Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Hillsborough and ‘crowd control’

The Independent Report into the 1989 Hillsborough football crowd tragedy has found that police made ‘strenuous efforts’ to shift blame for the 96 deaths to fans themselves. In today’s news coverage, the disaster itself is sometimes described as a ‘failure of crowd control’. These words echo the conclusions of the 1990 Taylor enquiry into the tragedy, which recommended all-seater stadia for English football grounds.

The words ‘crowd control’ are worth considering for a moment. Whenever my own research and specialism is described as ‘crowd control’ (which is quite often), I try to explain that this is wrong in important ways. I teach a module on 'crowd safety management' to crowd safety and events professionals, and the classic statement of the issue we refer to when we discuss this topic is that by Fruin, who is perhaps worth quoting at length:

‘Although the terms crowd management and crowd control are often used interchangeably, there are important differences. Crowd management is defined as the systematic planning for, and supervision of, the orderly movement and assembly of people. Crowd control is the restriction or limitation of group behavior.’ (Fruin, 2002, p. 6).

Fruin goes on to say Inappropriate or poorly managed control procedures have precipitated crowd incidents rather than preventing them.

Or, the way I put it in my lecture: Approaching the crowd with a view to crowd control risks undermining crowd safety.'

Why? Part of the reason, I would argue, hinges on the dynamic relationship between crowd behaviour and the representations of crowds held by those responsible for crowd management (or crowd control). For crowds only need to be ‘controlled’ when someone thinks they represent a problem.

Broadly, there are two dominant types of representation of 'crowd problems' needing ‘control’. These can be found in both popular discourse and in academic accounts. The first suggests that, in crowds, there is a process of submergence, whereby individuals lose their sense of self and hence their intelligence and self control, becoming ‘swept up’ by any sentiment or behaviour spreading through the mass. The second representation, convergence, suggests that problematic crowds consist of problematic individuals – people who are already lacking in intelligence and self control – who in the crowd act as they do alone ‘only more so’, as Floyd Allport put it. These two accounts are often employed in loose combination in order to explain what is seen as irrational or mindless behaviour in crowds.

In my lecture on ‘crowd management versus crowd control’ on the crowd safety management module, one of our key examples is the Hillsborough tragedy. As the report published today reminds us, certain newspapers, most notably The Sun, claimed that the crushing of fans in the football stadium was due to ‘football hooliganism’. The journalists and the police said the crowd that day was inherently a problem because it represented the convergence of drunken individuals seeking gratuitous violence and ‘disorder’.

The cruel irony is that these fans that were vilified were the very people trying to save others, and in some cases risking their own lives to do so. As part of our ESRC-sponsored study of mass emergency behaviour, we interviewed some survivors of Hillsborough tragedy, who described a deeply harrowing scene yet also one of great humanity, as illustrated in the following extracts (taken from Drury, Cocking, & Reicher, 2009):

‘The behaviour of many people in that crowd and simply trying to help their fellow supporters was heroic in some cases. So I don’t think in my view there was any question that there was an organic sense of … unity of crowd behaviour. It was clearly the case, you know.. it was clearly the case that people were trying to get people who were seriously injured out of that crowd, it was seriously a case of trying to get people to hospital, get them to safety.. I just wish I’d been able to.. to prevail on a few more people not to.. put themselves in danger.’

‘It should be source of great pride to those people I think because you know, they were clearly in control of their own emotions and their own physical insecurity I mean a lot of people were very.. as I was you know.. you’re being pushed, you’re being crushed when you’re hot and bothered you’re beginning to fear for your own personal safety and yet they were I think controlling or tempering their emotions to help.. try and remedy the situation and help others who were clearly struggling’

 Picture courtesy of

However, it wasn’t simply after the event that the police explained the disaster as due to drunken ‘hooligans’. Crucially, this view of the crowd was at the forefront of all their planning and the responses they made during the tragedy. This has been shown both in published research and is clear from numerous statements in the Independent Report published today:

‘It is evident from the disclosed documents that SYP [South Yorkshire Police] were preoccupied with crowd management, segregation and regulation to prevent potential disorder ... The Fire Service, however, raised concerns about provision for emergency evacuation of the terraces’
(p. 11)

And again on page 12:

a policing and stewarding mindset predominantly concerned with crowd disorder ... the delay in realising that the crisis in the central pens was a consequence of overcrowding rather than crowd disorder.’

And again on page 15:

‘the ‘prevention of hooliganism’ and ‘public disorder’ was the main priority. The custom and practice that had evolved within SYP for packing the pens was concerned primarily with controlling the crowd.’

‘Crowd control’ meant treating fans like animals, neglecting their safety. As Fruin says, crowd control is the ‘restriction or limitation’ of crowd behaviour – and this is done when someone regards that crowd as a ‘problem’. Crowd control is achieved with means such as barriers or coercion, which risk injury and even fatalities in the crowd.

These days, the leading crowd event safety experts agree that many problems in crowd events – including some of the most well-known crowd disasters – are due to problems in crowd management. Examples would example the failure to plan for sufficient space for the size and flow speed of the crowd, and the failure to communicate adequately with the crowd.

This kind of analysis, which moves attribution for crowd disasters away from the supposedly inherent psychological problems of the crowd (whether of ‘convergence’ or ‘submergence’) to deficiencies in management and planning, is a positive development. It suggests that crowd disasters are not simply something that ‘just happens’ from time to time due to the inherently primitive psychology of the crowd; rather, crowd disasters are preventable through improvements in knowledge about, and hence to the practice of, crowd safety management. It is far too late for the Hillsborough tragedy, of course, but the increased scientific interest in the psychology of crowd safety management, in both research and academic contexts, is a vital contribution to the critique of ‘crowd control’ and hence to safer crowd events in the future.


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.

Fruin, J. J. (2002). The causes and prevention of crowd disasters. Originally presented at the First International Conference on Engineering for Crowd Safety, London, England, March 1993 (Revised exclusively for, January 2002.)