The UC-Davis pepper spray incident has come back into the news lately. Far be it from me to ignore. Back in November I left this comment on a post here at The League. I think it still holds up (with minor editing). What I will say first though is that obviously some mistakes were made at UC-Davis. The type of pepper spray used, for example, was not allowed under California law. The police chief seems to have misunderstood the tactics approved by the chancellor and went beyond her orders.
What I also want to say is that as a self-labeled ‘rule of law conservative’ I really, really hate protests. They are quite often designed to provoke the police. Protestors actually have a pretty good understanding of police tactics and generally know that police are authorized to do things that seem barbaric when shown on the evening news. This serves their goals of getting attention for their cause. We can debate whether or not the rules should change, but under current law, whenever there is a protest there is a liklihood we will see stuff like this. On to my comments:
I don’t know how familiar League regulars are with police tactics so perhaps a little background. Most of the tactics used today were first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. The advancements in police tactics since them have mostly been along the lines of developing a variety of non-lethal tools to assist in crowd control (tazers, pepper spray, rubber bullets).
With regards to methodology, very little has changed and for good reason: a mob is a mob and the first goal of police in dealing with large crowds is to prevent the formation of a mob. There are hundreds of good books out there about police tactics but one of my favorites is a work from 1950 called, Principles of Police Work with Minority Groups prepared for the Louisville Police Department. I like the book because it was incredibly forward-thinking with regards to the sociology of dealing with minority groups. It’s also fascinating because it explores the psychology of the public and uses this to prescribe police tactics. As we all know, human tendencies are near-universal and often eternal.
So how does the book describe the formation of a mob? It considers three phases:
1) Initial Stage – An initial incident. Individuals in the milling process.
2) Stage of collective excitement – Crowd becoming unified by circular influence. Stirred by action of key individuals.
3) Stage of social contagion – Crowd accumulating masses of innocent bystanders as well as some trouble seekers.
Principles of Police Work then suggests methods for dealing with each stage. The first stage is fact-finding and containment. The second stage is key. The book prescribes three steps in this stage:
- Adequate show of force
- The removal of key individuals
- Dispersal of those who have gathered
What we witness in the UC-Davis incident appears to be stage two. The folks sitting on the ground with linked arms are the ‘key individuals’. The pepper spray is the ‘show of force’. Stage three is really just an escalation of stage two but with more aggressive tactics and higher numbers of police officers. What I will also say is that stage three is where people really get hurt.
Let me repeat an earlier point. The first goal of crowd control is ALWAYS to prevent mobs. Once a mob is formed it becomes exponentially harder to control them and often mobs result in deaths, usually of innocent bystanders. What is interesting to note though is that in 1950 the book made an observation that seems antiquated by today’s standards:
“Such events should be adequately policed. The restraining influence of the police uniform has proved its worth on such occasions. The mere presence of numbers of uniformed officers is sufficient to prevent a conventional crowd from degenerating into an active and aggressive mob.”
I think we can argue that today the presence of the police actually escalates the situation because ‘respect for the uniform’ has declined to historic lows. Now a cynic will say that the police lost the public’s respect first. I would say that it’s a chicken-or-egg scenario.
The key point of conversation is what challenge the Occupy groups represent to public safety (if any). Do they, in the most heated moments, represent a potential threat to public safety? My inclination is to say yes and yes. The line most in need of definition is just what it looks like when they transition from peaceful assembly to mob and what we are willing to tolerate to prevent it.
The more I think about it the more angry I get about the way so many people are criticizing the police in this situation. By all accounts the students were asked to leave multiple times and several physically resisted removal. Plain and simple, getting the police to do something like this was their goal. Mission accomplished. We could criticize the police for not avoiding the obvious trap, but their job transcends the need for public approval.