Ferguson, policing and social psychology

Our journalist Ella Rhodes speaks to Professor Steve Reicher and Dr Clifford Stott

Recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, which began following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by authorities, have raised concerns over the militarisation of police in dealing with conflict and protest. Psychologists have developed useful theories about crowd control and implemented these in practice, but how far has the message spread? And what can be done to promote more progressive thinking in police forces worldwide?

Professor Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews) and his colleagues developed the Elaborated Social Identity Model of crowds, which, in its coverage of Ferguson, Newsweek described as the ‘leading scientific theory on crowds’. The theory, which examines how crowd police interactions produce conflict, spells out the implications for public order practices designed to limit conflict. 

Professor Reicher explained: ‘The four principles are: education, to understand the nature of the various social groups in the crowd, their norms and values, aims and intentions, notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy; facilitation, don't simply act to stop things that are deemed unlawful, start by facilitating lawful aims and intentions; communication, talk to crowds, explain how you are trying to facilitate them and why you are acting as you do; and differentiation, always use measures (tactics, technologies etc.) which are targeted and which distinguish between those acting lawfully and unlawfully.’

These principles have been used in major football tournaments and have led to the development of ‘dialogue policing’ which applies to all public order policing, not just football crowds, and has been adopted in Denmark and Sweden. In recent years they have been accepted as the basis for reforming UK public order policing and are enshrined in an Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary official report.

Regarding the police response in Ferguson, Professor Reicher said: ‘from what I can see – and most commentators seem to agree – it was pretty woeful. After the initial killing, they didn't listen to the family, they showed no respect to the community, they certainly didn't seek to facilitate lawful protest, there was little attempt to communicate, and they applied indiscriminate force against everyone present. In short, they violated every single one of our principles of non-conflictual policing. And they reaped the results. 

‘But perhaps the short-term errors reflected a longer term problem. The police did not reflect the community and had little legitimacy in Ferguson. They were an outgroup who were seen as imposing themselves on the community rather than looking after the community. Any solution must deal with the broader context as well as the specific dynamics which led to violence.’

While Professor Reicher led on developing the underlying models of crowd psychology and the general principles of policing, Dr Clifford Stott’s (University of Leeds) work in developing concrete models of policing and applying them bagged him a prestigious ESRC impact prize this year. Dr Stott’s ideas, among other things, inspired the introduction of Police Liason Teams who open up a dialogue between police and protestors. Promising results have been seen in their use during the Occupy Protests of 2011 and in Obelisk, the South Yorkshire Police operation surrounding the 2011 Liberal Party Spring Conference in Sheffield.

Dr Stott said the evidence which has come out suggests that the disproportionate way the situation was handled in Ferguson amplifies the general feeling of police illegitimacy. ‘There’s a background tension which grows out of day to day interactions with the police.’ After Michael Brown’s death crowds began to gather around the area he was killed to protest, and Dr Stott said the police response to this was clamping down. He told us: ‘The Paramilitarised response wasn’t sensitive to people’s rights of assembly and free expression… it would appear the police were much more focused on trying to control the potential for aggression. That feeds into the sense of antagonism towards the police, and confirms a view of  the police as an organisation that denies the black community their rights.

‘Ferguson was interesting because we saw a period of escalation followed by de-escalation followed by further escalation. What’s interesting is that this de-escalation came when a police captain came in and walked along with protestors through Ferguson. In other words the de-escalation was consistent with our theory – that policing should be oriented towards facilitation based on dialogue and communication. People want the capability to express their protest and the police should work with them to facilitate that.’

Although the media spotlight will inevitably fall upon the para-military side of some of America’s police forces, Dr Stott said the real picture is not so well defined. He said: ‘There are some very progressive forms of policing in the USA, for example in Boise, Idaho, where the police have adopted an approach very similar to the one we talk about. There’s also considerable variability in Europe, and even in this country. We’re in a place where, despite the progress that has been made, the assertion of this kind of progressive policing is always vulnerable to going back into the past.’


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