The effects of mob mentality on crowd control
Psychology comes into play when law enforcement and crowds meet
Recent incidents of what the media has dubbed “flash mob crime” have led to greater focus on crowd control and mob response among law enforcement departments nationwide. While flash mob crime might be a relatively new concept, it’s just the latest manifestation of a well-known kind of crime — mob violence.
“Riots, mobs and related violence are common crimes we're all familiar with in law enforcement,” says Thomas Milner, a University of Phoenix instructor in Criminal Justice and Security who also serves as a commander in the Newark, Calif., police department. He has more than 30 years’ experience in crowd control and riot response.
“There is definitely a different kind of psychology going on in large assembled groups, versus individuals acting alone,” says Milner. “Sometimes, when people are part of a group, they will act in ways that they wouldn’t dream of doing by themselves, they can get caught up in the moment and leave societal norms behind.”
Always room for peaceful assembly
Milner emphasizes that not all assembled crowds engage in mob action, even when they are angry and expressing that anger. “Peaceful assembly, free speech and public redress of societal grievances all play an essential role in our democracy,” he says. “It’s up to law enforcement to ensure that people can exercise their rights in a peaceful and safe way. But once the line is crossed from peaceful assembly over to violence, then law enforcement has to respond.”
Single acts of violence can erupt into a riot
According to Milner, peaceful crowds often transform into violent mobs due to the actions of only one or two people. “Someone might throw an object at a police officer’s head, or throw paint on someone in a protest, or grab someone’s arm, or shove someone. There might be a ringleader who does it, or it could be a random individual. In law enforcement, we call these overt acts, and even just one overt act can tip the balance into mass violence.”
Most law enforcement agencies have staff who are specially trained to recognize overt acts, sometimes even before they have a chance to happen. “It is our duty first to try to prevent overt acts, or, if they do occur, to respond to them and attempt to contain them right away,” Milner explains. “Once a crowd shifts over to mass violence it becomes very difficult to control. I think most of us have seen examples of this ourselves, whether it’s a mass brawl at a sporting event, political street riots or even kids cheering on fistfights on the playground. The propensity for violence among otherwise civilized people is astonishing, and alcohol or drugs frequently play a role.”
A “part of human psychology”
Mob violence taps into a very primal part of human psychology that can also be channeled in more positive ways, according to Milner. “Sanctioned sports like boxing, ultimate fighting and the martial arts give us the opportunity to engage in controlled physical activity, and people also like to watch them as entertainment,” he says. “Law enforcement is here to help manage those events safely.”