Preventing Crowd Violence

Preventing Crowd Violence

Authors: Tamara D. Madensen and Johannes Knutsson, eds.
Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011. 243p.
Reviewer: Justin Kurland | September 2012

For well over a century, social scientists have developed theories to explain crowd disorder. Most traditional theories argue that individuals undergo a process of de-individuation when part of a crowd, leading to a loss of self-awareness, decrease in social inhibitions and a rise in individual impulsivity that increase their likelihood of offending. The orientation of these theories has frequently led to reactive, overbearing public order policing tactics that attempt to quell disorder as it happens; they offer little guidance for preventing the disorder in the first place. Madensen and Knutsson’s Preventing Crowd Violence is a refreshing change. It offers researchers and practitioners insight into various theoretical developments in crowd control theory. Furthermore, the volume contains several public order policing case studies that help enhance the understanding of social dynamics and environmental characteristics known to affect crowd behaviour.

The strength of the book is not the result of one exceptional finding on what leads to crowd disorder, but that the various chapters make use of different theoretical orientations to reach strikingly similar conclusions. Those responsible for or associated with public order policing stand to learn a great deal from the insight gleaned in these chapters, perhaps none more significant than the role a crowd’s perception of police legitimacy has on influencing potential disorder. That is, the consistent finding that police tactics perceived to be prejudicial or discriminatory by a crowd are powerful enough to not only unify, but to provoke otherwise peaceful individuals in a crowd to act out violently in opposition to the police.

Chapters 2 through 6 in Preventing Crowd Violence highlight significant developments in social psychological theory for understanding what factors influence crowd disorder. The final four chapters, 7 through 10, demonstrate how a different paradigm, environmental criminology, is useful for managing and understanding crowd behaviour. Synthesis of these two theoretical approaches provides a framework that can, and should, be utilised by practitioners in the development of effective crowd management strategies. Below is a brief summary of each chapter.

In Chapter 2, Stephen Reicher sets the tone for the book by underlining the shortcomings associated with old crowd psychology, and more specifically, by demonstrating how its underlying assumptions about crowds have reinforced aggressive hard-line public order policing tactics that sometimes contribute to collective conflict. Reicher highlights through the new crowd psychological framework how understanding different groups at protests and sporting events can help the police to facilitate groups in lawful pursuits, while simultaneously ostracising those who aim to cause disorder. In Chapter 3, Clifford Stott articulates the mechanisms behind one of the new crowd psychology approaches, the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), pointing out that individuals in a crowd do not lose a sense of personal identity, as suggested in classical theory, but instead see themselves as part of a social category (e.g. a policeman or demonstrator) with a particular set of collective norms and values that when violated can lead to disorder. Case studies demonstrate how the ESIM can help police identify key processes underlying the emergence and escalation of collective conflict in addition to providing a framework for reducing the likelihood of disorder.

 In Chapter 4, Otto Adang provides a description of violent interactions at a large number of protests and football (soccer) matches using systematic observations.

The objective of these observations goes beyond providing descriptions of crowd violence; instead they identify the causal mechanisms that may contribute to the initiation of violence, those that escalate collective violence, and those that may do both. Ingrid Hylander and Kjell Granstrom point out in Chapter 5 how the organising processes of crowds can influence police perceptions. Through various case studies they demonstrate how these perceptions affect police reactions toward protesters, and in turn, can lead to violent or peaceful gatherings. They propose an Aggravation and Mitigation Model (AM model) to better foster an understanding of why certain tactics are best utilised for particular types of crowds.

In Chapter 6, the final chapter dedicated to social psychological theories of crowd behaviour, David Waddington sheds further light on factors likely to influence police attitudes towards protesters, using the flashpoint model – an integrated explanatory framework of six interdependent levels of analysis: structural, political/ideological, cultural, contextual, situational and interactional. Two British G8 protests case studies demonstrate the utility of the model for understanding how numerous variables can interact and ultimately lead to disorder, as well as for making informed recommendations with regard to public order policing.

Chapter 7 represents a paradigm shift in the book in which, Tamara Madensen and John Eck, demonstrate the utility of five core areas of environmental criminology: routine activity theory, crime pattern theory, the rational choice perspective, situational crime prevention and problem-oriented policing, as an alternative but complementary approach for understanding and reducing crowd crime and disorder. To do this, they highlight the major differences between the above mentioned environmental criminological theories and traditional criminological theories that focus on individuals’ disposition toward committing crimes. This comparison provides a platform to formulate police-based crowd management strategies.
In Chapter 8, William Sousa and Tamara Madensen take the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Las Vegas to illustrate how situational crime prevention, outlined in the previous chapter, can be usefully applied for the purposes of reducing crowd disorder. The situational framework demonstrates how various measures have dramatically reduced the number of misdemeanor and felony arrests.

In Chapter 9, Joel Plant and Michael Scott introduce the concept of the ‘SARA Helix’, an iterative adaptation of the SARA model (Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment) commonly used in problem-oriented policing, as a method not only for gaining a better understanding of crowd disorder, but as a way of effectively responding to it. They demonstrate how various initiatives implemented between 2003 and 2008, as responses to the disorder from the previous year’s Halloween celebrations in Madison, Wisconsin, helped reduce levels of crime and disorder. They also demonstrate how continually reassessing the success and failure of specific responses can reduce overall policing costs associated with the events by influencing and engaging alternative community stakeholders.

In Chapter 10, Stefan Holgersson and Johannes Knutsson describe and explain the principles behind a new policing approach for crowd management and control called dialogue policing. This new method of policing crowds was developed in response to the aftermath of the violent clashes that took place at the European Union summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, during 2001. The approach has since been adopted as part of a new national approach for crowd management in Sweden. The aim is to facilitate speech and the right to demonstrate while simultaneously reducing confrontations between opposing groups of demonstrators and the police. Despite some initial difficulties with implementing and accepting the approach, both by protestors and the police, the model has gained acceptance and proved to be an effective method for positive mutual reinforcement for both groups.

This book is an important contribution to the literature on crowd violence and ways to police it. A criticism that might be levelled at the social psychological approach is its inability to generate testable hypotheses. However, marrying the explanatory utility of the social psychological and the physical and social aspects of environmental criminological theories on crowd disorder enriches our understanding of the problem, thereby helping to overcome this weakness. Taken together, these chapters identify a limitation of research on crowd disorder. The relative infrequency of protests, the varied geography in which protests take place, and the specific location within a crowd where disorder sometimes ensues, inhibits researchers from consistently observing these incidents in a systematic way. One fruitful avenue that is not explored in this book concerns agent-based modeling (Batty et al., 2003). For example, researchers interested in crowd behavior are no longer confined to observational approaches in order to foster the development of crowd-based theory and tactics for effective crowd policing. They can instead use the frameworks discussed in Preventing Crowd Violence as the foundation for an agent-based modeling approach to the problem. By simulating crowds in a way that mirrors the actual environment where a protest or sporting event may take place, researchers and the police can more readily identify optimal locations and paths for protest marches, better estimate the optimal number of police officers necessary for reducing the likelihood of crowd disorder and determine the most efficient way to utilize resources all before the crowd related event has even taken place.

Beyond a few problem-oriented policing guides on preventing crowd disorder at student parties and stadiums (Madensen, T. and Eck, J., 2006; Madensen, T., and Eck, J., 2008), and a chapter by Veno and Veno (1993) on public disorder at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, it is safe to conclude that preventing crowd violence and disorder is an area that remains under- researched by environmental criminologists – until now. Preventing Crowd Violence goes some way to help fill this gap and is very well worth reading.

Justin Kurland, Jill Dando Institute


Batty, M., Desyllas, J., and Duxbury, E. (2003). Modelling Crowds and Designing Control for the Notting Hill Carnival. Urban Studies, 8, 1573-1590.
Madensen, T.D., and Eck, J.E. (2006). Student party riots. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.

Madensen, T.D., and Eck, J.E. (2008). Spectator violence in stadiums. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Police Services.

Veno, A., and Veno, E., (1993). Situational prevention of public disorder at the Australian motorcycle grand prix. In R.V. Clarke (Ed.), Crime Prevention Studies, vol. 1. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

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