Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 review of the year

As the year draws to a close, it's time for another review of the highlights of my blog for 2014. This year I looked at public order policing in the UK, and how it is still being influenced by the fallout from the 2011 riots in England. There were also examples of public order policing abroad that showed similar patterns to that seen in the UK (perhaps reflecting similar ideological views towards crowds held across the world).I also looked at Ebola, and how specific aspects of the disease as well as the authorities' apparent fear of public responses seem to have influenced how national governments have responded to the outbreak so far. Finally I focussed on situations where crowd cooperation may become difficult if people are set in competition with each other. Many of these stories are ongoing, so I'm sure I'll have lots more to blog about in 2015!

Events close to home:
The year began with the announcement of the result of the inquest into the death Mark Duggan, (whose shooting by officers from the Metropolitan Police sparked 5 days of rioting across England in 2011), and I criticised the media for playing up the possibility of disorder after the result of the inquest- something that also happened before the result of Scottish referendum in September. I argued that while collective disorder in such emotionally charged situations is possible, it is far from inevitable, and that creating a climate where riots were expected, was not only irresponsible, but also makes it more difficult to conduct an objective examination of events in the aftermath of the comparatively rare situations when riots actually do happen.
The theme of public order policing continued in February, when there was a public consultation into whether the Metropolitan Police should be allowed to use water cannon the next time there was major disorder in the capital . I wrote a report that highlighted my concerns about its introduction to policing in mainland Britain (it is already used routinely in Northern Ireland): that water cannon was an indiscriminate tactic that would most likely escalate any disorder, and that there was a real risk of people catching hypothermia if it was used (especially if it was used in conjunction with the tactic of 'kettling' crowds). Authorisation to purchase water cannon from Germany was granted in June, and their use on British streets awaits final approval from the Home Secretary (which may be granted the next time there is serious disorder in the capital), and in a letter to the Evening Standard, I responded to Boris Johnson's offer to be hit by water cannon (I believe he has yet to follow through on this offer!), arguing that there were more serious issues at stake behind this publicity stunt.
Water cannon- coming soon to a riot near you? 

International contexts:
Over the late summer and autumn, I looked at public order policing further afield, and argued that there were issues involved that were similar to those seen in the UK. For instance, August saw prolonged rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in the US after an unarmed Black teenager (Michael Brown) was shot dead by local Police. I argued that the use of indiscriminate tactics (such as Tear Gas, stun grenades, sonic devices etc.) and the heavily militarised response to the protests was a major factor in the instigation and spread of collective disorder. I also suggested that it was necessary to consider the wider social contexts in which these protests occurred, and the worrying frequency with which African American males die at the hands of mainly white police officers, shows that the US still has a long way to go in addressing social inequality and the distrust and alienation that many local communities feel towards their police forces.
October saw the world nervously watching mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, fearing a repeat of the bloody crackdown as happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Thankfully this did not happen, but the local Hong Kong Police did still display some quite forceful public order tactics at times. I highlighted an interesting historical coincidence that the current UK public order policing tactics were learnt from the colonial Hong Kong Police force after the riots seen in English cities in the early 1980s. So, it would have appeared slightly hypocritical had the UK government been too forthright in their criticism of the policing of the protests!

Hong Kong Police short shield unit September 2014

Public health emergencies:
This year saw 3 West African countries ravaged by Ebola, and I looked at how the authorities in the developed world have responded to this global public health crisis. I argued that the decisions in October by Australia to suspend visas to people from Ebola-hit countries, and the UK to introduce screening for Ebola at UK airports (by asking entrants from the Ebola zone a series of questions and taking their temperature) could be considered as examples of 'elite panic'. This was because such decisions went against expert advice and appeared to be done in response to pressure to be seen to be doing something and could have limited effectiveness in detecting Ebola. This seems to have been borne out by recent events, as Pauline Cafferkey (a Scottish nurse who recently returned to the UK after treating patients in Sierra Leone) contracted Ebola after returning home, despite having her temperature taken 7 different times before becoming unwell. The Chief Medical officer announced today (31/12/14) that screening for Ebola will be reviewed, although she emphasised there was still a very low risk of public infection, as Pauline was not displaying any symptoms when she travelled home (and people only become infectious in the end stages of the disease- which is why proportionately so many health workers in Africa have tragically died of Ebola).

The patient being transferred from hospital in Glasgow
Pauline Cafferkey being transported to specialist isolation unit at Royal Free Hospital, London

Cooperation vs. competition?
Finally, towards the end of 2014, I looked at the issue of cooperation (or not) in crowds. A classic (although often untrue) cliché is that people will become inherently selfish in crowds- especially in stressful situations. The work that I have done on mass emergencies has found that this is rarely the case, and that people tend to behave cooperatively, because a shared identity often emerges from the situation which encourages such cooperation. However, in situations where people are cast in competition with each other for limited resources, then it may be more difficult for such a shared identity to emerge, and so cooperation may be less likely. I argued that the scenes witnessed at UK stores on Black Friday at the end of November illustrated this concept perfectly, and that retailers needed to be more responsible when planning for and hosting such events, as they had the clear potential to set people in competition with each other.

Shoppers fight over a TV in a supermarket
Shoppers compete on 'Black Friday' 

Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day Tsunami 10 years on

Today the world is commemorating the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami which killed up to 250,000 people, made millions more homeless, and devastated communities across South East Asia. I can remember how as news filtered in at the time about the scale of the shocking devastation across such a vast area, there were also heart warming reports of how these incidents can bring people together (a concept that has been noticed in research into other disasters- Solnit, 2008). For instance, there was an almost immediate international response to provide funds for the relief effort in the weeks after the Tsunami, and the Disasters and Emergencies Committee (DEC) raised nearly £400m from donations in the UK alone which was used mainly  to rebuild people's homes that were destroyed by the Tsunami. However, there were also more localised examples of co-operation in the tsunami zone. These are explored in more detail in the BBC's coverage of survivors' stories, but I will focus below on a couple of examples which I think illustrate quite well some of the psychological concepts which also emerged in the work I have done with colleagues on mass emergencies.

Co-operation amongst those affected seemed to be the dominant response in the acute situation once the Tsunami struck, and what I think is particularly interesting is that this seems to have been a universal response across the whole region. So for example, some of the areas affected (such as the East coast of Sri Lanka and West coast of Thailand) are popular with tourists from Europe, and as the Tsunami hit land there did not appear to any differences in co-operation between locals and tourists, with people helping each other regardless of who they were as illustrated by a British tourist who was on the beach in Sri Lanka at the time;
One of the only positives to come out of it all was the humanity of it. It didn't matter about your nationality or religion. Everyone was checking on each other.

This sense of co-operation was also re-iterated by a British couple who were close to land in a boat by the Ko Phi-Phi islands off the West coast of Thailand;

We all decided to stay on the boat that night, moored out at sea. The boat was too small to have taken us all the way to Phuket. The only option we had was to wait for help to arrive in the morning. It was the longest night of my life and were it not for the camaraderie of those passengers on board and the wonderful generosity of the Thai people who owned and manned the boat, it would have been unbearable. 

As the sun rose, we took the boat in to the harbour once again and waited for the larger boats to arrive. It was just awful. From our position on the water we saw hundreds of people all desperate to get off the island. They were huddled together on the pier in the harbour.

These quotes support the research we did with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009a & b) that found similar accounts of co-operation during life-threatening emergencies, which we explained through the emergence of a shared identity which encourages co-operation rather than competition. However, the second paragraph does illustrate a potential situation where such co-operation could reduce once any unifying factors diminish. For instance, I heard of unconfirmed reports that some European tourists were fighting on the jetties to get on the boats that were leaving Ko Phi Phi the day after the Tsunami. I would suggest that if this did happen, then it could be because the immediate threat of death had perhaps diminished once the waters had receded, so the strong shared identity that may have been present during the immediate crisis phase when the waves struck, could have become less apparent. Therefore, it is possible that some people could have retreated back into previously held identities before the disaster struck and then began competing for what they perceived to be scarce resources (eg European tourists who want to go home, fighting for places on boats to leave the island- rather than people who face a shared lethal threat who need to co-operate to survive). My last post on the crowd behaviour during Black friday showed how people can behave competitively if they are cast against each other to gain limited resources, so perhaps a similar phenomenon was in play here as well. Finally, I would also say that it's worth emphasising that if any fights did occur, they did not appear to be representative of what was a generally co-operative spirit in the aftermath of the Tsunami, and some have even reported an enduring sense of identity with the region to this day- such as two British tourists who were holidaying in Khao Lak, Thailand at the time of the Tsunmai; 

Ten years on and we are still looking at life with a lot of more appreciation. We feel connected with Thailand so that is why we continue with a Thai animal charity.

The tsunami wave as it approaches the beach in Thailand 26/12/2004

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. InternationalJournal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.
Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US.