How Balt. Riot Police Helped Spark the Rioting – The Psychology of Militarized Police & Crowds

There are many factors that contributed to the riots that broke out yesterday in the lower income community of West Baltimore, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, despite the best intentions of community leaders, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Police Commissioner, as well as the wishes of Gray’s family.

Obviously, while the pent-up anger toward the Baltimore police over the death of Freddie Gray was a huge factor, there were many others, as well. Decades of abuses by the BPD, including the far too often employment of excessive force that led to many injuries and deaths. The utter lack of any accountability by police officers to the community that suffered under these oppressive and unjust policing practices. The failure of the local educational system due to serious underfunding and official neglect. “Poor” economic outcomes for people living in that part of Baltimore, grossly inadequate housing and high rates of incarceration, especially among young people.

All those are relevant to what occurred, but I’d like to address a more immediate factor that I believe set the stage for the riots yesterday: the heavily militarized presence of the police themselves. Even before the first rock was thrown, legions of police were openly deployed in full riot gear, armed with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, tasers, guns that fired “non-lethal” rounds such as rubber bullets, etc. Take a look at this image of these officers in their full gear yesterday (from Slate):

These don’t look like cops, they look like an invading military force. How would it make you feel if large numbers of police that looked like this suddenly showed up in your local town or community on a day when you and other residents were dealing with the grief of a family’s loss caused by the very same police force? What did the appearance of heavily armed, paramilitary style police units in the neighborhoods tell the people who live in West Baltimore about what the “authorities” expected to happen?

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is taking a lot of heat for not having a more “robust” police response and presence, but I suggest to you that more police and more police “force” would not have staved off yesterday’s riot. The problem wasn’t a lack of police, but the presence of too many police deployed as military units with the aim of intimidation, i.e., by sending an implicit threat of violence against unarmed civilians should “things get out of hand.”

In short, the very nature of the police who were “deployed” in this manner begged for a violent reaction from the residents of West Baltimore, people already highly charged emotionally by the events of the past 15 days since Freddie Gray was arrested and fatally injured in the custody of “Baltimore’s Finest” back on the morning of April 12th. To understand why the presence of large numbers of police in their full riot gear helped spark the rioting, it is necessary to examine the the psychological effect of large crowds faced by exactly this type of police response.

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The common response of most elected officials and politicians, when confronted with outbreaks of crowd violence, is to condemn those rioting as “criminals” and “thugs,” whose bad behavior is both senseless and counterproductive. In fact, Mayor used many of those words, including the characterization of the rioters as “thugs,” to describe the participants in yesterday’s riot.

But the notion that rioters are always comprised of people motivated solely by a desire to destroy, loot and commit acts of violence, like many lazy explanations of complex human behavior, makes the issue of riots into an overly simplified morality play in which there are only two camps: “good guys,” i.e., peaceful protestors, and the “bad guys, ” or the rioters. The real world dynamic that plays out when otherwise normal individuals suddenly engage in violent behavior when they are part of a larger group does not lend itself to such easy answers, however.

Psychologists have long studied the dynamics of crowd behavior. The question of why crowds erupt into violence in some situations and not others has been considered by a number of researchers. The truth is large groups change how people see themselves and changes what behaviors they are willing to undertake as part of that group. People rarely gather together for the sole purpose of starting a riot.

If you have ever been in mob that was agitated about some injustice, you know how contagious it can be. Ordinary people, normal citizens, you and me – we get swept up and do things that would be unlikely under other circumstances: shouting, shoving, throwing rocks, smashing windows, and, yes, even looting.

It usually takes an incident to get a riot started, such as an accident or the police attacking or killing an innocent bystander. But once it has begun, the raging mob has a life of its own. Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long standing disappointments galvanize people into action. And the mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome one’s usual reticence or moral scruples. One is immersed, engulfed. And it can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions. It can also become manic, driven, a means of restlessly seeking new outlets. Leadership emerges spontaneously and changes rapidly.

It offers a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert. But because it isn’t focused on a game or performance, it easily gets out of hand. Freud described such “mass psychology” in 1924, in the tumultuous aftermath of World War One. Others have studied it since as a recurrent form of group behavior.

One significant factor that affects whether crowds remain peaceful or turn violent, which has been identified in the research literature, is the manner in which police at the scene are deployed for the purpose of “crowd control.” Specifically, a militarized police presence increases the risk of crowd violence.

The violence that turns a small-town protest into a fiery national spectacle like the one that has played out this month in Missouri is often unwittingly provoked by police, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.

The research team, which studied clashes between police and activists during the Occupy movement three years ago, found that protests tend to turn violent when officers use aggressive tactics, such as approaching demonstrators in riot gear or lining up in military-like formations.

In effect, what happens is that when police present themselves as an occupying force, armed to the teeth in military style gear, it changes the psychology of the people whom the police confront. It inflames the situation, and creates an “us” versus “them” mentality among the crowds faced with an image of deadly force at the hands of police arrayed in this fashion.

[A] great deal of social-psychological research, as well as important anecdotal evidence from law-enforcement specialists themselves, suggests that militarized policing can greatly inflame situations that might otherwise end peacefully.

“Theory underlying the weapons effect or similar kinds of phenomena would suggest that the more you fill the environment with stimuli that are associated with violence, the more likely violence is to occur,” said Bruce Bartholow, a University of Missouri social psychologist who has studied the weapons effect. Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State, agreed. “I would expect a bigger effect if you see military weapons than if you see normal weapons,” he said.

This isn’t just about a link between visual stimuli like guns and violence, however. It also has to do with the roles people adopt, with how they respond to the presence of others who may — or may not — mean them harm. To a certain extent, if you dress and treat people like soldiers facing a deadly enemy, they’ll act like it.

In other words, the very equipment, gear and tactics that police forces in the United States have adopted with the intent to enhance public safety, instead often has the opposite effect. This occurs because of the psychological effects these “indicia” of violence create in the minds of those targeted by this “display” of force:

Rather than passively controlling a protest, heavy riot gear actively changes the dynamics of crowd behavior, according to the best new behavioral evidence. The twisted outcome is one that too many police forces have yet to learn: the military-style equipment intended to enhance public safety often ends up threatening it.

Research into the behavior of crowds has led to what one social scientist in the field, Clifford Stott, named the Elaborated Social Identity Model. That’s a mouthful of jargonese, but the essential elements of his theory are not beyond the realm of comprehension by lay people. In short, it refers to the way the psychological identity of individuals in crowds change based on the situation in which they find themselves.

Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn’t necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. “You didn’t lose your identity,” writes Bell, “you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.”

Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It’s not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk—it’s that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they’re united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.

This “social identity” is fluid, and easily influenced by changes in the environment. For example, lets consider the situation yesterday in Baltimore. A large number of people, particularly young people, were upset over the death of a Freddie Gray, a young man who died of massive trauma from injuries sustained while in police custody, actions yet to be fully explained. When these young people were released from school back onto the streets they found themselves confronted by a large police presence, police who affected the image of combat soldiers on the very day of Gray’s funeral, an emotional and gut wrenching experience for everyone in that community. The militarized image of the police, one intended to passively intimidate anyone they police came across, was not the optimal tactic for de-escalating the tension and anger of West Baltimore’s residents.

It was the equivalent of throwing gasoline on hot coals. So, what should Baltimore’s officials and the police have done differently? Well, based on Stott’s research into English soccer “hooligans” several things.

First, the police visible in the community should have been in standard uniforms, maintaining a low profile, similar to the policy adopted by Seattle’s former Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske:

INSKEEP: The anniversary of WTO, a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization led to violent street protests. Kerlikowske became Seattle’s police chief soon afterward. And then came the anniversary protest. Kerlikowske’s response says a lot about the complexities of using force. The new chief did not want violent protests. So, he started by concentrating on what his officers wore.

KERLIKOWSKE: Rather than have all of our officers in very hard gear, helmets and masks and on and on. I was with them in the streets in soft gear.

INSKEEP: Meaning just uniformed police officers, looking like police officers.

Such an approach yesterday in Baltimore would have sent a message that violence was not expected by the authorities. It also would have shown respect for the community. After all, Gray’s family had requested a moratorium on all protests over his death yesterday. West Baltimore should have been given the opportunity to honor that request. Any police in riot gear should have been held back, far from the view of West Baltimore’s residents.

Instead, the Mayor and the police panicked. in the face of rumors of a planned “purge”, they opted for a high profile militarized show of force by police in full riot gear.

With tensions in the city running high on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, police began alerting local businesses and mobilizing officers.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore was one of the first institutions to acknowledge law enforcement concerns. With exams about to begin, school officials abruptly canceled classes “on recommendation of the BPD.” […]

When 3 p.m. came, 75 to 100 students heading to Mondawmin Mall were greeted by dozens of police officers in riot gear. The mall is a transportation hub for students from several nearby schools.

The students began pelting officers with water bottles and rocks. Bricks met shields. Glass shattered up and down Gwynns Falls Parkway. Officers sprayed Mace. Confrontations bled into side streets, where officers threw bricks back. A heavily armored Bearcat tactical vehicle rolled through the neighborhood.

One officer, bloodied in the melee, was carried through Westbury Avenue by his comrades. Police used tear gas to move crowds down the street. […]

Some said the presence of the police antagonized the neighborhood.

“The thing is if the cops never came up here, they weren’t going to [mess] up Mondawmin,” said a young woman who was watching the clash. ” What are they going to [mess] up Mondawmin for? They shop here. This is their home.”

If those police had not been there to confront the kids walking home from school, would yesterday’s violence been averted. We will never know, but I believe that would have been the case. There was no need for the BPD to be out in full riot gear positioned to confront those kids, no need to have spread panic among businesses and schools, no need for any of these actions, when research and the experience of other police departments around the world in dealing with similar situations, demonstrates a militarized police presence is just as likely to lead to an outbreak of violence as it is to prevent one. Probably moreso.

I hope that Baltimore’s local government and the BPD will draw the correct lesson from yesterday’s experience and modify their practices to minimize the risk of further violence in the wake of this tragedy. I fear, however that will not be what happens. I fear they will conclude that next time they must deploy police in even greater numbers, with an even greater arsenal, and react to any “bad actors” in the crowd with an even more aggressive response. If they do that, God help the people of Baltimore.

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