If Cops Understood Crowd Psychology, They’d Tone Down The Riot Gear
Eric Jaffe writes at Co-Design:
One of the clearest lessons from Ferguson is that the militarization of local police has become a major problem across the United States. Images ofgrotesquely armed forces staring down peaceful protestors in the streets have given way to interactive maps of the armored vehicles and assault weapons distributed to police departments in recent years. On Saturday, President Obamaannounced a White House review of that unsettling trend—too late this time around, but appropriate nevertheless.
The conventional wisdom behind forceful crowd control deserves a review of its own. Rather than passively controlling a protest, heavy riot gear actively changes the dynamics of crowd behavior, according to the best new behavioral evidence. The twisted outcome is one that too many police forces have yet to learn: the military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it.
Let’s step back a moment to the classic psychological theory on crowds, which gave rise to many of the tougher approaches taken today. Originating during the political instability of 19th-century France, and later adopted by most 20th-century social scientists, this thinking held that people in a crowd lost their individuality and became suggestible to the aggressive behavior of those around them. That view gave rise to phrases like “mob mentality” and “deindividuation”—the idea of a crowd as a singular entity rather than a collection of independent people capable of thinking for themselves.
The danger in this simplified thinking is that it treats the most peaceful member of a crowd the same way it treats the most violent one. While the anonymity of crowds can no doubt inspire aggression on occasion, even a cursory glance at events like Ferguson reveals crowd behavior to be extremely complex. Sure, there are always a few jerks stirring up trouble, but there are far more peaceful protestors—there from all walks of life, there for whatever personal reason.
The accepted wisdom on crowds began to shift when social scientists studied collective action more closely. During a wave of riots in Britain in 1980, for instance, individuals failed to behave the way a classic mob mentality approach to crowds would suggest. Psychologist Stephen Reicher documented some of the curiosities in careful detail. Sometimes a crowd acted as a collective whole; other times it effectively policed itself—shunning rogue members that threw rocks at innocent buses, for instance—in a way that showed individual values had not been lost in the mix.
Eventually such observations led to a more nuanced theory of crowd behavior called the Elaborated Social Identity Model. The term is a mouthful but its principles are simple enough: the social identity of people in a crowd shifts with the situation.
Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn’t necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. “You didn’t lose your identity,” writes Bell, “you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.”
Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. . .