From coercion to consent

Ella Rhodes reports on a new research project led by Clifford Stott.

A research project that aims to observe, and transform, police–community relationships is set to launch this autumn funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Underpinned by theory from criminology and crowd psychology, and led by Professor Clifford Stott at Keele University, the three-year project will not only aim to gather knowledge in a crucial area but feed back into police practice and policy throughout the work.

Stott, Co-Director of the Keele Policing Academic Collaboration, said the project will involve a series of virtual-reality experiments exploring the roles of group identity on perceived fairness in police-community interactions and an in-depth set of observations of these interactions in the field. The project, named From Coercion to Consent, is based on his and his co-investigators’ many years’ work exploring the factors that can ease tense relationships between the police and football fans in particular.

In one project Professor Stott looked at the effects on fans of policing strategies used at the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. This new approach to policing was developed from his research on football riots, from which he suggested police may be seen as more legitimate if they took a friendlier approach with fans who were not causing trouble while maintaining capacity to respond to any serious incidents.

He conducted a survey of England fans prior to the tournament and measured the extent to which they identified themselves as England fans and how similar they felt to the police. He found a negative correlation between identification as an England fan and a measure of perceived similarity with the police. However once fans returned from Portugal, after experiencing legitimate policing based on principles from crowd psychology, those who defined themselves strongly as England fans now felt much more similar to the police as a group.

‘In effect, after experiencing legitimate policing… the police move from being an outgroup to an ingroup as a function of the way they policed that event. We thought that was a really interesting, pivotal, transformation not least because of the strength of it. Before, we saw a 0.5 negative correlation and what we see after is a 0.5 positive correlation – it’s very rare you get those kinds of correlations anyway but to see such a significant positive to negative transformation is really quite interesting.’

This led Professor Stott to start thinking about the intimate relationship between legitimacy in intergroup relations and the boundaries of group identity: ‘To perceive and experience legitimacy in intergroup relations was leading to a situation where fans felt bound together as part of the same ingroup with that group they’d previously seen as another. That was an interesting early finding that then grew into a programme of work… a longitudinal three-year study of the policing of a very high-risk fan group – fans of Cardiff City Football Club.’, which was later published in the British Journal of Criminology.

Here he found there had been a transformation at the club’s matches with fan arrest figures and incidents of conflict both in decline. We also noticed that the police had moved away from using a heavy-handed or instrumental-compliance-based approach to a communication and normative-compliance-based perspective that was similar to community policing, which the fans saw as more legitimate.

‘They had a very similar experience to those we’d identified in Portugal. What we see coming out in that context is a process that’s often referred to as self-regulation. The conflict de-escalates because fans start to police themselves. What we recognised then was there is a relationship between the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the policing and this culture of de-escalation and essentially conformity with the law. ‘When trying to publish this work, criminologists who reviewed the paper pointed out similarities between procedural justice theory, a dominant model within the field, and our social-identity-based model. Procedural justice theory, for example, also discusses the role of perceived fairness in policing, which feeds into a culture where communities self-regulate and conform to the law.’

This led the research on a path to explore the two theories along with then PhD student Matthew Radburn at Leeds University. They began experimental work looking into how group membership affects whether policing is seen as fair. In one experiment they showed participants footage of police riding horses into a crowd of protesters and told them the group was either made up of students, TUC members or the English Defence League. When they asked them whether the police’s coercion actions were fair, people were more inclined to say they were if the group members were described as the EDL. ‘What we’re able to show is group membership has an impact on the extent to which we see the same interaction as fair or not. So, it starts to open up questions about the role of psychological group membership or identity in the very perception of police fairness. Police fairness isn’t some kind of universal thing you can just make the police do and people will see it as fair – actually group membership can be pivotal in understanding the social-psychological dynamics through which procedural fairness comes about and through which this then feeds into self-regulation.’

The current project will attempt to understand these social and psychological dynamics behind procedural fairness based on both procedural justice theory and social identity approaches and how this can influence policing practice. It will involve two strands – Professor Stott argues procedural justice theory has little underpinning experimental evidence, so the first strand will explore this in more depth. He and his colleagues Professor Jon Jackson at the London School of Economics and Professor Ben Bradford at University College, London are developing a virtual-reality experience that will show participants interactions between the police and actors – with the ability to change group membership of the actor and the context of the interactions.

The second strand of the project is an ethnography in which two postdoctoral researchers will shadow police officers for 12 to 18 months making observations of police–community interactions. They will also attempt to follow the whole journey through the criminal justice system of those who are arrested right from the point of arrest.

The researchers will work in partnership with West Midlands Police, the Metropolitan Police and West Yorkshire Police throughout the three-year project. ‘We want to use both strands of the research to inform our theoretical development but we want to make sure that right from the outset we’ve got a framework of knowledge co-production. We’re working with our police partners to ensure the development of the knowledge has a direct pathway into influencing policy and practice in those police forces in ways that allow our theoretical work to produce beneficial social impact.

‘The police have regular, high-volume, high-level contact with certain neighbourhoods and certain communities. What we aim to do is to use our research and theory to understand how to transform that situation from one where they are, at this particular point in time, relatively reliant on coercion to one where they can move towards a relationship of consent.’ 

In other news, Dr John Drury (University of Sussex), one of Professor Stott’s long-time collaborators, was named as a finalist in this year’s ESRC ‘celebrating impact’ prize for his work on crowd psychology. His research has directly contributed to national and international policy on emergency preparedness within Public Health England, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the Department of Health, NATO, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and over 200 policy makers across the UK government.

While crowds in emergency situations are often seen (and represented in the media) as a panic-stricken mass, Drury’s research has shown this is not necessarily true. His work with survivors of the July 2005 London bombings has shown that a sense of ‘common fate’ creates a feeling of shared identity that unites people in crowds. Drury has shown that crowds can display a collective resilience that emergency services, policy makers, stewards and security teams have previously failed to appreciate or capitalise on.

To date, more than 2000 safety stewards employed at events ranging from the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia to the Glastonbury Festival have received training based on Drury’s research. His work is used in training materials for stadium safety officers, police match commanders and match stewards. Internationally, his research has resulted in safer queuing practices for festival goers at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, and is included in Indian government’s crowd management guidance for local authorities and event organisers. 

- Find much more from both Clifford Stott and John Drury in our archive.

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