Monday, 24 August 2015

Shoreham air disaster and community support

It has been a sad weekend for Sussex, and the impact of the disaster at Shoreham air-show is still unfolding. Current news reports  are that 11 people are feared dead after a Hawker Hunter Jet crashed on the A27 dual carriageway while attempting to loop the loop during the air-show this weekend. The authorities initially feared that there could have been as many as 20 victims in total, but as I write this the Guardian is reporting that the plane has been removed from the site and no more bodies have been discovered underneath the wreckage.

Shoreham Tollbridge spans the river Adur and has become the centre for a growing floral tribute to the victims and their families (below are some photos taken earlier today by Guardian journalist Haroon Siddique). I visited this tribute today so that I could pay my own respects as I think it's important to remind oneself of the human costs involved when researching disasters and mass emergencies. It was quite a moving experience, and I was struck by the scale and content of the tributes left by the local community. In a previous blog I looked at the spontaneous social support that emerged after the death of the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. A similar process seems to be happening in response to the Shoreham disaster, although here we are seeing people coming together to commemorate those who were mainly ordinary members of the public caught up in a tragic accident (as opposed to a global celebrity with a loyal fan-base who was constantly in the media spotlight). Of the victims named so far, two are footballers from the local team Worthing United, and I saw some moving tributes to them on the bridge from their friends and family. The floral tribute was growing larger by the minute when I was there, as a constant stream of people arrived to pay their respects, and by the time I left, there were already a couple of hundred bouquets along with some football T-Shirts in memory of the local footballers.However, what I thought was also significant was that the majority of written tributes I saw were either from anonymous sources or from people  who didn't appear to know directly any of the victims, but still wanted to pay their respects as members of the local community, and a selection are copied below;  

' A community left numb'

'Terrible tragedy to happen to our county' 

'Shoreham weeps for all the victims'

'We didn't know you but we came because we care. We wanted you to know that you and your families are in our thoughts. Shoreham grieves for you and with you'

'To all who lost their lives I hope you find peace and to the families and friends my deepest sympathy and condolences. This has truly shocked our community'.

Finally, the one I thought was most touching was the tribute accompanying the drawing in the photo below which simply said;

'RIP from a little girl'


In work I did with John Drury on the 7/7 London bombings, we found that people can come together to co-operate during mass emergencies because a common identity emerged amongst crowd members in response to a shared threat,  and we argued that people would also support each other in the aftermath of such emergencies if they could maintain such a shared identity. What we felt was significant was that the vast majority of people caught up in the crowds during the 7/7 attacks were total strangers, but they still reported a strong sense of identity which emerged from their shared experience of adversity. I believe that the growing floral tributes I saw today are also evidence of the emergent community support and solidarity that can come from strangers and I hope this is of some comfort to those affected by this terrible accident.


The growing floral tribute on Shoreham Toll-bridge




'RIP from a little girl'



Friday, 31 July 2015

Sousse attack and crowd responses

The BBC's Panorama has produced a programme about the recent terrorist attack in Sousse, Tunisia, called 'Terror on the beach'. It is currently available on the BBC's iplayer in its entirety and there are also on-line extracts from interviews with survivors and witnesses as they describe the horrific chain of events that led to 38 innocent holidaymakers (30 of whom were British) being killed in the attack. These accounts are certainly pretty harrowing at times, but within the tales of terror and confusion, there also emerge some interesting examples of how people can spontaneously come together to help each other in such situations- not only amongst the holidaymakers targeted by the gunman, but also the heroism shown by local Tunisians in trying to protect them.

Survivor co-operation: 
The attack began when the gunman started shooting on the beach, and there was understandable fear and rapid flight as the full horror of what was going on dawned on those present. However, even in this horrific situation holidaymakers were showing concern for others, and this is clearly illustrated by the following quote from British tourist Tony Callaghan;

I said to my wife "Run back to the hotel. Take cover." But I couldn't go with her at that point because there were too many people who were just lazing on the loungers, just looking up, without any sense of urgency. I started shouting at the top of my voice for people to run. I was waving my arms around and I must have stayed there another minute or more.

This quote is also interesting because it shows that he stays behind and places himself at further risk to alert others of the danger (most of whom were presumably not close friends or family and possibly even complete strangers). Tony's wife, Christine then describes how other tourists comforted her as she left her husband to escape the beach;  

I was walking as fast as I could. My heart was beating so fast I was trembling. As I started to cry, a lady came towards me with her husband, asked if I was on my own, put her arms round me and gave me a hug.

Later on, as people fled the beach towards what they thought would be the safety of the hotel, the gunman pursued them and began attacking people inside, meaning that they had to quickly find cover in which to hide. A British holidaymaker there with her two teenage sons describes the situation as 'sheer panic', but if you explore her account in more detail, interesting nuances in her account emerge that I think show the general co-operation that was going on. Sam (the mother) and Tom (her son) describe what happened when they fled into the toilets and were separated from her other son Callum;

Sam: We heard this other girl who followed us in there and she was crying in the toilet next door. I was saying: "Please be quiet." We didn't know if he was still in the corridor or if there were more of them. So we brought her into the toilet and she passed out. We had to sit her on the toilet and bring her round.
Tom:
She had a massive piece of shrapnel in her leg. I said to her: "I'm going to have to take this out if I'm going to stop the bleeding." So she said OK, and I pulled it out and packed her leg with tissue paper, and used my top to tie it round to try and stop the bleeding. Then I did the same with my mum's leg.
Sam:
I felt so sick. I thought: "This is it. We're not going to survive this." I didn't even know if my youngest son was OK. We were in sheer panic. Luckily we had our mobiles with us. The lady of the family that had Callum - they'd taken him and barricaded themselves in - rang me and said: "We've got Callum."

So, I think these accounts show quite well how even in life-threatening emergencies, people will help and comfort those around them, even if they are separated from their loved ones and/or amongst strangers. This supports the research I did with John Drury into mass emergencies, such as the July 7th 2005 London bombings (Drury et al, 2009 a&b), where we argued that a form of collective resilience emerged amongst survivors that encouraged co-operative behaviour (as opposed to selfish and/or 'panicked' behaviour) while they waited for outside help from the emergency services. It's not that everyone necessarily becomes super-heroes in these situations, it's more that general co-operative norms emerge that mean that simple acts of co-operation (or just comforting others in distress) become more possible precisely because people tend to remain calm (despite the understandable fear they may be experiencing), and that such co-operation would be much more difficult if there was mass 'panic' instead.

 
Tourists comfort each other in the aftermath of the Sousse attack

Locals as 'zero-responders':
It was not just tourists that co-operated with each other, and there were also numerous reports of local Tunisians shielding tourists from danger, helping victims, and even confronting the gunman to try and stop his murderous rampage. For instance, two locals working on the beach initially tried to reason with the gunman;

We said: "Please stop shooting." He didn't listen to us. He just kept shooting. He didn't care.

They then helped evacuate some tourists from the beach in their boat (other tourists were also helped to hide in nearby shops by the owners) and then joined a growing group of locals who began to confront the gunman when it became apparent that he was initially only targeting tourists (although he later began shooting at locals and the police shortly before being killed in the final fire-fight). This willingness to confront the gunman manifested itself in two stages: first they formed a human chain along the beach to prevent him getting close to other tourists (as captured in the photo below), and then began actively pursuing him. This exchange, shows how two locals confronted one of the first policemen on the scene who was initially reluctant to engage the gunman (Rezgui);
         
Mehdi: 
When I saw the tourist policeman, I said to him: "Why aren't you shooting the terrorist?" He said to me: "I don't have a bulletproof vest."
Mohamed: 
I told him: "I've got no vest, but I'm going." He said: "It's your risk if you die." I said: "OK, no problem." The police were scared. One said: "If he sees me with a police T-shirt, he will shoot me." So he rolled up the T-shirt in his hand and he ran with the people. A young Tunisian man in red shorts seized a gun from an unwilling policeman and headed off to try to fire it at Rezgui. He missed him and the gun jammed after two shots.

In a previous post about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, I looked at the concept of 'zero-responders' which has been developed in recognition of evidence (eg Cole et al, 2011) that uninjured survivors and bystanders at major incidents are often able to spontaneously co-operate to provide first aid and evacuate survivors before outside help from first responders arrives. What is also particularly significant here, is that in this situation a 'zero-responder' seems more willing to take action than the policeman himself, which aptly illustrates the potential for 'zero-responders' to spontaneously take the initiative, especially in the face of hesitation from more official emergency responders  


Tunisians form a human chain and pursue the gunman along the beach

Conclusion:

I have felt a connection with Sousse and the people of Tunisia in general ever since I was there during the 2011 Jasmine revolution and it was my experiences there that inspired me to start writing a blog in the first place. Most notably, I was struck by their hospitality and caring attitude towards tourists. For instance, we witnessed a few protests while we were there and even got caught up in a riot where we had to scatter down back streets with locals, as there was a real fear that the police were going to open fire on the crowd. However, at no point did we feel threatened by the people there and other crowd members were talking to us and looking out for us as we fled. I find it desperately sad that such an atrocity could happen in Sousse, and feel not only for the victims and their families, but also the local Tunisians whose livelihoods depend on tourism and are presumably already suffering a collapse in the numbers of tourists visiting Tunisia. However, I hope that this post has shown that the sorrow and trauma brought about by the murderous actions of one person can perhaps be countered in some small way by the knowledge that hundreds (if not thousands) of others responded to this horror with the kindness and compassion that human beings often display to each other during mass emergencies. 

Flowers laid on Marhaba beach


References:
Cole, J, Walters, M. & Lynch, M (2011). Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd's role in emergency response, Contemporary Social Science, 6 (3) 361-375.
Drury J., Cocking, C., & Reicher S. (2009a). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology; 48, 487-506.

Drury J., Cocking C., & Reicher, S. (2009b) The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 27, 66-95.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Amy Winehouse's death & spontaneous social support

I went to see the ‎Amy Winehouse‬ film last night on the anniversary of her death on 23/rd July 2011. It has been accused by some critics of being little better than the paparazzi that hounded her to her death, and it certainly is uncomfortable viewing at times (especially when she crashes & burns live on stage in Belgrade shortly before her death in 2011). I think it also highlights how a very talented (but also very vulnerable) singer/songwriter descended on a self-destructive downward spiral of alcohol and drugs compounded by her suffering from bulimia that ended in her untimely death at the age of 27. 

However, I think the grass-roots reaction to her death also illustrates the positive power that crowds  can have. I was in Camden a couple of days after she died & visited the shrine to Amy that had spontaneously developed outside her flat. It was quite a solemn and sad experience, but  what I also found striking was how her fans and other interested passers-by had come together to mark her tragic death, and I believe this shows the power that groups can have to support each other in times of adversity. This fits with work that I and others have done (Cocking, 2013; Drury et al, 2011) that rather than being a potential problem (as they are often portrayed in social discourse) crowds and groups in general can be a source of mutual support, or a kind of 'social cure'.  









Photos of the memorial outside Amy's flat, Camden July 2011

References:
Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. CABI: Oxford, UK. http://bookshop.cabi.org/?page=2633&pid=2433&site=191
Drury, J. (2011). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: a social identity model. In: Jetten, J., Haslam, C. and Haslam, S.A. (eds) The Social Cure: Identity, Health and Well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Nepal earthquake and 'panic'


The international community is now beginning to respond to the devastating earthquake in Nepal at the weekend. So far nearly 4000 people have been killed and over 6500 injured, with 4 million affected (although these casualty figures will probably rise as more remote areas are reached and the true scale of the damage is discovered). The media focus seems to be rightly shifting to the international aid response, and this is a welcome development, as not only are there thousands of people in desperate need in an already impoverished region, but again I would argue that the initial media reports of 'panic' are yet again not supported by events on the ground.

Media expectation of 'panic'
On 27/4/15, Radio 4's Today  programme included an interview with a British PhD student based in Nepal (interview begins about 2:14:40 into the programme). In it he explicitly rejected the notion when asked by the interviewer if there was 'panic' & instead focussed on how people cooperated with each other;
'while people were scared, I wouldn't necessarily call it panic... people were trying to help whenever they saw people in need'
This is supported by the image below of people helping clear rubble & rescue survivors in Kathmandu  and the general lack of police or military uniforms in the photo (I can only see one person wearing camouflage clothing) leads me to believe that there was general cooperation amongst bystanders in the aftermath of the earthquake- a concept known as 'zero-responders', that I have looked at in previous  blog posts.

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015

'Panic' or evacuation?
Another more specific way in which panic has been used, also needs picking apart, as again I don't think it stands up to scrutiny. For example, there have been media descriptions of people 'panicking' as they fled buildings during the aftershocks, and there is quite an evocative video clip article, where BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt is caught in the middle of an aftershock and people fleeing buildings for open ground are clearly visible. However, he also rightly points out that 'earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do'. This is a basic tenet of safe evacuation behaviour during earthquakes, and seeing that the area where the earthquake happened is prone to such tremors, I would imagine that the local residents are familiar with such procedures. Therefore, far from being irrational 'panic', I would say that evacuating already weakened buildings during an aftershock is an example of sensible evacuation behaviour, possibly something that locals had learnt from previous education as to what is the safest behaviour in earthquakes. Another example of this is the photograph below of people evacuating a building in Lucknow, northern India, which is near the border with Nepal. Within the story that accompanies this picture is the following quote;
'Panic gripped people who came out of their houses, buildings, hospitals and shopping complexes to take shelter in open as they felt earthquake tremors'
However, from a more detailed look at the picture, I can't see expressions of fear on anyone's faces (some even appear to be smiling), and there doesn't seem to be any running or pushing that might be associated with a 'panicked' evacuation.


Conclusion:
The Disasters and Emergency Committee has now set up an appeal for donations, and hopefully international aid will soon reach those affected by this awful tragedy. I am also relieved that media descriptions of 'panicked' reactions to the earthquake now seem to be receding, but I do wish that they wouldn't immediately jump into using the term, as it rarely matches up with people's actual behaviour and just perpetuates the myths about crowd behaviour that I and other colleagues in this field seem to spend so much time trying to unpick.    



Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Aston Villa pitch invasion & moral panics

A recent FA cup Quarter final tie saw a pitch invasion by Aston Villa fans, as their team beat local rivals West Bromwich Albion by 2-0 at home, prompting media reports of a return to the 'dark ages' of the 1970s and 80s when pitch invasions and/or football related 'disorder' were common place. However, I would suggest that  closer examination of what seems to have happened during this incident shows such fears to be premature and somewhat alarmist. Furthermore, I would also argue that the reactions by match commentators and the general tone of media reporting of this incident reflect what I think is an ongoing moral panic not only about pitch invasions at football matches, but also of crowds in general (especially football crowds).

Historical contexts:
Pitch invasions have a long history at UK football matches (but are rarer these days) and were often associated with disorder. However, they don't always involve fighting between rival fans, and are more likely to be a celebratory response by fans to their team winning, and any interactions with rival fans are usually confined to ritualised behaviours (such as gesticulation, chanting, etc) rather than than overt physical aggression (see Geoff Pearson's work for detailed studies of football fans' behaviour & their treatment). However, football authorities (such as the FA and the Police) have tended to take a very dim view of such collective expressions  of celebration, and they often respond to them in a fairly robust way (see photo below of the police response at Villa Park).While they are technically illegal under the 1991 Football Offences Act, there are rarely enough stewards/ police to stop a determined pitch invasion (let alone arrest all those who take part in one!), and prevention usually relies on social pressure, with clubs, players, and commentators all queuing up to criticise such incidents in their aftermath- as happened this weekend . 

Aston Villa v West Brom

Police face the crowd at Villa Park

Villa Park pitch invasion:
This particular game was perhaps likely to inspire strong emotions, seeing as Aston Villa and West Bromwich are local rivals from Birmingham, with their grounds less than five miles from each other. So, during stoppage time (and perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly),  the first of two pitch invasions by Aston Villa fans began, and prompted the following reaction from the match commentator Mark Lawrenson;
Why would you do this? You're winning, absolutely stupid. Loads of villages have lost their idiots tonight. Absolutely bonkers. 
Strong words, indeed. But in the televised footage, this first invasion appears to involve no more than 100 fans at at most, and the vast majority of fans seem to stay in the stands, with some booing those on pitch & gesticulating for them to get off- presumably because if the match had been abandoned at that point (with Aston Villa 2-0 up and very likely to win), the match would have had to have been re-played with no guarantee of them winning again. However, the second pitch invasion happened after the final whistle had gone, (meaning that Aston Villa were now through to the semi-finals), and involved many more Aston Villa fans (within a few seconds the pitch is full & large sections of the stands are now empty), suggesting that this second action was now broadly supported by the fans. The mood of the fans seems celebratory (rather than aggressive), and many of them surround the Aston Villa players to congratulate them and/or take their photos. Some of their behaviour may have been a little over-exuberant, but I can't see any footage that makes me think that anyone was under serious threat from the crowd (there's a Tweet that zooms in on footage of the assistant referee furiously running away as the pitch invasion happens, but the crowd appears to ignore him). However, the alarmist media reporting continued, as illustrated in how the BBC presented their interviews with Aston players afterwards. For instance, the following extract with goalscorer Fabian Delph was highlighted;
It was dangerous. Someone tried to take my boot off. People tried to kiss me and were biting me. It was scary
On its own, this suggests quite a scary situation, but if you go to the video footage where the quote comes from, you can see that Fabian laughs when he describes this incident, and doesn't seem to have been adversely affected by the experience- so it doesn't seem so serious when viewed less selectively in a wider context. 
Aston Villa v West Brom

Moral panics & their tragic consequences?
Finally, there are potentially deeper issues involved with this apparent moral panic over pitch invasions, with the most obvious, being that of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where 96 fans were fatally crushed against metal fences designed to prevent a pitch invasion. In a previous post on Hillsborough , I highlighted the tragic irony raised by the Taylor Report into the disaster, that previous to Hillsborough, no one had ever died during a pitch invasion at UK football matches, but on 15/4/1989, 96 fans died in preventing a fictitious pitch invasion that never happened. UK football stadium design and safety procedures have come a long way since Hillsborough and such tragedies are thankfully very unlikely to happen again.  However, I worry that reports of pitch invasions that emphasise the 'irrationality' or even 'madness' of those involved, not only obscures accurate exploration of what actually happens, but also risks creating the space where irrationalist narratives of crowds could re-emerge into popular social discourse.
Police cordon during the Hillsborough disaster


References:

Canter, D, Comber, M & Uzzell, D (1989) Football in its place: An environmental Psychology of Football grounds. Routledge: London, UK


Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/casp.2153/abstract


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Shanghai crowd crush tragedy

New Year celebrations in Shanghai, China have ended in tragedy, with 36 dead and nearly 50 injured. It seems there was a fatal crowd crush about 20 mins before midnight, according to media reports. There has also been speculation in some coverage that the tragedy happened when people rushed forward to pick up fake money being thrown from the balcony of a bar into the crowd. However, I have seen this account disputed by others on social media, claiming instead that the crushing happened at a different location to the bar, and a BBC report also argues that the authorities in Shanghai were not adequately prepared for the size of the crowds on Shanghai's waterfront. I also saw an interview with a survivor in hospital who reported that people moving in different directions through the highly packed crowds caused crushing problems. So, I would suggest that crowd management failings may have been a more likely cause of the disaster. We shall have to see if more information emerges about this tragedy that helps paint a clearer picture of what actually happened, but yet again, the media's default response after tragedies such as these seems to be to blame the victims of crowd disasters rather than the authorities responsible for their safe management.

The BBC coverage quotes a photographer from the US who paints a bleak picture of people's behaviour;
"Nobody seemed to be in control and people were crying. It was one of those times when you see the worst in people."
However, no further description is given of any actual examples of what anyone was doing that illustrates 'the worst in people', and the very next quote used from another witness which describes spontaneous cooperation in the crowd appears to contradict this assertion anyway;
"Lots of people spontaneously linked hands to block the crowds, so the injured had space to settle down, and to allow a clear passage for ambulances,"

As I have argued in previous blogs, when disasters such as these happen, the term 'stampede' is almost always used uncritically by the media coverage to describe events, with all its negative connotations about crowd behaviour in such incidents- for instance that people are unthinking and/or selfish and trample over victims in their efforts to flee danger (for more details on why the term 'stampede' is problematic, see John Drury's excellent blog on the topic). Tweets I have seen from the crowd modelling expert Keith Still argue that the tragedy appears to have been caused by a Pressure Wave in the crowd resulting from a dangerous (but usually entirely avoidable) build up of crowd density, and he highlights that previous analyses of crowd disasters (e.g. Fruin, 1993) have concluded that;
'Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the "trampling" reported by the news media' 
Another study of a fatal crowd crush at a concert by the Who in the US in 1979 (Johnson 1987), found that survivors tried to help others that fell over, (rather than deliberately trampling them underfoot) and if cooperation did not happen, it was because people were physically unable to do so due to crowd density pressures. If trampling does occur, it is rare, and usually because of a domino effect in highly packed crowds (e.g. if someone falls over the physical pressure of the crowd can force others to fall on top of them)- not because people are 'stampeding' blindly without concern for others as they flee danger.   

Therefore, yet again I find myself repeating my call that we should stop using the term 'stampede' to describe tragedies such as the one seen in Shanghai, as it is not helpful in getting to the truth about what happens and may even distract from the apportion of responsibility for the tragedy, if as I suspect, it eventually turns out that crowd mismanagement was the cause. Such disasters are not inevitable and it is usually possible to prevent them occurring, providing there is adequate crowd safety management planning beforehand, and speedy responses are put in place to prevent crowd density reaching dangerous levels.  




Update:
Since I wrote the post above, the BBC have reported that Shanghai police now deny that fake money being thrown from a balcony was the cause of the tragedy, as this happened after the crush occurred (and the BBC has also largely removed references to 'stampede' in its coverage, and are now using the term 'crush' instead). Therefore, it seems increasingly likely that poor crowd management was instead responsible, and the casualties seemed to have resulted from dangerous crowding levels causing a wave of people to topple down a flight of stairs leading to a viewing platform. The Chinese President has ordered an investigation to examine whether there were enough police on duty to safely manage the crowds.


References:
Fruin, J (1993) The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters. Originally presented at the First International Conference on Engineering for Crowd Safety, London, England, March 1993. Elsevier Science Publishers B.B. ©.

Johnson (1987) Panic at “The Who Concert Stampede”: An Empirical Assessment. Social Problems, 34 (4) 362-73

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 review of the year

As the year draws to a close, it's time for another review of the highlights of my blog for 2014. This year I looked at public order policing in the UK, and how it is still being influenced by the fallout from the 2011 riots in England. There were also examples of public order policing abroad that showed similar patterns to that seen in the UK (perhaps reflecting similar ideological views towards crowds held across the world).I also looked at Ebola, and how specific aspects of the disease as well as the authorities' apparent fear of public responses seem to have influenced how national governments have responded to the outbreak so far. Finally I focussed on situations where crowd cooperation may become difficult if people are set in competition with each other. Many of these stories are ongoing, so I'm sure I'll have lots more to blog about in 2015!

Events close to home:
The year began with the announcement of the result of the inquest into the death Mark Duggan, (whose shooting by officers from the Metropolitan Police sparked 5 days of rioting across England in 2011), and I criticised the media for playing up the possibility of disorder after the result of the inquest- something that also happened before the result of Scottish referendum in September. I argued that while collective disorder in such emotionally charged situations is possible, it is far from inevitable, and that creating a climate where riots were expected, was not only irresponsible, but also makes it more difficult to conduct an objective examination of events in the aftermath of the comparatively rare situations when riots actually do happen.
The theme of public order policing continued in February, when there was a public consultation into whether the Metropolitan Police should be allowed to use water cannon the next time there was major disorder in the capital . I wrote a report that highlighted my concerns about its introduction to policing in mainland Britain (it is already used routinely in Northern Ireland): that water cannon was an indiscriminate tactic that would most likely escalate any disorder, and that there was a real risk of people catching hypothermia if it was used (especially if it was used in conjunction with the tactic of 'kettling' crowds). Authorisation to purchase water cannon from Germany was granted in June, and their use on British streets awaits final approval from the Home Secretary (which may be granted the next time there is serious disorder in the capital), and in a letter to the Evening Standard, I responded to Boris Johnson's offer to be hit by water cannon (I believe he has yet to follow through on this offer!), arguing that there were more serious issues at stake behind this publicity stunt.
 
Water cannon- coming soon to a riot near you? 

International contexts:
Over the late summer and autumn, I looked at public order policing further afield, and argued that there were issues involved that were similar to those seen in the UK. For instance, August saw prolonged rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in the US after an unarmed Black teenager (Michael Brown) was shot dead by local Police. I argued that the use of indiscriminate tactics (such as Tear Gas, stun grenades, sonic devices etc.) and the heavily militarised response to the protests was a major factor in the instigation and spread of collective disorder. I also suggested that it was necessary to consider the wider social contexts in which these protests occurred, and the worrying frequency with which African American males die at the hands of mainly white police officers, shows that the US still has a long way to go in addressing social inequality and the distrust and alienation that many local communities feel towards their police forces.
October saw the world nervously watching mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, fearing a repeat of the bloody crackdown as happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989. Thankfully this did not happen, but the local Hong Kong Police did still display some quite forceful public order tactics at times. I highlighted an interesting historical coincidence that the current UK public order policing tactics were learnt from the colonial Hong Kong Police force after the riots seen in English cities in the early 1980s. So, it would have appeared slightly hypocritical had the UK government been too forthright in their criticism of the policing of the protests!


Hong Kong Police short shield unit September 2014

Public health emergencies:
This year saw 3 West African countries ravaged by Ebola, and I looked at how the authorities in the developed world have responded to this global public health crisis. I argued that the decisions in October by Australia to suspend visas to people from Ebola-hit countries, and the UK to introduce screening for Ebola at UK airports (by asking entrants from the Ebola zone a series of questions and taking their temperature) could be considered as examples of 'elite panic'. This was because such decisions went against expert advice and appeared to be done in response to pressure to be seen to be doing something and could have limited effectiveness in detecting Ebola. This seems to have been borne out by recent events, as Pauline Cafferkey (a Scottish nurse who recently returned to the UK after treating patients in Sierra Leone) contracted Ebola after returning home, despite having her temperature taken 7 different times before becoming unwell. The Chief Medical officer announced today (31/12/14) that screening for Ebola will be reviewed, although she emphasised there was still a very low risk of public infection, as Pauline was not displaying any symptoms when she travelled home (and people only become infectious in the end stages of the disease- which is why proportionately so many health workers in Africa have tragically died of Ebola).

The patient being transferred from hospital in Glasgow
Pauline Cafferkey being transported to specialist isolation unit at Royal Free Hospital, London


Cooperation vs. competition?
Finally, towards the end of 2014, I looked at the issue of cooperation (or not) in crowds. A classic (although often untrue) cliché is that people will become inherently selfish in crowds- especially in stressful situations. The work that I have done on mass emergencies has found that this is rarely the case, and that people tend to behave cooperatively, because a shared identity often emerges from the situation which encourages such cooperation. However, in situations where people are cast in competition with each other for limited resources, then it may be more difficult for such a shared identity to emerge, and so cooperation may be less likely. I argued that the scenes witnessed at UK stores on Black Friday at the end of November illustrated this concept perfectly, and that retailers needed to be more responsible when planning for and hosting such events, as they had the clear potential to set people in competition with each other.

Shoppers fight over a TV in a supermarket
Shoppers compete on 'Black Friday'