Monday, 14 April 2014

The Hillsborough disaster and moral panics about crowds

This week sees the 25th anniversary of the worst sporting tragedy in the UK- the Hillsborough football disaster, where 96[1]Liverpool fans died at an FA cup semi-final game against Nottingham Forest. As a mark of respect, all domestic football matches on Saturday 12/4/14 started seven minutes late, and various tributes were held by football fans across the country. The disaster is a scar on sporting events in the UK (and indeed on the conscience of the nation), not just because of the scale of the tragedy, but also because of the controversy generated in its aftermath, and the shocking injustices experienced by the victims’ families and survivors. This resulted in David Cameron apologizing for the 'double injustice' of Hillsborough when the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) was issued in September 2012. The fallout from Hillsborough is still being felt 25 years on, with a new round of inquests after the quashing of the original ‘accidental death’ verdicts in December 2012. These inquests are currently hearing profiles of the 96 victims with some very moving accounts by their families, and there are also ongoing separate police and IPCC investigations into the disaster, so the tragedy is very much in the public consciousness at the moment. I would also argue that such disasters illustrate what can happen when crowds are viewed negatively by those charged with their safe management. 


The 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster

Crowd safety management- not crowd ‘control’:
It is now largely accepted that Hillsborough was a preventable disaster, and measures have been taken since to ensure that such crushes can never happen again (such as re-designing perimeter fences in football stadia so that they can be opened quickly if any crushes begin in future). However, the 1989 Taylor Report argued that it was a miracle that such a disaster had not happened before, and highlighted the tragic irony that before Hillsborough no-one had ever died in a pitch invasion at a UK football match, but on 15/4/1989, 96 Liverpool fans died preventing a fictitious one. One of the things that I think is so tragic about the Hillsborough disaster is that the way the authorities viewed football (and other) crowds in the 1980s influenced how they were policed, which may have contributed to the chain of events leading up to the disaster, and the lack of realisation that a fatal crush was developing until it was too late. This may also have been exacerbated by the police believing that Liverpool fans were attempting to invade the pitch (see picture below that shows the police cordon near the half-way line while the disaster was at its height) when in fact they were merely trying to escape the fatal crush. A common underlying theme emerges from this catalogue of mistakes- that football matches (and I would argue crowd events in general) in the 1980s were all too often seen as a potential public order problem instead of a public safety issue. This is explicitly stated in the HIP report which concluded that at Hillsborough;
'the collective policing mindset prioritised crowd control over crowd safety.' p.4

Myself and others who are involved in the study of crowd emergency behaviour and safety management are often very critical of such approaches. For instance Fruin (2002) believed there is a clear difference between crowd ‘control’ and ‘management’;
‘Crowd management is defined as the systematic planning for, and supervision of, the orderly movement and assembly of people. Crowd control is the restriction or limitation of group behavior.’  p.6

This is not just a semantic issue either, as illustrated in John Drury’s blog post written after the HIP was published;
  ‘Approaching the crowd with a view to crowd control risks undermining crowd safety.'

Therefore, I would argue that it is this very emphasis on ‘crowd control’ that creates an approach to crowds that then guides how they are managed, and it was this mentality that informed public order policing strategy at football matches in the 1980s that may have contributed to the disaster at Hillsborough.
Police cordon at the height of the disaster

Post-disaster narratives of blame:
It was not just the disaster itself that made Hillsborough infamous, but also the subsequent attempts to deflect blame for the tragedy onto the victims that have so hurt their families and survivors, resulting in an enduring sense of injustice that is still felt today. However, I also think that the lies that were disseminated about the fans' alleged behaviour (which have since been shown to be totally without foundation) were all too readily accepted by politicians and the media, and this was influenced by a pervasive (but largely false[2]) view in society that crowds are not to be trusted because of their potential for ‘irrational’ behaviour.
The most notorious example of these was perhaps the false allegations that appeared on the front page of the Sun newspaper, under the headline ‘The Truth’ four days after the disaster. I would argue that such irrationalist views of crowds also permeated to the very top of the British establishment, as highlighted by reports that senior police officers briefed the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher days after the tragedy that drunken Liverpool fans were to blame for the tragedy, despite there being no evidence to support this claim. Margaret Thatcher’s chief Press Secretary Bernard Ingham also provoked outrage by defiantly sticking to the myth that Liverpool fans were to blame and the city should ‘shut up about Hillsborough’, and Boris Johnson was recently forced to apologise for an article that appeared in The Spectator magazine when he was editor, that falsely blamed drunken fans for the tragedy. This has all exacerbated the sense of injustice, and a recent article in the Daily Telegraph looks at the shocking treatment of victims after Hillsborough, arguing that derogatory stereotypes of Liverpuddlians have also helped contribute to the enduring myth that somehow fans were to blame.

Margaret Thatcher visiting Hillsborough after the disaster with senior police officers, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, her Press secretary Bernard Ingham, & other Tory politicians

There is almost a sense of moral panic in the way society views crowds, in that they are often seen as vehicles for potential ‘disorder’ or mass ‘panic’, despite over 30 years’ worth of research into crowds by psychologists[3] finding that such concepts are largely myths & that crowds often behave much more sensibly than they are usually given credit for. When tragedies happen, it is usually because of a failure of crowd management techniques (as opposed to any ‘irrational’ behaviour on the part of the victims), and attempts to blame victims are often part of a strategy to deflect blame away from those responsible for such mismanagement. I have argued in a previous blog post that using emotive terms such as ‘panic’ to describe victims’ behaviour in disasters can serve such attempts to shift blame. I think that this deep societal mistrust of crowds was a major contribution to the context in which Hillsborough happened, and why the despicable slurs that were spread about the victims were allowed to remain unchecked in popular discourse for so long- which no doubt added to the pain and distress of those who knew the truth about what happened. Therefore, in order to help avoid future Hillsboroughs I think we need to develop a less negative view of crowd behaviour in popular discourse, or as I concluded in my blogpost when the HIP report was released;
‘we all need to take responsibility for ensuring that we adopt a less pathological view towards crowds, and try to develop crowd safety strategies at large events that prevent such disasters from ever happening again’


Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153;
 Fruin, J. J. (2002). The causes and prevention of crowd disasters. Originally presented at the First International Conference on Engineering for Crowd Safety, London, England, March 1993 (Revised exclusively for, January 2002.)

[1] 95 died on the day, and one was left in a persistent vegetative state, dying nearly 4 years later
[2] My blog attempts to correct the common myths that are often perpetuated in the media/ popular discourse etc;
[3] See Drury (2014) for a recent overview of the study of the psychology of crowd behaviour

Friday, 28 February 2014

Water cannon report update

Today (28/2/14) saw the final day of  the public consultation  process into the possible introduction of water cannon into British policing that was called by the Mayor of London's Police and Crime Committee (MOPAC). There have been interesting developments in this area since my previous blog entry that coincided with the release of my report, where I detailed my concerns about its possible ineffectiveness and the counter-productive effects that deployment and use of water cannon could have. Since my report went public, it has been widely disseminated via social media (despite no mainstream media interest as of yet) which has so far included over 100,000 tweets circulating the link to the report. There has also been a broader engagement in the general debate about water cannon. So thanks to all of you who showed an interest, and some of the highlights are detailed below.

Firstly, the public meeting to discuss the issue at the Greater London Assembly on 17/2/14 was well attended, and from watching the webcast, it seemed quite lively at times! (I was unable to attend as I had tickets to see Brighton play in the 4th round of the FA cup). One of the speakers from the floor cited an extract from my report about how the use of indiscriminate weapons such as water cannon could create a self-fulfilling prophesy of disorder (see p.10-11 of the published transcript), and Dietrich Wagner (the German pensioner who was blinded by water cannon in 2010) spoke movingly about his experiences and why he was opposed to its introduction. The police also showed their own CCTV footage of four different instances of serious disorder in London over the last 15 years, to provide examples of where they may have used water cannon had it been available, although the responses of the audience to each clip suggest that they were not convinced by these arguments.

There have also been interesting political developments in this matter. For instance, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee issued a report arguing that the the Metropolitan police have not made a convincing case for the introduction of water cannon, and takes issue with how the consultation process has been conducted. Baroness Jenny Jones who is a Green member of the London Assembly has also been vocal in her opposition to water cannon, and sets out her case quite coherently in a seven page letter to the Mayor of London (Boris Johnson), sent on 24/2/14. In it, she takes issue with numerous specific points that she does not feel have been adequately addressed, and that the limited time-scale of the consultation process means that there may not be time to address them. She also very kindly cited my report;

"I have read the submission by Dr Chris Cocking...based on his research into crowd behaviour and public order policing. I feel his submission raises some very pertinent questions and concerns which have not been addressed by the Met[ropolitan Police] during this engagement and because of the brevity of the engagement they will not be addressed. I should like to see the Met responding to the concerns raised and explaining to the public how these concerns can be addressed before proceeding." p.5

The no to watercannon campaign group have also prepared a parliamentary briefing for circulation to MPs that details their opposition to the proposal to introduce water cannon, and highlight the concerns I raised about the risk of people developing hypothermia if they are soaked with water cannon and then confined in police 'kettles' for long periods of time in cold weather. Finally, there is a House Of Commons Early Day Motion (currently signed by 16 MPs) opposing the introduction of water cannon, with plans to raise questions with the Home Secretary about this matter on 10/3/14.

It would be conceited of me to imply that my report on its own can influence decisions in this matter, and many other people have raised valid points in their opposition to water cannon far more eloquently than I could ever hope to do! However, I do feel proud to be at least a small part of a growing movement to raise concerns about the possible effects of the introduction and use of water cannon. Time will tell how effective these efforts have been, but I believe that a very clear and coherent case has been made arguing why such a blunt tool should not become part of British policing. Furthermore, if the decision is made to introduce water cannon, I would argue that this decision will have been made for short-term political reasons (rather than evidence-based reasons), and that such decisions are usually poorly made and deeply regrettable in the long term.  

Dietrich Wagner & Jennie Jones amongst campaigners outside GLA meeting 17/2/14

Monday, 17 February 2014

Water cannon report released today

 There is currently an ongoing public consultation process called by the London Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) into the possible introduction of water cannon. A report I wrote in response to this consultation (to coincide with a public meeting called for 17/1/2014 at City Hall to discuss the issue) can be downloaded here, and a copy of the Press Release that was issued by my University is copied below. It will probably not come as a great surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am not in favour of the introduction of water cannon, as it is an indiscriminate public order tactic that will probably be ineffective and counter-productive in that it will be probably result in increased crowd conflict rather than less.  I have also yet to see any consideration of the possible medical effects of spraying people with water cannon and then leaving them confined  for long periods of time while soaked to the skin in possibly cold weather conditions (which seems a distinct possibility given the public order tactics commonly used in British policing). Therefore, I'm really worried that future protests in Britain could see multiple casualties from hypothermia if water cannon is used and then people are kettled afterwards.

For more information, see the No to water cannon campaign that has been set up against the proposals. Through crowd sourcing, they managed to raise over £1,000 so that a pensioner from Germany who was blinded by water cannon in 2010, can come and speak at this meeting about his own experiences at the public meeting on Feb 17th. If you read this before the public meeting (hosted by the Metropolitan Police Service and the Deputy Mayor at City Hall at 19:00 on 17 February 2014 in Room 5) please feel free to download and cite my report at it. If not, the public consultation is open until Feb 28th 2014, and you can send comments on the proposals to;

Press Release:

Water cannon: Dousing disorder or fatally fanning the flames?

Dr Chris Cocking, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton today released a report on the possible psychological and physical effects of the use of water cannon. His report was done in response to a public consultation process called by the Mayor of London’s Office on Policing and Crime (MOPAC)[1], after plans were announced by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) to purchase water cannon and hold them as a national asset that could be shared with other police forces in the event of disorder in British cities similar to that seen during the 2011 riots. This report has also been released to coincide with a special public meeting hosted by the MPS and the Deputy Mayor at City Hall at 19:00 on 17 February 2014 to discuss the issue.

In his report, Dr Cocking argues that the introduction of water cannon into British policing would be indiscriminate, disproportionate, and largely ineffective against many of the behaviours seen during recent disorder (such as the widespread looting in the 2011 riots). Furthermore, water cannon could even prove to be counter-productive, as its appearance and/or use in potentially volatile situations could increase the risk of disorder happening, or escalate it once it begins. Finally, there could also be serious and possibly fatal medical consequences (such as hypothermia) if protestors are soaked by water and then contained behind police cordons for long periods of time in cold weather conditions (as could happen if the ‘kettling’ tactic is used in conjunction with water cannon).

Dr Cocking said;
This report is my attempt to illustrate my concerns about the possible implementation and use of water cannon, and I also hope that it can be part of an attempt to shift the argument back to a more evidence-based debate over the effectiveness and/or appropriateness of the various tactics suggested to deal with the recent urban disorder seen in Britain in recent years’

He also concluded;
The use of water in disorderly situations is best left to the emergency service that has the most expertise and knowledge in this area (the Fire and Rescue Services), and that water jets should be left to targeting fires, not used to attack people in the misguided belief that it will help maintain ‘law and order’.

The report will be available to download shortly via the following link;

For more details of his work on crowd behaviour also see Dr Cocking's blog;

Thursday, 9 January 2014

My thoughts on the Mark Duggan inquest verdict

Yesterday (8/1/14), the jury delivered  their verdict at the end of the inquiry into the shooting of Mark Duggan by armed officers from the Metropolitan Police in August 2011. His death sparked a wave of riots across England, resulting in five further deaths, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage. The jury decided by 8 to 2 that he had been 'lawfully killed', which prompted understandable anger from his family and supporters, who described the decision as perverse, given that the jury also agreed by an 8 to 2 margin that Mark was unarmed when he was shot. This anger was expressed by Carole Duggan (Mark's aunt) who started a chant of 'No Justice no Peace' outside the courts after the verdict, and the police statement that was read out afterwards was largely shouted down by angry protestors. I can sympathise with the family's anger and disappointment with this verdict, as it seems inexplicable how a jury can decide that someone was 'lawfully' killed despite also believing that he was not holding a firearm (and so posed no credible threat to the officers who shot him). However, I think it is also worth exploring how disorder can happen after such incidents, as I worry that fatalistic narratives can emerge arguing that riots inevitably follow, which need not necessarily be the case. So, I will explore the sequence of events leading up to the two major disturbances Tottenham has seen in the last 30 years, which were both sparked by fatalities at the hands of the police, and argue that such killings can certainly create incendiary situations which make disorder more likely, but that there are also often other specific factors that can lead to such riots happening.

Tottenham, August 2011:

The BBC provides a timeline of events after Mark Duggan's shooting, and what I think is significant is that he was killed early in the evening of Thursday 4th August, but the initial disorder in Tottenham didn't begin until late Saturday night on the 6th- which was over 48 hours later. In an interview with a friend of the Duggan family (Stafford Scott), he makes the point that if the police had behaved differently after the shooting, then the subsequent rioting may not have happened, and it seems that later events also sparked off the disorder in Tottenham which then spread nationally. Firstly, soon after the shooting, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) briefed the Press that there had been an exchange of gunfire (when it was only the police who had actually fired any weapons), and this misleading information was not corrected until August 12th (after the riots had largely died down), meaning that the right wing Press (such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail) had already wrongly reported that Mark had fired at police first. The family had also received minimal information from the police in the immediate aftermath of Mark's death, and so called a protest march of around 300 people on the afternoon of Saturday 6th. They then waited over five hours outside Tottenham police station in an unsuccessful attempt to discuss the situation with a senior police officer. As the crowd became increasingly angry and more frustrated, a young female was apparently pushed to the ground by police reinforcements. This infuriated onlookers, and many concluded that it was this incident that triggered the initial riot in Tottenham, which then spread across London and various towns and cities in England over the next five days.

London riots August 2011

Broadwater farm riot, Tottenham- 6/10/1985:

The 1985 Broadwater Farm riot which saw some of the most serious rioting that has happened in mainland Britain in recent times, also has striking parallels with Mark Duggan's death. Over 600 Police were involved at its peak, and officers with plastic bullets were also deployed, (the first time this happened in mainland Britain) although they did not actually open fire. The riots happened after Cynthia Jarrett (a local Black woman) died of a heart attack during a bungled police raid on her house in the early evening of 5th Oct 1985, after her son had been arrested by the police. In this case, there was also a delay over 24 hours between Cynthia Jarret's death and the disturbances, and I would suggest that a chain of events developed after her death that led to the disorder. For instance, at 2pm the day after Cynthia died, an angry crowd gathered outside Tottenham police station, and began throwing stones, breaking a window. The local Police commander took a decision to not react and allow this expression of anger to happen, so the protest passed off peacefully after about 90 minutes. However, later on the same evening, an attempt by locals to leave the Broadwater Farm estate after a meeting and hold a similar protest had very different results. The local police had by now been reinforced by the Territorial Support Group (the specialist public order unit of the Metropolitan Police) and officers in full riot gear emerged and prevented the march from leaving the estate. This escalated into a full-scale riot in which 71 police officers were injured, and PC Keith Blakelock was killed (the first British police officer to die in a riot since 1833). The official inquiry by Lord Gifford (1986) concluded that the difference in policing at these two points in the day was a major factor in the specific timing of the riot, and describes the mood during the evening of 6th October;

'The youths leaving the estate were extremely angry. They not only knew that a Black woman had died in the course of a police raid; they were also sure that senior officers had not taken this death at all seriously. They were leaving the estate to demonstrate their feelings outside the base of local police power. They are confronted by 3 police vans with riot protection containing Police in riot gear. They express their anger by banging on the side of the lead van with their hands...the police response is massive. It takes the form of officers in riot gear coming out of their vans, stopping the youths from going further and pushing them back into the estate. For many of the youths this blocking of their free movement at such a time is intolerable. They react to it by using any means which are available. Yet in the same afternoon a different method of policing had been used. The same youths had stood and expressed their anger for 90 minutes in front of the police station. Here, the police had accepted that it was necessary to allow this to take place. We have no doubt that the youths were just as angry at this time as later on when they were leaving the estate. But in the afternoon there had been no disturbance'   p 103-4 Gifford (1986)

The Broadwater Farm riot 6/10/1985

Conclusion (or why we shouldn't predict a riot!)

As I write this on the evening of Thursday 9th Jan, a vigil has been called by Mark's family outside Tottenham police 2pm on Sat 11th Jan, to peacefully call for justice for Mark. The British media are already speculating whether there will be more disorder as there was after a similar protest in 2011, and I worry that this risks inflaming an already tense situation. For instance, the Times newspaper ran an alarmist story about riot squads being on standby in London after the verdict (and neglected to mention that the Metropolitan Police will probably have at least some specialist public order trained police on duty at all times, so they can be deployed at short notice if necessary). However, Stafford Scott  pointed out on tonight's Channel 4 News that there have been many protests outside Tottenham police station against the disproportionate rates of deaths amongst members of the local Black community at the hands of the police that have not become riots. I remember going to one in 1999 after the death of Roger Sylvester, (who died in police custody after suffering a mental health crisis) and while it was angry and determined, it did not become a riot. I believe this was at least in part due to the fact that while there were police present at this protest, they stood back and did not interfere with the movement of the crowd up and down Tottenham High Road, leaving people to disperse in their own time.

I won't make any predictions as to whether or not there will be any disturbances in Tottenham this Saturday, as collective disorder involves a complex set of situations and social processes, that are also dependent upon how different groups interact with each other at specific points in time. It also concerns me that if we expect disorder at such events, we will not be surprised when it happens, and this will make it more difficult to properly explain them when they occur. Finally, it may also serve to obscure the apportioning of blame onto those whose actions may have been responsible for such disorder occurring. Both of the major disturbances in Tottenham in the last 30 years  following fatalities that I have looked at can be explained at least in part to specific police actions after the fatal incident itself, and I worry that it is all to easy to overlook such actions if one assumes that disorder is inevitable after such incidents.

Postscript 12/1/14:
Further to my previous entry, the vigil for justice for Mark Duggan passed off peacefully, with no repeat of the disturbances of 2011 that spread across the country. Estimated numbers of those attending vary from 500 to 1000, and Mark's family and supporters released doves into the crowd. The police decided to close Tottenham police station for the afternoon, and their presence appeared relatively low-key with only Police Liaison Officers visibly present outside the police station as the rally began (see photo below), although there certainly would have been reinforcements in the vicinity and riot vans were spotted nearby. These tactical moves by the police may have been a factor in why the rally remained peaceful by removing possible sources of conflict between protestors and the police.

However, the peaceful nature of this rally was not helped by media speculation about whether or not there would be a riot (described as 'collective salivation' on Twitter), nor by the following extract from the statement put out by the Metropolitan Police Press Office, which seems to finish rather belligerently;

 "Today is a busy day in the Capital and we have a policing operation in place across London. This includes having additional officers on standby that could respond to any incident that occurs. Part of this operation includes assessing all available information and intelligence, and we are aware of a limited amount of information that indicates a small number of people are expressing their desire to use this vigil as an opportunity. This information includes the intention of protest groups to attend and of people looking to provoke disorder. We will be ready to intervene immediately if required"

It doesn't surprise me any more that the reporting of crowd events  is often sensationalised, with violent protests usually receiving disproportionately more coverage (how many times do you see the front-page headline 'protest march remains entirely peaceful'?!). However, I do wish that both the media and the police would be more responsible in how they prepare for and report such protests in highly charged circumstances (especially when there have been deaths involved), as disorder is not an inevitable consequence. Furthermore, assuming that such events will always become riots, means that detailed and objective study of their causes, should they happen, becomes that much more difficult in their aftermath.  

Embedded image permalink

Crowd gathering outside Tottenham police station for vigil c. 14.00, 11/1/14 

References & further reading:

See my previous post for a Press release issued when I was at London Met University, just after the August 2011 riots had finished. In it I argued  against simplistic and knee-jerk reactions to the disorder and also that debates about introducing more robust policing tactics (such as water cannon) were not only missing the point, but would also most likely be counter-productive.

Lord Gifford (1986) The Broadwater farm inquiry; available via;

Reicher, S. D. and Stott, C. J. (2011). Mad Mobs and Englishmen: Myths and Realities of the 2011 ‘riots’. London: Constable Robinson. available on Kindle via (excellent detailed coverage of the August 2011 riots, that challenges many of the unsubstantiated myths that emerged in the media afterwards) .

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 review of the year

Following my review of 2012, I thought I'd have another go for 2013 and also welcome new followers to my blog. I was initially inspired to write a blog following my experiences on holiday in Tunisia in Jan 2011 during the Jasmine revolution which was the first of many popular uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, but it has since evolved into a general commentary of how I think crowds are often misrepresented in popular culture and discourse. 2013 has also been another busy year for me as I set about correcting what are often outdated myths about crowds that are rarely supported by detailed studies of their actual behaviour. My interests can broadly be described in the following three main areas which I will cover in turn in this review:

a) Exploring populist descriptions of crowd behaviour, questioning whether the terms used are useful in describing what people actually do, and considering the implications of such descriptions

b) How irrationalist views of crowds can affect the ways in which they are policed & how people involved in collective action protests can often experience positive and lasting psychological change

c) How those affected by mass emergencies can (and should) be used as a potential resource in their aftermath as people co-operate to support each other and rebuild their communities in times of adversity  

A critique of 'panic' narratives 
I began the year by looking at how a fatal fire in a Brazilian nightclub was reported, and I argued that using 'panic' to describe people's behaviour as they evacuated seemed to be not only inaccurate, but also risked diverting attention away from the possible negligence of the building's owners, as the wrong kind of pyrotechnics were used, and the club only had one working fire exit. I also looked at tragedies at two religious festivals in India this February and October, and argued that describing the crowds' actions as 'stampedes' could serve a similar purpose by blaming the 'crazed' behaviour of pilgrims rather than what looked like woeful crowd mismanagement on the part of the Indian authorities.
In May a paper I co-wrote with John Drury on the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was published. In it, we explored how survivors of the disaster often used the term 'panic' to describe their experiences, despite clearly having good reason to reject the irrationalist implications that go along with such usage (the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report concluded that fans were not responsible for the disaster, thus dispelling a controversial myth that had previously been propagated by some aspects of the media). We concluded that this was a good example of how people in such situations can be constrained by the language available to them, and that this was yet more evidence to show that the word 'panic' is inadequate to describe how people behave in such emergencies. Furthermore, use of this term in social discourse can encourage crowd management that views crowds from a public 'order' rather than public safety perspective, and the Hillsborough disaster is a tragic case of what can happen if crowd events are considered in this way.

In November, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, and the media were quick to talk about fears of the breakdown of law and order, freely using terms such as 'looting', although they presented little evidence to support this. I felt this was re-hashing clich├ęd narratives about how communities are supposed to descend into 'lawlessness' after natural disasters, and pointed out that there was similar reporting when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, despite the fact that detailed investigations afterwards concluded that reports of such lawlessness were often vastly exaggerated, and crime rates tend to drop after such incidents.

Most recently, accounts from those who witnessed the recent collapse of the ceiling of Apollo Theatre in London's West End, showed quite well how people can co-operate in such situations, with existing social attachment bonds between family members and friends remaining. I also argued that people would also co-operate to help strangers in emergency evacuations, as a common identity often emerges in the face of a shared threat which encourages co-operation rather than selfish behaviour. This post was mentioned in an article in the Guardian, which massively increased hits on my blog, and quickly made it the most widely accessed post I have written so far.  

Hillsborough disaster
The 1989 Hillsborough football disaster

Public order policing 
In January, I had a paper published that looked at how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics (such as 'kettling' to contain crowds or charges to disperse them) could escalate rather than reduce crowd conflict because it psychologically united crowd members against a shared threat. Later in the year, there were   marches in Brighton and London by the far-right English Defence League, and I looked at how such events can attract clashes in views of legitimacy which can result in actual physical clashes between opposing sides and/or the police. However, I also argued that the police's sometimes rather selective use of public order legislation (such as the 1986  Public Order Act) can exacerbate mutual distrust if there is a perception that opposing groups are being treated differently and make further conflict more likely. I also argued that the acquittals of two students charged with violent disorder after their involvement in the 2010 tuition fee protests, were good examples of how public order legislation is often underpinned by outdated irrationalist views of crowd behaviour.  

The summer saw anti-fracking protests in Balcombe, West Sussex, and I looked at how those involved could develop a wider sense of collective identity that goes beyond the specific local issue they were protesting about, how there can be differing views of legitimacy between the protestors and the police, and how their measures of success could also go beyond the specific protest itself. Similar psychological processes also seemed apparent during student protests in England in March and December, and I argued that while the campaigns could be initially inspired by a specific issue, they could often grow into covering wider issues relating to Higher Education (and beyond), and even extend into a debate about the right to protest itself.

Police 'kettle' anti EDL protestors September 2013 

First Responders
The final area I looked at was how those directly affected by mass emergencies are often best placed to respond in the immediate aftermath before outside help from first responders arrives. Therefore, they could serve as 'zero-responders', and this is a valuable potential resource that should not be overlooked in such situations. The attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya this September showed how in this situation where first responders were delayed in reaching victims, uninjured bystanders helped others to escape, tend to the wounded, and in some cases, even lead security forces back into the Mall to locate other survivors.More recently, the Glasgow helicopter crash in November was a classic example of how people often rush into to emergency situations (instead of rushing away to reach safety) to help those in need, and the only people who seemed surprised about this were the journalists who had turned up to cover the story! Finally, when Lee Rigby's attackers were found guilty of his murder this December, I argued that this contradicted early psychological research that suggested bystanders were apathetic to others in need, and that in the right situations, people would intervene to help others.

Bystanders to Lee Rigby's murder intervene to confront the attackers before 1st responders arrive 


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason?Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. 

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2013) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Apollo theatre roof collapse

London's West End is reeling after the sudden collapse of the ceiling in the Apollo theatre during a performance of 'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time'. The performance was nearly full with around 720 people in the 775 capacity theatre, and 76 people were injured, with seven of them seriously. Mercifully though, no-one was killed, and the London Fire Brigade  has stated that it was lucky more were not injured. The Guardian newspaper reports eye-witnesses hearing a bang and seeing a cloud of dust that some people initially thought was part of the performance.This quickly changed, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but the following quotes illustrate that people's behaviour remained orderly; "people realised it must be some sort of emergency and people started getting up... people didn't panic".  The sudden and unexpected nature of this incident means that it was a potentially distressing experience for those affected, but people still remained calm; "people were scared, but they weren't screaming". I also saw a tweet from a colleague at my University who was in the theatre, and she acknowledges the distress, but refutes the idea of 'panic'

Interviews with eye-witnesses by Channel 4 news also report that when a crack appeared in the ceiling, someone in the audience stood up and told everyone to get out, which people quickly did. So it seems that it was a remarkably efficient evacuation, with casualties occurring during the initial roof collapse, and no reports of injuries sustained while people exited the venue. People also tried to locate members of their own groups before they evacuated, meaning I very much doubt there was any kind of crazed 'stampede' to get out. The BBC also reports instances of people protecting more vulnerable family members-

"I tried to cover my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, to protect her but some of the debris fell on her back"

These accounts are very much in line with the social attachment theory (Mawson, 2005; 2007), which argues that in emergencies people don't tend to 'panic', but seek out familiar attachment figures (e.g. friends or family), and tend to evacuate as groups. The idea that people will 'stampede' to save themselves is not supported by evidence. Work I have done with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury & Cocking, 2007; Drury et al. 2009) has supported social attachment theory. We also found that disasters can create a sense of shared identity, meaning that strangers can and do co-operate with each other in life-threatening situations. Finally, in a previous post I looked at coverage of a fire in a packed nightclub in Brazil, in January 2013, and argued that we should be careful not to rush to describe people's behaviour in such situations as 'panic', as it could deflect blame for possible negligence on the part of those responsible for the safe management of such events. 
The response by the emergency services to this event appears to have been exemplary, with a very quick response (I have seen reports that some arrived on scene within 3 minutes), and I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured. However, I also think questions need to be asked about the possible safety of London's theatres.  I was fortunate enough to see some plays and musicals in the West End as a child and have fond memories of being in the Apollo and other West End theatres. These venues are classic examples of the old style theatres that the West End is famous for, but some of the buildings are now quite old, and stricter safety checks may be necessary to prevent any future incidents. The safety of people attending such events  has to take priority over all else, and safe crowd management should never be compromised in the pursuit of maximising profits.  

Debris on seats


Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice.

Drury, J Cocking, C & Reicher, S (2009) Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.

Mawson, A.R. (2005). Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threat and disaster. Psychiatry, 68, 95-113.

Mawson, A. (2007). Mass panic and social attachment: The dynamics of human behavior. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bystander intervention and the Woolwich barracks attack

Today (19/12/13), the jury reached a verdict in the Woolwich barracks attack of May 2013, and perhaps unsurprisingly both suspects were found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby. The British media (such as this coverage by the BBC) is currently full of details of this shocking attack in broad daylight in a quiet area of suburban London. Therefore, I will limit this blog to focussing on the responses of the bystanders who witnessed it, as I think they yet again show the amazing resilience and courage that people can exhibit when exposed to such horrific situations. Furthermore, the notion that bystanders will always be apathetic to others in times of need (a concept known in Psychology as the bystander effect) is too simplistic and not always supported by evidence, especially during serious and/or life threatening emergencies.

In previous posts, I have looked at how survivors and bystanders intervened to help each other during the 7/7/2005 London bombings, and the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya this September, and this also seems to have happened immediately after the attack on Lee Rigby. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a cub scout leader from Cornwall (who is on the left in the image below) witnessed the attack, and become famous for her subsequent intervention. In interviews for the BBC, and the Daily Telegraph newspaper, she describes how she initially tried to help Lee Rigby, but then also engaged the perpetrators in conversation to try and prevent them from attacking others, and even asked one of them to hand over his weapon. The image also shows two other female bystanders talking to the other attacker.What I think is also significant, are the bizarre instances of near-normality in the period between the murder and the arrival of armed police on the scene. One of the attackers asked a bystander to film him while he made a speech seeking to justify his actions, and this became the infamous video clip that went around the world in the attack's aftermath. The footage shows the attacker speaking to the camera about the murder he has just committed, with his hands soaked in Lee Rigby's blood, as people walk past him, seemingly oblivious to what has just happened. I think both of these examples illustrate the almost complete lack of any 'panicked' behaviour in this situation, and also contradicts the idea that bystanders always ignore people in need (as the 'bystander effect' would predict).  

The murder of Lee Rigby was a truly shocking and horrific attack that risked dividing communities and briefly created a revival in the flagging fortunes of the Islamophobic English Defence League. However, a piece in The Guardian today argues it  has instead had the opposite effect to that intended by the attackers (to start a 'holy war' between Muslims & non-Muslims) and united communities in their opposition to such attacks. I believe that the selfless and courageous acts by passers-by on the day were perhaps the first example of such opposition and show how people can unite and come together to support each other in times of adversity.


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cole, J., Walters, M. & Lynch, M (2011). Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd's role in emergency response, Contemporary Social Science, 6 (3) 361-375.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009) The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.