl/3n0qgR) that talks about the actions of a few officers at the site of the shooting/memorial.

    The level of disdain for the community is really hard to imagine, living in a place, like many, where I like to think these things can't happen.

    The tactics you suggest, are much more likely to be employed... the necessary training more likely to be adhered to...and the Oath is more likely to be honored...when the starting point is a base-level recognition of the humanity of the people in the crowd you are trying to control. Without this we are doomed to see repeats of these events. There is, sadly, a reason why some of the pictures resemble iconic images from the civil rights era.

  • As Veteran I think you will find it all stems from the training these guys get. They take an Oath but seems to be clueless what that Oath is or that they even took it. I like your piece here.

  • 41a8bd20

    This rings true, I've seen it happen at many peaceful demonstrations I've been to. Perhaps a better approach would be for the first wave of units should don girl-guide uniforms and give out free hash cookies to the protesters ? The sad reality is that, as the proliferation and use of weapons by American civilians rises, so too the authorities and police risk management\aversion when responding to civilian groups (whether those individuals are armed or not).

  • Insightful article. I expect the 'Halo'-style gear also ramps up the officers, priming their responses as well. Certainly police forces don't want to bear the costs of injured officers, but extreme gear communicates as effectively as any megaphone. I believe early on in the Iraq war, US forces would take a knee to diffuse tensions when facing a large crowd which hadn't yet resorted to violence. I like the soccer example, perhaps any military equipment should be given out with a compulsory training course with videos of its non-paramilitary use in the UK.

  • Great piece. And I love all the very necessary disclaimers in that final paragraph.

    You're underlying argument that " The military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it" is absolutely right. I think the underlying issue is fear and resentment on both sides.

    Also, the fact that this (and many protests like it) are grounded in the tension between police and civilians, adds another dimension of complexity to the issue. Police are the threat even before the protest crowds form.