The definitive psychology around crowd behaviour acknowledges the concept of a personal threshold for violence, a level of threat, a situation or a culmination of events and factors that will lead someone to violence. This threshold is affected by culture, conditioning, the law, personality, alcohol, ego and bravado. For most people, it requires a catalyst, such as the Metropolitan Police’s ill-fated treatment of innocents as rioters during the poll tax demonstrations that spurred massive rioting, or the police shooting to death of a youth in Greece. The rioting that we are seeing; rocks and bricks being thrown at police baselines, fires being set, etc, are clear forms of protest. The real question for the Greek Police is how to deal with the situation.
The Greek youths who are rioting are clearly upset, and have felt the need to express their lack of respect for society and the police’s treatment of one of their own. Having allowed the early protests that turned to violence, by this third day of rioting the police are failing to step on the problem more firmly – the risk is being run that rioting will be seen as an acceptable form of protest, and so attention must now turn to attacking the root causes of the violence. Violence like this is not spontaneous; once, in immediate response to the event, it’s possible. Continually, for days, this activity is happening because it is being allowed to happen; a group of people will be driving the violence, and they are the ones who must now be targeted and neutralised.
There must always be an avenue for protest in a democracy. There must be an avenue for a group to vent their anger, and, if it is in response to an incident, to do so quickly. However, these protests must be policed, and the police must be able to respond and control events. There is regrettably little coverage in depth of what is happening in Greece, and so we are, to some extent, left guessing about the victories the police are having; are they managing to contain without violence large crowds, how many crowds are actually rioting each day and how many have been redirected or pacified – unfortunately it is a truism of policing crowd control and public order, like so much of policing, that only the negative events are reported – the victories are when nothing happens, and so go unnoticed.
I hear all too often in the US from police officers, particularly senior management, how rioting ‘can never happen in my city’. I understand their point, and I am sure that there is a police chief in Greece who felt pretty much the same thing. Having an effective public order capability is effective risk management; public order will not ‘ever’ happen anywhere, it is usually just highly unlikely. The challenge for police chiefs and sheriffs in the US is in understanding what that risk is, and identifying the resource effective and efficient methods of anticipating that highly charged operational and political risk.