Crowd Control: Preventing a deadly human tsunami

It is critical to understand that anytime you are working an event where large groups of people are in attendance, there is a danger of a fatal crush


You have all heard about the terrorist attacks at Beslan and Mumbai, but have you heard about the 359 innocents who were killed at a water festival in Phnom Penh in 2010, or the 147 killed at the Chimunda Temple in Jodhpur, India in 2008? These latter incidents flew below law enforcement’s radar because the victims died from neither gun shots nor explosives. These victims suffered a horrible and preventable death by “compressive asphyxia,” after being trapped in an irresistible crush of humanity.

It is critical to understand that anytime you are working an event where large groups of people are in attendance, there is a danger of a fatal crush. The key to preventing their occurrence starts by understanding how they occur.

The deadly crush happens when a large crowd pushes with a sense of urgency into an inflexible barrier.

The Game Was Starting Without Us
One famous crush was caused by a number of factors, including most notably, an inflexible start time. At the Hillsborough disaster in England, the crowd at a championship soccer game was so large that thousands were still outside the stadium trying to get to their seats at game time. Officials disregarded this fact and chose to start the game on time.

The crowd rushing to get into the general seating, “pens,” pushed forward into an area too small to hold their numbers. Members of the crowd were swept forward and crushed against a barrier, which had recently been erected to “keep hooligans off the pitch.”

The death toll was 96 people — 766 were injured.

A First Crush, Impossible to Resist
While performing crowd management duties it is imperative that officers recognize the difference between a rush by a few and the crush of many. One is a disturbance, but the other is a death in motion. Once the crush starts it is difficult resist or to stop. People in the crowd become blind, deaf and dumb to what is happening a few feet from them. Officers working these events should position themselves to maintain an overall perspective of the crowd and still be able to respond effectively to problem areas. There are three dangerous practices occurring regularly which invite preventable disasters.

Over Booking — Overbooking regularly happens at political rallies, when organizers, who are targeting supporters and trying to insure large supportive crowds hand out many more tickets than the facility, where the event is being held, could possibly hold. This creates a situation where a passionate crowd of ticket holders may arrive at the entrance and find themselves barred from the event. Problems arising from this practice are foreseeable and preventable.

General Admission Seating — Any concert organizer using “general admission” for a popular group are asking “May I have problems, pretty please?” In 1979, concert organizers sold 18,000 general admission tickets to a crowd wanting to see the extremely popular group, “The Who.” After the two doors were opened to allow the 18,000 people in to vie for the best seats, there was an instant push. Eleven people died in the crush.

Door Busters — “Door Buster” sales events are becoming a real problem for police departments all over the nation. During some of these events the store advertises a great price on a limited supply of highly desirable products. The doors will be scheduled to open often at a ridiculous hour. Crowds gather early, some even camping out, while they drink and party. In 2008 in Valley Stream New York a Black Friday crowd of 2000, rushed the doors at a 5:00 AM opening and crushed a temporary Wal-Mart worker to death.

How Can A Crush Be Avoided?
The time to save lives is by managing the crowd in advance, before the crowd turns into a human tsunami. Here are some things that must be considered.

1.) Utilize snake line approaches for entry.
2.) For Black Friday style events, suggest to store owners that they issue numbers to those in the crowd before the opening.
3.) Discourage general admission for large venue events.
4.) Advise against overbooking events.
5.) Monitor the crowd for developing choke points.
6. Have in place alternatives for releasing pressure.
7.) If it appears the crowd will not be seated on time arrange for a delayed start and announce that information early enough to prevent the crush.
8.) Police officers should position themselves so as not to fall victim to a crush.
9.) Have the ability on scene to communicate a message to the crowd (“The start of the ----- will be delayed to allow all attendees to be seated.”)
10.) Have Fire Officials enforce fire code maximums.
11.) Make certain emergency exits are not barricaded, blocked or otherwise inaccessible.
12.) Do not be afraid to remove barricades and open many doors to relieve an impending crush.
13.) Use flexible breakwaters that channel the flow of the crowds, but do not become an inflexible barrier.
14.) Monitor, monitor, monitor any crowd you are working.

Most venues in the U.S. are designed to handle the ingress, seating, and egress of large crowds. They have become masters at efficiently moving crowds in an out such as Disney properties, the NFL and the NBA. There are those rank amateurs, however like the retail industry, who through marketing bring on the crowd, manufacture an urgency and even schedule the exact moment of the rush. An alert administrator, shift commander, or beat cop can often proactively take a look at the preparations make a few simple suggestions in advance and prevent a rush from turning into a deadly crush.

Your vigilance can help insure that in your community the word “crush” conjures up a sweet memory of youth rather than a night-mare of an irresistible human tidal wave of death.

About the author

Lt. Dan Marcou retired as a highly decorated police lieutenant and SWAT Commander with 33 years of full time law enforcement experience. He is a nationally recognized police trainer in many police disciplines and is a Master Trainer in the State of Wisconsin. He has authored three novels The Calling: The Making of a Veteran Cop , S.W.A.T. Blue Knights in Black Armor, and Nobody's Heroes are all available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. Visit his website and contact Dan Marcou

  1. Tags
  2. Officer Safety
  3. Patrol Issues
  4. Crowd Control

Recommended Mass Casualty Incidents

Join the discussion