Policing Crowds

J. J Baloch


In police, every situation is a new situation. It is truer in the case of policing crowds. Anecdotes do add value to a police officer, indeed.  Police as a profession attain soundness with developing the strong common sense in making decisions on the spot and with interacting with the public over and over. However, policing crowd has emerged as a full-fledged science of crowd management that needs to be learnt and mastered by the Pakistani cops who are over-obsessed with classical use of force or latest conduct of complete indifference towards the sense of their primary responsibility of maintaining public order.

The need to control crowds birthed the police organisation in the first quarter of 19th century AD in the West. The police force as we understand it today was invented in England and America within the space between the decades falling “roughly from 1825 to 1855”. The same model reached British India in 1861 after 1857 countrywide riots against the colonial regime. The authentic sources of police history confirm that ruling elite created police not for controlling or cutting crime but to control stormy immigrants and frenzied industrial labour riots both in London and New York.  David Whitehouse, a British scholar, says: “The new institution was not a response to an increase in crime, and it really didn’t lead to new methods for dealing with crime. The most common way for authorities to solve a crime, before and since the invention of police, has been for someone to tell them who did it.” Thus, the police are originally born to serve the regimes, not the public and this is where the modern community police draw the difference line and get redefined.

Unlawful assemblies a term used in law are synonymous with unruly and violent crowds that tend to take the law into their hands by challenging, defying, and undermining the writ of the government as well as of the state. Crowds in the streets, roads, crossings and anywhere gather on some agenda and long lists of demands with the regimes in power. Sometimes they just show force to check the pulse of the government without any demands to negotiate. Pakistan has witnessed the bloodiest crowd shows many times in its history but unfortunately, the system of crowd control is yet to grow in shapes.


Pakistan has a long history of violent crowds. However, we will refer to examples from recent history. In recent past the countrywide riots followed Benazir Bhutto murder, street clashes between MQM militia and the lawyers on notorious 12 May 2007, Pakistan Tehrik Insaf Islamabad crowds, Mumtaz Qadri hanging reactions, Hazara community reactions against terrorist activities in Quetta and many similar situations brought home the alarming fact that our police forces who were responsible for managing the crowds within the limits of non-violence acted like amateurs and in utter confusion. Indecision followed by lack of clarity and acumen to deal with both the crime and its public reactions at all occasions proved their incapacity, resulting in the vandalism and violence so inflicted by unruly crowds.

Serious confusion also existed regarding the political decision making. Many think that it is right of every citizen to fight for his or her rights and to raise the real issues facing the society. It is called the democratic rights of the citizenry who feel that something wrong is being done to them or for that matter to the people of Pakistan who they claim to represent. Sometimes the people leading the crowds defend their vandalism on the grounds of the unavailability of some basic facilities such as water, electricity, sewerage, education, health, and so on and so off. likewise, some refer to rise in street crimes in their localities while others stand for the protection of fundamental rights of life, liberty, property, honour, privacy and also livelihood.

Whatsoever is the reason but the violent methods the protestors employ to try solving their chronic problems do not justify them for sabotage nor does it give the police a licence to use coercion and brute force against them until they do not cross the line of tranquillity by crossing the limits of professionalism and humanity.

Crowds go riskier by violating laws, by infuriating the government, and by exposing the innocent people to vandalism, to terrorist attacks, and to the abuses and coercion of the police. Brutal expressions of the crowd very often result in hurting cops as it happened in PTI dharnas in Islamabad last year, in terrorists attacking and killing cops as well as the public indiscriminately as it happened in Charing Cross Lahore this February, and in killing of the people by the criminals as it took place on 12th May 2007 in Karachi. Crowds offer the opportunity to may anti-state elements to play hell with the public sentiments as well as the government in power on the one hand and make public life paralysed for their petty interests on the other. Therefore, crowds play in the plate of anarchy in the name of democracy.

Policing Crowds need rethinking on how to deal with them with minimum loss. We need to identify the methods to this madness with which we as a nation are always carried away like anything. Mostly our countrymen believe that going crowdier make them powerful, assertive and a real player on the scene to get their work done. But they do it at the peril of everything theirs. Therefore they need some solution. Some calculated and well-weighed steps need to be kept in mind while handling the crowd situations.

First and the foremost is the fact that riots are “inherently unpredictable”. As a result, it is quite likely that certain things are bound to go wrong without anyone’s surprise. Neither the rioters are much planned except the miscreants in them nor yet do police get well prepared well in advance for such coincidental happenings. Therefore, the best lesson is better preparedness, modern training, the establishment of exclusive mob control division in police departments and seeking less violent enforcement models that are used in democracies worldwide.


Secondly, while dealing with the crowds appropriate choice of words should be made. Many police professionals who have long experience of managing crowd situations are of the view that the “poor choice of words” is sure to invite disaster and to arouse the negativity, hatred, anger, and violence among already disgruntled masses who take police force present on the spot as the agents of devil to play foul with them on the behalf of ruling elite. No word on the part of police officer present on the spot or not present there but issuing statements to media should give any credibility to the rioters’ violent behaviour. Police should refrain from uttering words, “we understand your anger” etc. Such statements and verbosity can add justification to the deviant behaviour of rioters and allow them to go tacitly with their nasty plans of vandalism. The words, “we hear you”, “we listen to you”, and “we are here” can be enough. Less wordy, composed, articulate, and silent cop with very decisive and meticulous diction can run the least risk of ridiculing the mob and hence can manage it well.

Thirdly, it is practice worldwide to nominate the officials for constructively engaging the mobs. In Pakistan, this does happen by default. Whosoever in government hierarchy fits well to engage crowds after looking at the nature and brand of the crowd, the officials prefer point scoring rather than any genuine interest to diffuse the tension. This is good for political expediency and administrative pragmatism but it speaks volumes of the ill-organised system of governance without any focus and leadership to take up such a matter of high public importance with required seriousness. In such state of disorder, the government must appoint a focal person from within or outside the police department as per the nature of the crowd to talk to the mob about resolving the issue facing them. Promise for service rather than a threat for consequences could work well in such circumstances.

Fourthly, in precarious circumstances where everything is unpredictable engagements must be made exclusively with leaders of the crowd at a safe place near mob location so that any targeted attack or likely situation may be avoided. Crowds without appropriate leaders lacking the focus of agitation should not be dealt on higher levels but police station level should take up with them. However, tactics like intelligence raising, increasing spy monitoring inside the crowd, enhancing Camera scrutiny through CCTV and other camouflage methods to find out where the shoe pinches will do better in such vague mob affairs.

Fifthly, good cops deal peaceful protests with caution and care. Such seasoned police officers develop ability to differentiate between the miscreants, who penetrate into peaceful demonstrators to make the most of the peaceful nature of the crowd to generate the violence without being identified in such a grand gatherings, and the peaceful protestors who pose as responsible law abiding citizens entitled constitutionally to express themselves without violating any law, causing any damage to public property, and without encroaching upon the freedoms of their fellow citizens.

Sixthly, One of the good police responses to mob situations is to find “Guy Fawkes signal”. Guy Fawkes is a typical term adopted by Florida (USA) police services to signify a character which joins crowd secretly with masked identity to cultivate violence. Such person does join all crowd occasions with intent to sabotage. This Guy Fawkes is very similar to the character who facilitated a bomber at Charing Cross and had he been identified before he got to the target, the things would not have been the way as it happened to be. The American police officer named Lt. Dan Marco defines such character in these words: “In 1605, Guy Fawkes was a British Rebel who was one of the leaders of the “Gun Powder Plot” in Great Britain. He was brutally executed for his part in the unrealized rebellion and he has become the spirit of many anti-“fill-in-the-blank” movements internationally. He arrives in the vestige of the “Vendetta”-masked individual, and his presence usually indicates the crowd is at least sprinkled with sympathisers of the prone-to-violence anarchist movement.”

Seventhly, Together with all sophistication in crowd management, the police officers on the spot must behave without losing their balances and without breaking their nerves. It is one of the time-tested classic crowd handling tactics to behave as true professional by getting eggs, bottles, and rocks on themselves with the smile. But equally important is to be extremely cautious for staying defensive as well as defended. At such precarious occasions, the police should use force proportionate to crowd violence. Soft weapons like non-life-taking weapons as tear gas, hot water with pressure, rubber bullets pepper spray and other similar things that neither take life nor paralyse people should be preferred.

Eighthly, Police services in Pakistan must adopt a field force model for dealing with unlawful crowds on international standards like the one that operates in Miami USA.  Going for the ‘Miami Field Force’ concept would equip our forces with exclusivity and capability to deal with rioters by offering police department an independent, resourceful, well-trained, responsive force unit in every metropolis and the mega city of Pakistan in all its provinces. Such “Field Forces are self-contained, highly mobile teams capable of responding quickly to hot spots such as arsonists, looters, and shooters. Each unit should have its own commander, chemical munitions and tactical capabilities. These units should train together and have an established movement, parking and deployment protocol. They can be dispatched as a team to address trouble spots.”

Lastly, nothing creates the public disturbance the way a petty rumour can! While dealing with crowd situations, the police should take care of addressing media rumours well in advance or at least well in time by presenting the true picture of the issue in point. In Pakistan, it has been noticed that some people go missing and blame game against police as a primary law enforcement agency starts. Many good and bad elements join and also poke into the matter by creating mysteries and surprises of their own making, putting police in a vulnerable condition by calling violent mob scenarios for the recovery of so-called missing persons. Sometimes they make the news of missing persons as “tortured and killed” or “dead body found and is identified as Mr X who went missing a few days back” on social media. Such type of news lacks authenticity and verification and requires further inquiry to nip it in the bud. “Rumour control is absolutely necessary when facing potential civil disturbances. The ball was not dropped here — it was never even picked up in order for it to be dropped.”

In the wake of above proposals, the Police departments in Pakistan must notify their field forces and crowd management divisions while the government should evolve and issue proper standard operating procedures and an elaborate mechanism of crowd engagement and control for minimising the public disturbance levels and the government losses.


Author: PublicPolicyInsights

With MSc Criminal Justice Policy from London School of Economics, London, UK, J. J Baloch has 20 years of work experience. He has worked in National Bank of Pakistan as officer grade 2 from 1995 to 2000. From 2000 till date He is working at Police Service of Pakistan. As an author he has published three books: Introduction to sociology, 2000; On the Art of Writing Essays, 2016; and The Power of Social Media & Policing Challenges, 2016. On 17 March 2017 J.J. Baloch is launching his first novel: "Whiter Than White: The Daughter of The Land of Pure" which is being published by Matador publication from the UK. Besides this, he regularly blogs on Google, Facebook. He also writes articles in English newspaper Dawn and also in some other magazines.

4 thoughts on “Policing Crowds”

  1. Excellent Analysis. Completely Agree that Standarization of Operating Procedures and Equiping Force with the capability to Reinforce those Procedures is the way forward and Solution..!


  2. Excellent Analysis. Completely Agree that Standarization of Operating Procedures and Equping Force with the capability to Reinforce these Procedures are Way forward and Solution.


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