Can science offer police a better way to handle protests?

Intimidation and police force enraged protesters in Hong Kong. Is there a different way to manage masses of people?

Listen 12:45
Protesters with umbrellas use steel barricades to block a road as they march through Sha Tin District in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/AP Photo)

Protesters with umbrellas use steel barricades to block a road as they march through Sha Tin District in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/ AP Photo)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Over the past few months, millions of citizens in Hong Kong have been protesting an extradition bill with China. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and in some cases, live ammunition.

One of the more controversial protests happened back in July.  Thousands of people were out on the streets, protesting peacefully. There was even a group of moms who brought tea for those who were marching. But then some officers pepper-sprayed protesters without warning.

Phila Siu was there; he’s a senior reporter at the South China Morning Post, a large English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. He said the crowd got angry. Some protesters pulled over heavy metal barriers that normally stand between traffic and pedestrians. Police in riot gear showed up and surrounded the protesters.

“The protesters have nowhere to leave, so what did they do? They ended up leaving the scene through the nearby shopping malls.”

Riot policemen move in to clear the protesters inside a mall in Hong Kong on July 14(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Riot police move in to clear the protesters inside a mall in Hong Kong on July 14. (Kin Cheung/AP Photo)

Protesters rushed inside. The police chased them and blocked off the malls’ exits. Some officers in riot gear rushed in, but the protesters outnumbered them and pelted them with umbrellas and water bottles.  Ultimately, more than 40 people were arrested. An officer had his finger bitten off.

Recently, there have been large-scale protests all around the world, from Algeria and Bolivia to Iraq and Lebanon. Situations involving crowds can change very quickly. People can get frustrated, sometimes violent.

What have police learned about how to control crowds, and is there a science to it?

Contain, disperse and arrest

Owen West was a police officer for 30 years. Before he retired in July, he was the chief superintendent of the West Yorkshire Police in the U.K., which has about 5,000 officers.

Back in the 1980s, when he became a policeman, West said he was taught to contain, disperse and arrest unruly crowds. Police could use riot gear, cars, horses, tear gas, batons, water cannons. There was one problem with that, he said, “Very little …  was known about the psychology of crowds, so we were in effect implementing tactics without knowing the science behind the way that people behave in a crowd.”

And there wasn’t a lot of science on policing in general.

“This is around a police sense of identity — you have to be a police officer to understand policing,” West said. “And I’ve often heard colleagues say, ‘What can an academic teach me about policing? What can an academic tell me about life on the streets?’ And so there’s been a mistrust, there’s been a reluctance to open up, there’s been a reluctance to share knowledge.”

But West thought academia could offer some insight. He welcomed a researcher into his police force, Clifford Stott, a social psychologist. (Hong Kong’s police watchdog recently appointed Stott to an expert panel to give advice on investigating the protests there.)

West let Stott ride along with his officers, and have all the same access that he had. In return, they collaborated on science-based crowd-control tactics.

Stott said scientists used to think that crowds have a mob mentality, “that when people enter a crowd, psychologically, their normal way of controlling their behavior through consciousness disappears, as a function of becoming anonymous.”

He disagrees. For example, he said, protesters in Hong Kong have a shared identity around fighting for democracy in defiance of the Chinese government.

Using this social-identity way of thinking about crowds, Stott argued that heavy-handed policing actually makes things worse. Once a crowd gets angry with the police, he said, its reason for being there can shift. Now, it’s about being angry at the police on top of what the initial demands were.

Reporter Phila Siu said that’s what’s happened in Hong Kong: Protests that started because of an extradition bill have largely become about how the police have handled the protests.

That has implications, Stott said, “most notably that the authorities, and in particular the police, can often have a profound role to play in producing the very violence that they pretend to stop.”

He said, that means the police are not passive, third-party peacekeepers — they play a part in what happens.

West worked with Stott and came up with something different, which he tried out in 2014.

There was a soccer game in West Yorkshire. About a hundred fans gathered in a bar, some on the street. Some of them had probably been drinking.

West’s officers wanted to do what they’d always done: control the crowd, use officers and horses to march them up to the stadium.

Instead, West asked some officers to wear different-colored jackets, blue instead of yellow. These officers talked to fans to find out what was going on. The officers found out these fans just wanted to get to the game, and they worked with cab drivers to help them do that. West did not have to use any riot gear, and there was no violence.

That’s not to say that the police liked it.

“There was a lot of nervousness about it,” he recalled. “There was a lot of fear that we were essentially handing this problem over to a small number of officers, rather than the many that we had available to us.”

A protester argues with police liaison officers outside Parliament in London, with police briefed to keep law and order in the area, as various Brexit protesters demonstrate in London. Now in the U.K., it's more common to see police liaison officers, who wear blue vests and specialize in communicating with protestors. (Jonathan Brady/PA via AP)
Now in the U.K., it’s more common to see police liaison officers, who wear blue vests and specialize in communicating with protesters. (Jonathan Brady/AP Photo)

But over time, the approach gained traction. West said the crowd-control tactics he and Stott worked on together are now mainstream among U.K. police.

Subscribe to The Pulse

The Madison Method 

Here in the United States, in Madison, Wisconsin, more than 40 years ago, a young police chief had reached similar conclusions about how to handle crowds.

David Couper was in his 30s, and he came face-to-face with the antiwar protests of the 1970s. He started in 1972, after the Ohio National Guard shot unarmed college students at Kent State University in 1970. Four students died, and nine were injured.

Tensions were high.

Before Couper got to Madison, some of the protests there went notoriously out of control. In 1967, students threw rocks at police. The police used tear gas, and beat students with clubs.

A stick-swinging Madison riot police officer beats back an angry throng of University of Wisconsin protesters, Wednesday, October 19, 1967 on campus. Squads of riot officers broke up a sit-in intended to disrupt the Dow Chemical Company. Dow makes Napalm for the War in Vietnam. (AP Photo)
A stick-swinging Madison riot police officer beats back an angry throng of University of Wisconsin protesters, Wednesday, October 19, 1967 on campus. Squads of riot officers broke up a sit-in intended to disrupt the Dow Chemical Company. Dow made Napalm for the War in Vietnam. (AP Photo)

When he arrived, Couper told his officers not to do any of that.

“We passed out handouts and said, ‘We’re here … to accompany this protest, our job is to facilitate your ability to protest, to regulate traffic around you … and we want to work with you.’”

He asked his officers to wear blue blazers, hide their weapons and just talk to the protesters, instead of going in with force. Some officers disagreed and even tried to get him fired. But the mayor and the younger officers supported him. Couper served as police chief in Madison for 21 years. His crowd-control tactics are now known by police as the Madison Method.

Are police officers just resistant to change? 

Yet many police departments are not using this science-based approach, instead choosing to deal with protests in a more heavy-handed way. Protests still get out of control sometimes, as the 2011 London riots did, or the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Owen West, the former police superintendent from the U.K., said that’s because it can feel scary to change tactics.

“Very often, police colleagues would … say, `The world’s going to end, you will lose control of this, there will be disorder, there might be violence, there might be a riot.’ And so in many respects for commander colleagues, it’s a much more comfortable life to stick with what you know, stick with the use of tactics, and not to innovate, particularly within a crowd context.”

But there is more to it than police officers being resistant to change.

Think about it from an officer’s point of view, said Tamara Herold, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She wrote two crowd-policing guides for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Imagine an officer pulling over a driver and deciding whether or not to give a ticket. There’s a tremendous amount of dynamics associated with that and whether that person leaves angry or satisfied,” Herold said. “Now, you multiply that by thousands, by tens of thousands of individuals interacting and reacting to the police, and it grows in complexity tremendously.”

A police problem, or a political one? 

The Hong Kong police department declined to comment on this story.  They said they do not want to discuss their crowd control tactics in case protesters use that information to predict their actions.

But I did talk to my friend’s father, who was a police officer there for 30 years. He retired in 2015 as a chief inspector, and he’s still very connected to friends on the force. He says the protests in Hong Kong just got out of control.

“Recently they [protesters] threw three petrol bombs on two motorcycle police officers and one of the officers is actually a friend of mine who took over my post in traffic a few years ago,” he said. “Can you imagine if in (the U.S.) the police got attacked by petrol bombs? I think they will already open fire.”

“This is not a police thing to solve,” he said. “It’s the central government. It’s all (a) political issue. We are just the tool. We cannot solve political (problems).”

Recently, the Hong Kong government invoked an emergency ban on face masks, saying the police need the ban to properly investigate violent protesters.

The ban has led to more protests.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal