Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish referendum 'disorder'? Don't predict a riot!

As I write this, the polls are now open for the referendum on whether Scotland decides to become an independent country and thousands of Scots are queuing to cast their vote. As an Englishmen living south of the border, I will refrain from offering an opinion on how the vote should go (although I suspect the Cornish half of me may yearn for greater devolution for Cornwall if the 'Yes' campaign wins!), but I do find the media predictions of possible 'disorder' after the vote rather annoying and irresponsible to say the least. For instance, on 15/9/14, The Independent reported that Scottish Police will be on 'high alert' after the result of the vote is declared on the morning of September 19th. More recently, The Times on 17/9/14 ran with the almost hysterical headline, 'Fears of mob violence as pubs open all night for vote count', and even the normally measured John Snow from Channel 4 News was asking guests in Edinburgh if they thought there was going to be 'trouble' after the vote. Such media speculation is insulting to the vast majority of Scots from both sides of the referendum debate who have conducted themselves in an overwhelmingly civilised (if at times impassioned) debate over the pros and cons of independence, and this speculation reflects what I think is a deep mistrust of people coming together en masse.Therefore, I will argue in this post that riots in the wake of the referendum result are not inevitable (or even likely), and that exaggerating the risk could even generate a self-fulfilling prophesy that increases the chances of any such disorder happening.

Illustration: Monica Burns

Comparisons with English examples
In a previous post I looked at two examples of recent urban disorder in Tottenham, London (the 1985 & 2011 riots). I argued that while both happened in a context of tension and strained community relations (both involved deaths at the hands of the Police, with Mark Duggan's shooting in 2011 sparking four days of rioting across England), neither riot happened straight after the incident, and there were also specific events that happened in the aftermath of each death that triggered the disorder. For instance, I felt it was crucial to explore how the crowds that gathered in response to these deaths interacted with the police, and that there were mistakes that the police made in managing the protests in each situation that triggered a riot. However, there were other similar situations where riots did not happen. So I argued that disorder in such tense situations is not inevitable, but that creating an atmosphere that emphasises the potential for disorder can make such disorder more likely to occur. The current situation in Scotland is clearly different in that there have thankfully been no fatalities related to the referendum debate. However, what I think is also interesting is that unlike the incidents in London where I argued that the Metropolitan Police seemed to go along with a media narrative emphasising the possibility of disorder in the aftermath of Mark Duggan's inquest, the Scottish Police so far seem to be trying to avoid following such a position. For instance, the Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation issued a Press Release on 17/9/14 that attempted to play down any risks of possible disorder, as illustrated in the following extract;

It was inevitable that the closer we came to the 18th of September passions would increase but that does not justify the exaggerated rhetoric that is being deployed with increased frequency. Any neutral observer could be led to believe Scotland is on the verge of societal disintegration yet nothing could be further from the truth... police officers have better things to do than officiate in spats on social media and respond to baseless speculation of the potential for disorder on and following polling day”

Historical comparisons- a 'Scottish Approach' to policing?
A quick look back at the history of Scottish urban disorder also raises some interesting issues. While researching for this post, I really struggled to find examples of recent widespread disorder in Scotland (thanks to those who helped with this search). For instance, the riots seen in England in 2011 and the early 1980s did not spread North of the border, and while there were mass campaigns of civil disobedience in Scotland against the hated Poll Tax, there were no riots like the one seen in London on 31/3/1990. Furthermore, the 2005 G8 Summit at the Gleneagles Hotel did attract some of the largest protests in central Scotland's history (resulting in over 700 arrests in total), but these were largely peaceful, and none seemed to result in widespread urban disorder.The most recent example I could find of a large riot in Scotland was the Battle of George Square in Glasgow 1919, where the local Police lost control of a crowd of up to 60,000 workers on strike and the British government deployed 10,000 soldiers supported by tanks (see photo below) so fearful were they of the Russian revolution spreading to Clydeside. Apparently local Glaswegian soldiers were not deployed because of the fear they might mutiny and join the strikers! To find another large riot in Scotland, I had to go back to the Tron riot in Edinburgh, Hogmanay 1811-12, where the wealthy inhabitants of the New Town were attacked by youths from the deprived Old Town, resulting in the death of a police officer and five youths subsequently being sentenced to death for their part in the riots. 

Tanks deployed after the battle of George Square, 1919

These historical examples lead on to the question of why Scottish cities have not seen similar outbreaks of the urban disorder that has happened in England in recent years, given that the underlying social contexts (such as deprivation, inequality, youth alienation, etc.) are often similar or worse than in the English communities where disorder occurred. Some observers have tried to address this issue, offering a variety of reasons why riots are less frequent in Scotland. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, Marianne Taylor from the Guardian considered whether it was policing, urban planning, different gang cultures, or even bad weather in August 2011 that meant they didn't spread to Scottish inner cities. Gorringe & Rosie (2010) also looked at how national identities were manifested in the policing of the G8 Summit protests in 2005. The senior police officers they interviewed believed that the particular 'Scottish approach' used at the protests (a less confrontational approach, and reluctance to deploy specialist public order officers in riot gear etc.) contributed to the lack of widespread disorder, and they felt this set them apart from English policing. However, this view was not universally shared, and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party they interviewed rejected this notion of 'Scottish policing', arguing that they could be just as forceful as some English police forces are and equally alienated from the communities they police in some inner-city areas. Gorringe et al (2012) later looked at the policing of the 2009 NATO summit  in Edinburgh and concluded that while the police stated their intention was to 'facilitate lawful protest', this approach was not ultimately effective in practice, and 'frequently reverted to styles of policing designed to contain protest' . 

It's always risky making definitive predictions about whether or not disorder will occur before an event as there's always the chance that you will get it wrong! I also have to confess that there may well be gaps in my own knowledge of Scottish public order incidents which limit my ability to offer much more to this debate. However, from my own studies of crowd disorder in England, I would argue that how crowds interact with the police at specific incidents is crucial to our understanding of these events. So, in the unlikely event that any disorder does occur, it will be vital to forensically examine the chain of events leading up to each incident, rather than assuming that disorder was 'inevitable' in such contexts. I would also suggest that just because we are seeing an impassioned debate by the Scottish people about the future of their nation, this does not necessarily mean that they will begin rioting when the result is announced. Furthermore, it is irresponsible for the media to suggest on spurious (or even absent) evidence that we will see widespread disorder and 'mob violence'  in the aftermath of the vote on September 18th, and merely reiterates the deeply flawed views of collective processes that are prevalent in social discourse in general. I worry that there's also an element of implicit xenophobia in some of the English media as they seem to distrust the ability of Scots to come together peacefully after the result. One thing that I have heard mentioned by people from all sides of the debate is how proud they are of their fellow Scots for engaging in such widespread debate on this issue (often from a grass-roots level). So, whatever happens in this referendum, I think those of us South of the border should be inspired by this exercise in mass democracy, rather than fearing disorder in the aftermath of the referendum.    

Gorringe H and Rosie M (2010) The 'Scottish' Approach? The discursive construction of a national police force. The Sociological Review, 58 (1) p.65-83

Gorringe H, Rosie M, Waddington D & Kominou M (2012) Facilitating ineffective protest? The policing of the 2009 Edinburgh NATO protests. Policing & Society, 22 (2) p.115-132.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ferguson 'riots'- militarised policing is not the answer

The town of Ferguson, Missouri in the US has now seen ten days of almost nightly disorder, according to the latest BBC reports. This was sparked by the fatal shooting of the Black teenager Michael Brown, promoting accusations of racism by the African-American community against the police (Ferguson's population of 21,000 is two-thirds Black, but there are only 3 Black officers from a total of 53 in the local Police Department). The town currently looks more like a war zone than a previously unremarkable suburb of St Louis in the mid-West, with the media presenting images  that seem more reminiscent of scenes from apartheid South Africa. The recent deployment of the Missouri National Guard has not yet quelled the disorder either, with 31 protestors arrested during the night of 18/8/14 (there is also evidence that Amnesty human rights observers were told to leave the vicinity and did so with their hands up), and I would argue that this increasingly militarised response may well be one of the factors that is perpetuating the situation.

Militarised policing:  
The police deployed in the evenings in Ferguson are heavily armed with a range of sophisticated weapons (such as: tear gas, sonic devices, baton rounds, and stun grenades) making them look more like soldiers than civilian policeman. What these devices all have in common is that they are indiscriminate crowd control weapons designed for dispersal that treat crowds in an indiscriminate way and cannot differentiate amongst protestors. In previous blog posts and an article for The Conversation, I argued that the introduction of water cannon into British policing would probably be counter-productive as it would contribute towards the increased militarisation of the police and could result in more disorder rather than less. This is in line with research done by a variety of academics into crowd behaviour using the Elaborated Social Identity Model (e.g. Stott, 2009) which argues that treating crowds forcefully and indiscriminately often escalates disorder, and was recently covered in a Newsweek article;  

'Studies [ ] show that police have the power to either lessen the tensions of an angry group of people or goad them into a riot. This conclusion is based on the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), which is the leading scientific theory on managing a boisterous horde of people. What the ESIM shows is that an angry crowd can be driven to riot if they believe they are being treated unfairly—for example, by being confronted by cops decked out with military weaponry. When police treat a crowd justly and humanely, the chance of an uproar decreases and participants trust law enforcement more.'

Riot police in Ferguson (18 August 2014)

Irrationalist narratives of crowds:
I have also noticed that the language used to describe the protests in Ferguson reflects a pervasive mistrust of crowds in society that is heavily influenced by pathological  views of crowd behaviour (that are often flawed and not supported by current evidence). There are also commonalities with how protests were covered after similar events in the UK (such as the 2011 riots after the shooting of Mark Duggan by London's Metropolitan Police). For instance, the Ferguson Police Captain Ron Johnson claimed in an interview that;
"a small number of violent agitators... hide in the crowd and then attempt to create chaos" 
I have seen no CCTV footage to support this assertion, but I would take issue with the premise behind this statement- that there are a small number of people with malicious intent who are responsible for 'inciting' the peaceful majority to behave violently. This assumes that crowd members are easily influenced by others to do things that they would not do otherwise. If crowds were this easily influenced by others, then why don't they listen to the police announcements to disperse and go home?! The reality is that the idea of gullible crowds, uncritical of any social influence is largely a myth not supported by evidence from studies of crowd behaviour. If violence does occur it rarely happens because a violent 'minority' has whipped up the the crowd, and is more likely because of the police treating the crowd in an indiscriminate way which psychologically unites crowd members to act together against what are perceived as illegitimate attacks against them. Ball & Drury's (2012) study of the narratives presented by the media and politicians of 'irrational' criminality after the 2011 riots in the UK, shows how the statistics used were often selective and/or mis-represented, and the conclusions drawn were not supported by detailed examination of what actually happened. Finally, locals from Ferguson also seem to reject this dominant narrative of pervasive 'criminality', and there have been much more positive accounts of recent events by those involved in them. For instance, the BBC has reported how some locals perceive an almost festival-like atmosphere in Ferguson;

Sarah from nearby University City has spent four days in Ferguson.

"What they're not showing in a lot of the media is how diverse these groups of people coming out are and how welcoming everybody is. It's really wonderful to be in this community right now. There's so much love and support."

Another man described efforts by young men to protect several local stores and the greater community from looters.

"People care about this community and the people who are looting are not necessary residents of Ferguson. They're opportunists," he said. "It's really really sad to see that people still want to take advantage of the situation and feel that it's right to loot. But one sin is not greater than another and ignorance does not justify ignorance."

The second statement to supported by the photo below (that is circulating on Twitter) that appears to show rival gang members (wearing different coloured scarves) standing together to protect a shop from looters, This also illustrates that protestors are placing limits on the crowd's behaviour, which also undermines another common myth of crowd disorder- that once riots begin, anything goes and 'mob rule' takes over. This fits with evidence from the 2011 England riots (Reicher & Stott, 2011) that found similar complexities in crowd behaviour, with non-police emergency services (such as fire-crews and paramedics) rarely being attacked by protestors, and when looting happened, it was often selective (and not indiscriminate) and some local properties were even protected from opportunistic looters by people who had previously been fighting the police.

The disorder in Ferguson is happening for a complex set of reasons, and I cannot claim to have all the answers to explain why such events occur and escalate. However, I'm pretty confident that such events happen in a social context which needs to be considered when looking at solutions (such as the deep inequalities in American society and how African-American communities often feel they are being victimised by a still predominantly white police force). Therefore, trying to de-contextualise such events by blaming the behaviour of a minority of bad-intentioned individuals, and responding to legitimate protests with increasingly militarised policing is not going to provide a solution. Furthermore, it can only further alienate communities from their local police forces if they are met with such overwhelming force when they take to the streets.
In a previous post I argued that disaster response should not be militarised (such as when National Guard soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq in 2005 and redeployed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), as it was predicated on a fundamental distrust of crowd behaviour, and I would say similar issues are at play here.The US Police are probably amongst the most heavily armed police forces in the world, but this has not stopped urban disorder happening, and something is clearly badly wrong, when US citizens in 2014 are openly talking about their own police as an occupation force. The reasons why such events happen and escalate have to be explored in a broader social context and long term solutions will not be found by turning police forces into the paramilitary outfits we are currently seeing on the streets of St Louis.

Update 20/8/14:
Since writing the above post, there has been another tragic shooting by police of a Black teenager in Ferguson. So far, there does not appear to have been a repeat of the previous disorder, but it is clearly early days yet, and we shall have to see how events unfold. The BBC have reported that protestors have marched peacefully through the streets to protest against the latest shooting and 'hundreds of police were out on the streets, but kept their distance'. I believe this illustrates that disorder is not inevitable in the immediate aftermath of fatal incidents involving the police, and that what is crucial is how such tense situations are managed afterwards. In a previous post on disorder in the UK, I looked at two separate riots in Tottenham, London- both sparked by the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police (Mark Duggan and Cynthia Jarrett). I pointed out that after each incident there were delays in the disorder beginning (48 hours and 24 hours respectively), and that it was vital to look at how the police interacted with the community afterwards to understand how riots can begin in tense situations. Both situations involved forceful public order policing that resulted in angry (but peaceful) crowds becoming much more hostile to the police as a result of what they saw as indiscriminate and illegitimate police tactics that escalated the situation. I would suggest that how the police interacts with the community in Ferguson over the coming hours and days may very well influence whether the disorder continues or dies down.  

Cocking, C (2014) Dousing disorder or fatally fanning the flames? A study of the possible psychological and physiological effects of water cannon. Report for the public consultation into the proposed introduction of water cannon by the Mayor of London Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC).University of Brighton, Feb 2014; Available online

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 

Stott, C. J. (2009). Crowd psychology and public order policing. Unpublished report submitted to the HMCIC inquiry into the policing of the London G20 protests. Available online

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Metropolitan Police given authority to purchase water cannon

I was recently asked to write a couple of comment pieces on the decision to authorise the purchase of three old water cannon from Germany by the Metropolitan Police. The first was an article for the on-line Conversation, which gets academics to write pieces on their research for the broader public. In it, I repeat the concerns I first raised in the report I wrote in February and argue that any pretence at saving money by buying the appliances second-hand would be a false economy with potentially tragic implications. The second article was a letter in the Evening Standard that appeared 12/6/14 (page 63) which amalgamates my original article for the Conversation, and also includes my thoughts on the Mayor of London's (Boris Johnson) offer to be blasted by water cannon to 'prove' it is safe. I have yet to find a copy of the full article on-line, but have copied below the original section I wrote in response to Boris's offer to get soaked.   

London doesn't need water cannon

Boris Johnson’s offer to be hit by water cannon so that he can understand what Londoners could experience when it is introduced into policing in the capital may be a tempting prospect, but there are more serious issues behind this gimmick.  I am a social psychologist who has studied the effects of public order policing tactics, and recently argued that the introduction of water cannon could further erode trust between the public and police, and its use would largely be ineffective or even counter-productive.  Finally, if it is used in cold weather and in conjunction with the tactic of ‘kettling’ there is a real risk that the police could be faced with multiple cases of hypothermia, which can become fatal if not detected and treated in time.

However, if he is determined to be a guinea-pig, can I suggest that he experience it under the following conditions to make it a more realistic experiment? First of all, he should be hit with a jet at full power so he can experience the effects of being violently knocked to the ground. Next, he should be doused with the spray at the diffused setting, so he can experience the disorientation and possible breathing difficulties that can go along with being in a thick cloud of water droplets. Finally, he should be made to stand around soaking wet, for hours on end as it gets dark and the temperature drops close to freezing, and not allowed to leave until he has agreed to give his personal details the Police. This should provide him with a realistic sense of how Londoners could experience water cannon if it is introduced!   

A copy of the full report on water cannon I wrote for the public consultation in Jan 2014 can be downloaded here.

Dr Chris Cocking, Senior Lecturer, University of Brighton

PostScript 19/6/14:

Today an excellent article criticising the recent move towards using water cannon was published in The justice gap, which I strongly recommend reading, and not just because it describes the report I wrote in February as a  'scholarly and well-evidenced report'!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The March for England and the limits of Public Order Legislation

Brighton is counting the cost of another protest by the March for England (MfE) on Sunday 27th April 2014. So far, there have been a reported 27 arrests and some local businesses were damaged during scuffles in the city centre as anti-fascists confronted them. The MfE attracted an estimated 100-150 and they were opposed by at least 1000 counter-protestors. As happened last year, Sussex Police conducted a massive operation to police the march and counter demonstration, with Superintendent Steve Whitton quoted as saying that up to a dozen different forces were involved, including officers from: Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset , Kent, Devon & Cornwall, City of London Police (CoLP) , the Metropolitan Police (MPS), and Thames Valley Police (TVP). A Police helicopter, eight horses and dog units were also in attendance, so estimates that costs of the policing will run to at least £1/2million seem realistic given the resources they had available on the day.
As happened in 2013, the MfE were allowed to march along a stretch of the seafront road, with barriers and police vans separating the two sides. However, there were also serious scuffles between counter-protestors and police as they headed north back to Brighton station afterwards, with horses being used to push the crowd back down Queens road. This has some similarities with the march in 2012, as it was on Queen's road where the Police had to cut the MfE march short and divert it through back streets because of the level of opposition they faced. Prior to this year's march, there had been speculation that the march might be cancelled or re-routed at the last minute because part of the road on the route along the seafront collapsed, leading some to Tweet that 'even the road don't want fascists on them'! However, other than announcing a slightly amended-route on 25/4/14, Sussex Police allowed the march to go ahead despite massive local opposition, including a unity statement signed by local trade unions, the local MP- Caroline Lucas, and most of the Green councillors on Brighton Council.

 The Argus: Violent clashes as March for England returns to Brighton
March for England protestor confronts counter-demonstrators 

Use of public order legislation:
After last year's March for England 2013, I looked at how I felt the Police selectively interpreted sections of the 1986 Public Order Act (POA) to justify why they felt forced to facilitate these marches that are highly disruptive and not wanted by the vast majority of Brighton residents. I felt that a similar attitude seemed to prevail this year as well, with Sussex Police issuing a public statement attempting to explain why they felt they could not ban such marches. Again, I think this is a rather selective and narrow interpretation of available legislation. For instance, S.13 of the POA does mention 'serious public disorder' as the benchmark for judging whether or not the police can apply to have a march banned, but I would argue that definitions of 'serious disorder' can be a matter of subjective interpretation, and the police have used other legislation in different circumstances to prevent such events going ahead. For example, in November 2011, the Metropolitan Police arrested 156 English Defence League (EDL) supporters to prevent a 'breach of the peace' (BOP), because they thought they were going to target the Occupy protests that were under way in London at the time. One does not have to have committed a specific offence to be arrested to prevent a BOP (the police merely have to fear that it may occur if they do not make the arrest), and so such arrests have been used in the past as a kind of catch-all tactic to remove people from potentially volatile situations and then release them later once the threat of a BOP is over. Such BOP arrests used to be a fairly common occurrence at trade union and environmental protests in the 1980s and 1990s, although they seem to have become less common in recent years (possibly to avoid contravening the European human rights convention, which protects the right to peaceful protest).

There was however, a noticeable difference in how the POA was implemented when compared to how it has been used against other anti-fascist protests. For instance, I explored in a previous blog in September 2013 how nearly 300 anti-fascist protestors were arrested en masse under the POA while protesting against an EDL march in London. While  Sussex Police invoked Sections 12 and 14 of the POA this Sunday (which meant they could place temporal and spatial restrictions on the march and any counter-protests), no mass arrests happened, and local media have reported just one person as having been arrested under these sections of the POA. Why this happened is a matter of speculation, but I would suggest two possible reasons (although I'm sure there could be others).

Firstly, the fluid nature of the situation (especially when crowds were blocking the route of the March for England North to the station), may have meant that it was not practical (or even feasible) for the police to have conducted mass arrests in central Brighton on a busy Sunday afternoon- whereas the MPS had created a large sterile area for the EDL protest in London in September 2013, and it was easier to detain people en masse within this space (especially as this area was close to the City of London, which was largely empty on the Saturday afternoon that the protest happened).
Secondly, it's possible that the police were wary of making arrests under the POA because of Caroline Lucas's recent acquittal in Court after being arrested at the fracking  protests in Balcombe last August. She had been charged under S.14, but it emerged in Court that the police had  made mistakes in issuing the necessary conditions and directions, as illustrated by local journalist Ruth Hayhurst;

The district judge at the trial of MP Caroline Lucas and four other anti-fracking campaigners said conditions imposed on people at the Balcombe protest on August 19th were unlawful. He said the senior police officer who issued the conditions was not authorised to do so, he was wrong to issue them and they were so vague and unclear as to be meaningless.

Therefore, perhaps Caroline's recent victory meant that Sussex Police were reluctant to make fresh arrests under the same legislation, in case a similar verdict was reached in future trials arising from any mass arrests. She was also visibly present (see photo below) in the pen that was designated by the police as the 'authorised' protest area under S.14, so maybe she scared them off from making a repeat performance!    

Brighton MP Caroline Lucas joins protest against March for England
Caroline Lucas in the Section 14 pen (from

Wider context of the POA:
There are also wider problems associated with current  public order legislation. For instance, Nadine El-Enany (In Press) suggested that the more serious sections of the POA (such as S.2- 'Violent Disorder' which can result in up to five years in prison if found guilty) are routinely used against those who engage in what she terms 'unwanted political activity' p.1. For instance, 58 protestors were charged with 'Violent Disorder' following the 2010 student tuition fees protests, with 12 receiving prison sentences on conviction (although the vast majority who pleaded not guilty were eventually acquitted by a jury, including Alfie Meadows). She argues that such legislation is often used in a political way to try and de-contextualise and so de-legitimise protestors' actions;

 'The criminal law acts to de-contextualise the behaviour of individuals from the social context in which that behaviour took place [ ]. The social context in which actions take place ought, however, to be entirely relevant when assessing the ethics of an individual's actions' p.16

Events such as the March for England can create a great deal of disruption, and the opposing perspectives held by the different groups involved are not easily reconciled. For instance, the MfE seem determined to continue requesting permission to march in Brighton (despite the fact that the vast majority of the local community do not want them to do so), and the police claim that they are duty bound to facilitate them if they are approached. I would argue that it is a little disingenuous for the police to make this claim, as such an approach is predicated upon a rather selective interpretation of minor sections of the POA, and that in other situations, more serious public order legislation is often invoked if it suits their aims and tactics. I'm not saying the situation will necessarily be resolved if the police started mass arresting MfE protestors next time they appear at Brighton's city limits (and I  imagine some counter protestors would probably prefer to oppose the MfE themselves, rather than relying on the police). However, specific problems associated with the MfE coming to Brighton, and the wider social contexts in which such groups can emerge, need to be considered, as solutions are unlikely to found by merely relying on the selective (and sometimes politicised) use of controversial public order legislation.  

N. El-Enany, (In Press) ‘The criminalisation of the right to protest’, in F. Pakes and D. Pritchard (eds.) Riot: Unrest and Protest on the Global Stage. Palgrave Macmillan.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

South Korean ship tragedy

Hopes are now beginning to fade in the search for survivors from the The Sewol ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea yesterday (16/4/2014). Nearly 180 people have been rescued so far, but there are still over 280 people missing (including many school children), so tragically the current confirmed death toll of 18 will probably  rise. Generally, I think the media coverage has been less sensationalist in their reporting of this tragedy than they could have been, but I did see some video from the BBC that had the headline 'footage shows panic as boats arrive' on the front page (although this changed to 'footage from boats shows rescue'  when one clicks on the link to the clip). As usual, the footage shows the exact opposite of clich├ęd accounts of 'panic' as people calmly wait their turn to be rescued and then get into the rescue boat in quite an orderly fashion. 

Information is still coming in about what caused this disaster, but there already seem to be similarities with the sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy in January 2012. For instance, there is speculation that the ship deviated from its planned course & hit an underwater object, and the captain is currently being interviewed by Police after apparently being one of the first to abandon ship. Unlike the Costa Concordia though, many less people seem to have successfully evacuated, as the ship appears to have sank quickly in deeper waters. A distress call was sent out at around 09:00 local time, but the ferry sank within two hours. It seems that only two of the 46 life-rafts were launched, and this could be an indicator of how quickly the ship went down, as there may not have been time to launch others- especially because of the degree of listing shown in aerial footage, which would also have made evacuation more difficult. A similar disaster happened in 1994 when the MV Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, killing over 800 people. An interview study with survivors (Cornwell et al, 2001) found that  the low number of survivors and apparent lack of co-operation could be explained much better in terms of the physical constraints of the situation (as the boat listed at a large angle and then quickly sank), rather than because people behaved in a selfish or 'panicked' way. 

Speculation is already emerging that one reason for the high number of people still missing is that they were told to wait and not evacuate from the Sewol until it was possibly too late, and the BBC quotes a survivor as saying;

"We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put. Then everything tilted over and everyone started screaming and scrambling to get out," 
In the same report another believed that more could have escaped if they had left in time;
"If people had jumped into the water... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."
I haven't seen any explanations offered yet for why people were not told to evacuate immediately, and it is possible that such an order was not issued because the speed of the sinking meant that the seriousness of the situation was not realised until it was too late. However, I do hope that there were no attempts by the crew to withhold information from passengers. In a previous post on the sinking of the Costa Concordia, I highlighted some worrying reports that passengers were initially deceived as to the nature of the incident by the crew and were told that there was nothing to worry about. I argued that information should not be withheld from people in emergencies, as this can delay their evacuation until it becomes too late for them to escape successfully, and could end up having fatal consequences because of a misplaced fear that they would 'panic'.

Cornwell, B., Harmon, W., Mason, M., Merz, B., & Lampe, M. (2001). Panic or situational constraints?The case of the M/V Estonia. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 19, 5-25.

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