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Tags: police protest

How one academic wants police to use psychology to end protest

 At the end of an anti-war march in Brighton a group of marchers surround a man in a blue  bib labelled ‘Observer’.

‘You work for the Police.’ They accuse him.

The man rolls his eyes contemptuously, ‘I do not work for the police, I am an academic.’

‘So what are you doing here then?’

‘I am observing.’

‘Observing for the police.’

‘No, I am an academic, I work forLiverpool University.’

‘So what do you do with your observations?’

‘They are used to help train people in crowd control.’

‘So you sell them? Who to? Can we have them?’

A look of disgust crosses his face. ‘No you cannot.’ He sneers and shakes his head.

The questioning continues and the academic’s sense of irritation boils closer and closer to the surface, his answers get more sarcastic.

‘So you sell them to the police – you work for the police’

Finally an eruption from the academic: ‘Yes I work for the police… You all want to cause trouble,’ he waves an arm in a semicircle that encompasses the mass of gathered protesters, ‘you believe that the police represent the state, and that you can bring down the state by fighting them.’

 So who is the academic, and where does his contempt for protesters come from?

A little while later Sussex Police announced that it had started a new policing initiative, especially for protests. Police liaison teams were to be clad in high visability jackets, as they had been at the anti-war march.

This was to be a new friendly face for policing at these events,Sussexpolice announced, and the academic, Dr Clifford Stott was the consultant helping them mastermind the new plan.

 Stott was, or course the observer from the march, he is also an expert crowd psychologist, and an occasional media pundit, and available to hire from Crowd & Conflict Management the consultancy firm he runs.

There is no doubt that as a crowd control expert Stott has some sensible suggestions. His star started to rise when he helped develop the the Elaborated Social Identity Model of Crowd Behaviour (ESIM). together with Professor Stephen Reicher and Dr. John Drury. The key to this theory was to reverse long standing attitudes to crowds that tended to consider them as an entity, and give little consideration to the individuals within that crowd.

 His first forays as a consultant, as well as his co-authored book ‘Football Hooliganism; policing and the war on the English disease’ dealt with the behaviour of football crowds, and the work he did on the ground with this issue seems to have borne fruit.


Fairly obvious improvements came from showing police forces that if you put a mass of officers in riot gear into a situation it actually aggravates trouble – most people who have been on the non-police side of the lines in a crowd situation would probably have told you the same thing. In Stott’s case he claims this is because the police act as a common enemy unifying people who might otherwise have not been drawn into violence.

So perhaps this is fair enough, Stott is a fair man drawn by his desire to reduce conflict. And someone providing a little intellectual input into police actions around football can surely only be a good thing.

But then in the autumn of last year Stott found a new field of activity in which to offer his expert voice. As riots broke out in the UK’s cities he appeared on the television news offering his own conclusions as to the reason for the riots.

The riots in the UK were not inspired by the Arab spring, he told Al Jazeera. He told the BBC the huge number of police deployed would bring the riots to a halt.

But in a column in the Guardian jointly written with Steve Reicher he does draw the sensible conclusion that treating rioters as a brainless mass is not a way to solve rioting. He does seem to have forgotten this rule when it comes to protest,  protesters and football crowds are very different with very different motivations.

So how will his theories both good and bad play out when policing protest?

A major factor has to be the attitude of the police themselves to the act of protest. After the weekend of the anti-war march the chief constable delivered a report to members of the police authority, in which he lauded Stott and his initiatives.

But there some notable elements to this report, it was clear the chief constable thought that he was simply extending a policy of crowd control used already for Brighton football matches, and he also referred often to a ‘protest community’. (See the report here :Link)

 What this reveals is the underlying attitude of the police to protest. A feature common in police statements is the attempt to characterise those who participate in a protest not as if they were general members of society who happen to have joined in to protest about something they have strong feelings about but purely a  stand alone group that can be labelled ‘protesters’ and dealt with.

This would be an objectionable attitude anywhere, but in a city likeBrighton it sets the police in direct opposition to a large proportion of the citizens. When the Green administration won control of the council last year they declared that Brighton should be a city of protest,  This has proved a headache for the police, as has the growth of ‘citizen journalism’ with many acts of police violence ending up filmed, posted, reposted and in one recent case on the news.

So when the police look for solution to the problem of how to police protest it is probable that the motivation will be questionable. It is not the desire to aid protest, or to be a kinder force, it is simply to rob protests of energy, and impact.

As Stott, or his co-author, noted in their riot article in the Guardian; ‘So the accusation of mindlessness, the lazy language of the “mob”, and the use of discredited deindividuation theories, is not just wrong. It is positively dangerous. It stops us paying attention to what crowd actions tells us about how rioters understand their society.’

Yet we now find Stott in the middle of a police exercise that centres on quietening protest, using techniques which are intended, according to the report to the Police Authority to help ‘control’ protest . The tactic of the Police  Liaison Officer and Police Liaison team is to put officers into a crowd and by doing that change the relationship between the crowd and the police. So a method that may be seen as acceptable when applied to a football crowd is applied to protesters. There is a clear void in the reasoning here. In the case of a football crowd the anger is often a motive in itself, where violence rears up it is because those who participate in it see it as a source of recreation. However when a protest is angry the source of that anger is something more substantial, a cause, an event or a reason that the protest feels – often correctly – that is best responded to with anger.

 In another of Stott’s media appearances during the riots he told al Jazeera: ‘One of the things that we know about riots is that they are underpinned by perceptions of illegitimacy of authority, …The tendency to cast crowd action as either explosions of mob  irrationality or criminality – something common to both authoritarian and democratic governments, undermines attempts to understand the  root causes behind the violence.’

Should it be OK to use any methods, even peaceful ones to suppress the act of protest? This would seem to contradict a lot of what Stott has written and said.

The underlying source of tension between protesters and police is often the ingrained attitudes of the police, seeing someone who protests as an underclass, to be pushed around, bullied or ultimately it would seem psychologically controlled.

It would be interesting to know what other academics make of Scott’s position, he claims to be an academic, yet his role sees him embedded with police forces, with all the dangers of bias and loss of impartiality that go with it. It seems that for Scott those problems are quickly circumvented by acting as a hired consultant separate from his university role, yet that academic position plays a large part in attracting customers to the service he has to sell.

Stott’s attitude at the march and some of his other comments show that he feels more of an affinity with the police than with people who protest.  All these contradictions and flaws will show as the outcome of the transfer of his control methods from football to political protest become clear. Treating people with a political purpose as the equivalent of a football crowd is a simplistic and patronising approach that is likely to produce more anger than it suppresses.

In fact on the day of the anti-war march, the first occasion Stotts methods had been tried, they were clearly a failure. Marchers surrounded the ‘Liaison Officers’ who tried to spread out into the march. They were shouted down and pushed out, most ended up tagging along at the end or sides of the column of marchers. Sussex Police had massively over estimated the numbers who would be on the march, making the massed bright orange bibs of the ‘Liaison Officers’ look like a ridiculous swamping of the event. Many of them found that at the end of the march they were either ignored, with backs turned to them or shouted down by protesters irritated by the ‘Disney shop greeter’ persona the Liaisons all seemed to have adopted.

Perhaps Stott’s position has left him too close to the police and unable to judge where the real problem lies. After a few more attempts by Sussex Police to make the scheme work the outcome should be conclusive, though the flaws that run through it are already clear to see.

Stott must surely be hoping that future outings don’t all leave him as red in the face as that first sorry attempt.

This post first appeared on Fromoutsidethewhale | Journalism In The Spirit Of George Orwell, Paul Foot And Studs Terkel, please read the originial post: here

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