Psychologists advise ‘softly softly’ approach to protests

Dr John Drury

Police forces dealing with public protests need to change their crowd control tactics if they are to avoid the violent confrontations witnessed at the G20 summit in London earlier this year, says a new report by a University of Sussex psychologist.

As the Copenhagen climate change summit gets under way this week, police around Europe are preparing their response to mass demonstrations, protests and possible violence.

But they shouldn’t rely on old methods according to University of Sussex psychologist Dr John Drury and his fellow researchers.

Leading crowd behaviour experts Dr Drury, Dr Clifford Stott (Liverpool) and Professor Steve Reicher (St Andrews) were consulted by the HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary) review into the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London. 

Now the HMIC’s report – Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Model of Policing – reasserts the principles of the traditional British model of approachable, impartial and accountable policing based on minimum force for major public order events.

The researchers’ ‘new psychology of crowds’ formed the basis for the recommendations of the report. They emphasise that most crowd members have peaceful intentions and would normally shun advocates of violence. However, this can change if people that feel they are being mistreated by the police.

Effective policing therefore needs to be based on a ‘dialogue’ approach. This approach has three core elements: an understanding of the aims and intentions of crowd members; a focus on helping crowd achieve legitimate aims; and a series of graded interventions which target those causing disorder without denying the rights of the majority.

These ideas have already transformed policing in several European countries through the team’s consultancy, led by Dr Stott. The researchers conclude that, if implemented in the UK, they would be equally effective in minimising crowd violence here.

Dr Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex, commented, “Our recommendations form part of a new agenda for the mass democratisation of crowd management. We have designed interventions based on our approach and have shown that they work."

Notes for Editors


For more information contact the University of Sussex Press office on 01273 678 888 or email

See the full HMIC report for details of the review.

Last updated: Friday, 11 December 2009