I was recently watching a couple of videos on the topic of ‘Obedience’ and ‘Conformity’ and I could see how wonderfully relevant those experiments and findings were in the context of policing in India.
In the current state of affairs, public ‘trust’ in governance systems is at an all time low. And consequently, obedience to the word of the uniformed policeman by members of the public, which was the norm earlier, has also reached its nadir. Clearly, the police leadership needs to rethink strategically on measures to bring in more trust into their functioning.
One area where the lack of trust is reflected in public perceptions is regarding the traditional methods of use of sheer force to tackle public disturbance situations. These methods are perceived as crude and rough and insensitive. And neither do they seem very successful in tackling mobs anymore, as seen from the visuals of many such situations, on mass media. Drawing from social psychology, and using that understanding to handle crowds could probably lead the police to a more sensitive and sensible way to handle mobs and riotous situations, among other things.
The videos I was watching pointed to two prominent reasons for why people behave without empathy- scientifically called ‘deindividuation’- Anonymity and Reduced Individual Responsibility in a large crowd. Clearly, these are also the important factors in a riotous mob and the tipping point for it to turn violent, These psychological insights are important enough for the police in India, to redesign the traditional riot control drills in which they are trained. Clearly, measures to enhance individual identification like effective videography of the situation or use of colour dye sprays to demarcate individual participation in riots could reduce the intensity of the situation and encourage a more responsible behavior by the members of the mob. A similar thinking on the formations of police i.e the size of groups of policemen assigned to tackle the situation, and also the allocation of more specific responsibility- geographically- to the group leaders of such police formations, could lead to a more effective response from the police and improve public perceptions. Similar methods of individual identification used on the crowd, like videography, could also be used on the police to make their actions accountable. Such measures are needed to be part of the police strategy and training. Presently, very few such measures are used occasionally, randomly and without proper training.