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The Police in Ferguson Could Learn a Lot From Europe's Handling of Soccer Hooligans

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 1985, the European Cup soccer final descended into chaos. At Belgium’s Heysel Stadium, supporters of England’s Liverpool team broke through a barrier separating them from supporters of their Italian opponents, Juventus. The Italian fans fled, some of them climbing up a stadium wall that then collapsed, killing thirty-nine and injuring hundreds. Subsequent investigations primarily blamed the English hooligans, but also faulted the local Belgian police force for exacerbating the violence. In the years since, researchers have studied violent soccer matchers and pinpointed how aggressive police behavior worsens crowd violence—a lesson the police in Ferguson, Missouri, where there have been riots and peaceful protests since the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, would do well to learn.

This growing body of research focuses on the difference between how police and peaceful fans perceive a rowdy crowd. Police tend to see a crowd with a handful of hooligans as a uniform body inherently prone to violence, while ordinary fans near these hooligans at first see themselves as entirely distinct. But because the police are the ones with batons and armor, they end up imposing their perception onto the crowd—quite literally, by advancing on the crowd, hooligans and peaceful fans alike. The crowd then unifies around their shared victimhood, turning some peaceful fans violent. The police’s perception of a crowd as violent mob becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recognition of this dynamic led senior officers in Portugal’s police force to implement a distinctly low-profile form of policing at the 2004 European Championship. There, matches had fewer policeman overall, and virtually no police visible in riot gear. The police also worked closely with a team of researchers so that their methods could be studied both quantitatively and accurately. After Euro 2004 proved peaceful, with far fewer arrests and violence than both earlier and later championships, the team of researchers published a comprehensive analysis of police tactics and their effects. The 2008 study in Psychology, Public Policy and Law combines quantitative data with questionnaire information collected directly from English soccer fans, and the paper’s conclusion forcefully advocates low-profile policing as a means of curtailing crowd violence.

That conclusion is a historical novelty. Governments have traditionally relied on strong shows of overwhelming force to cow protestors and overpower rioters. In 1714, the British Parliament determined that existing police powers were “not adequate” for controlling civil unrest. So Parliament passed the Riot Act authorizing local officials anywhere in the British Empire to simply read a proclamation demanding a crowd’s dispersal (hence the expression “to read the Riot Act”), and when disregarded, follow up with a brutal application of force. If any of the assembled persons happened “to be killed, maimed or hurt, in the dispersing, seizing or apprehending,” local police would be automatically exonerated. Of course, the 1770 use of the Riot Act didn’t quite quell revolutionary protests in colonial Boston.

One can hardly blame police officers for desiring protective armor, powerful weaponry, and the company of hundreds of colleagues when confronting violence. Unlike soldiers, police aren’t primarily trained for, or expecting, scenarios of mass violence. It seems unfair to send officers out to stop looting and rock-throwing with plainclothes and dialogue, even when these acts of violence occur on the margins of much larger peaceful protests. But even as we safeguard police safety, we also need to ensure police effectiveness. Containing violence is a main reason we have police. And the lesson of European soccer hooliganism is that sometimes less force is much more effective.