“Panic and confusion erupted in Central Park on Saturday night (the 29th September 2018), after a loud noise frightened concertgoers at the Global Citizen Festival, with some people erroneously attributing the sound to gunshots. Witnesses described a near-stampede in some places, as people sprinted for cover, jumped fences and trampled one another. Some were in tears and called their loved ones, and others said they had lost items or gotten separated from their friends, according to social medial. But the police quickly refuted reports of a shooting, saying at first that the noise was from a fallen barrier, not gunshots” (Sarah Mervosh, 2018).
Such incident echoes a similar incident which occurred on the 3rd June 2017 in Turin’s central Piazza San Carlo, during a screening of the UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus and Real Madrid. As a result, one woman died and at least 1,526 people were injured. It is believed that suspects caused the panic in San Carlo square by shooting pepper spray into the crowd while trying to commit a robbery (The Local, 2018). Media reports stated that “…someone shouting that a bomb had gone off may have fueled the panic” (BBC News, 2017).
In recent years, there has been continued interest by offenders in targeting crowded places events both in the USA and in Europe. This interest has been linked also, but not only, to the propaganda initiated by the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) from 2014 to attack such gatherings of people (Stephen Loiaconi, 2016). In addition, recent mass-shooting incidents during festivals and events have attracted much attention, such as the 1st October 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival (Las Vegas) incident, the deadliest committed by an individual in the United States (Doug Criss, 2017), and the 12th June 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting (Ralph Ellis et Al., 2016).
The motivations that make events, known as “soft targets” (Emilio Palmieri, 2016), desirable targets by self-radicalized, home grown violent extremists and issue-motivated or fixated individuals (lone actors) consists in the fact that these targets present opportunities for mass-casualties, serious injuries and instantaneous, global media coverage.
The fact that some events have been targeted successfully with method operandi (MO) aimed at maximizing casualties and panic, such as the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), firearms and vehicle ramming has indirectly resulted in a heightened awareness and general apprehension by event-goers in general for their personal safety at places of mass gathering, particularly outdoor events. In the US, this heightened awareness is also influenced by the “run, hide, fight” training initiated through the US Department of Homeland Security (US DHS).
In today’s uncertain world, the general public-perceived risk of terrorist events is likely to have heightened the perception of danger from events ‘attendees. The acknowledge, by the public, that such MOs require relatively little operational planning from the part of the offenders and the impossibility of having a risk-free event, void of all possible safety and security hazards associated with the gathering of a high number of people in a confined space, could increase this fear of violent attacks.
In such context, how to deal effectively with the risk of possible stampedes at public events?
A recent study on crowd control and public safety, authored by Peter Ashwin of Event Risk Management Solutions (ERMS) and Kat Steinberg (Movement Strategies, London) for the Beale Street Taskforce (City of Memphis), provides several insights into risk mitigation strategies to reduce the likelihood and consequences of stampedes at events.
Following a number of stampedes on the city’s main downtown entertainment district, named Beale Street, in the past years (19 recorded incidents between 2013-2017), ERMS was commissioned to “…conduct a crowd control study for Beale Street to focus on objective ‘measurable’ benchmarks for managing public safety generally as well as to investigate the relationship between anti-social behavior and crowd safety within the Beale Street Historic District. [This study] …offers new suggested measures to control crowds, prevent stampedes and improve safety and security…” (Peter Ashwin, 2018).
Beale Street faced similar public safety challenges to other like-entertainment districts as identified by Blair’s study on policing tactics across 40 entertainment districts across the US. These challenges included overcrowding, over-servicing of alcohol, transients and panhandlers, traffic congestion and cruising, and police resourcing challenges (Blair, 2000).
The analysis includes a comprehensive risk assessment of the district, including the specific risk of stampedes, known technically as “crown surge/rush”, defined as the anxiety induced movement triggered by an event in the crowd including deliberate anti-social behavior. The report lists that the main apparent cause of such stampedes appeared to be incidents within the crowd, both by accidents and intentional actions, which triggered a flight reaction. The root cause of such reaction by the attendees is thought to be a general fear and anxiety of becoming possible a victim of violent crime (such as mass shooting) through being an innocent bystander. These stampedes are “…typically short in duration, driven by anxiety and uncertainty, and instinctive behavioral response to preserve one’s own safety (flight) to run when others are running” (Peter Ashwin, 2018).
Similarly to what happened in Central Park, where a noise resembling a gunshot triggered a stampede, Memphis’ Beale Street recorded one of the largest recorded stampedes on the 29th May 2016, after a bike barrier fell over the vicinity of Club 152. The noise of the crash was mistaken for a gunshot and triggered a large scale, uncontrolled crowd surge with visitors running in all directions (Ibid). The similarities of the three mentioned incidents are startling: Bystanders, amid the fear of a possible violent attack during an event, would run away in expectation of a threatening situation having the potential to escalate and affecting their own safety.
The Report states that the stampede’s risk is basically composed of two separate components, part of a single continuum stemming from a flight from a perceived “trouble” to a major public safety incident:
- Crowd Surge/Rush – anxiety induced movement triggered by an event in the crowd including deliberate anti-social behavior; and
- Progressive Crowd Collapse – domino effect, people falling over due to high crowd density and movement, triggered by trip or fall during the crowd surge (Ibid)
Against stampedes during events, it is acknowledged that there is “no one solution” (Ibid). Instead, a risk assessment process should be implemented to define the most relevant recommendations to reduce the possibilities and the consequences of such occurrences. In this regard, the ERMS Report provides insights into recommended best practices on risk control measures to reduce the likelihood of the risk and in the event of a crowd rush incident, to reduce the severity of the potential consequences. From a prevention point of view, the perception of event-goers about their safety may play an important aspect in reducing the reactive individual behavior observed during stampedes.
Environmental criminology research indicates that crowded environments create opportunities for illegal behaviors which are more rewarding and create the opportunity for crime that would not occur without crowds (Tamara D. Madanes et Al., 2011). Part of the risk mitigation strategy should therefore focus on the deterrence of anti-social behavior by potential offenders through increasing their level of perceived risk (policing tactics).
From a mitigation point of view, to lower the consequences of a crowd surge/rush, venue design measures could be implemented, such as the removal of obstacle and bottle-necks in crowd’s movements, which could give rise to slips, trips and falls and, in the worst case, trampling or crowd collapses in an event space. Also, event staff and law enforcement personnel should be highly visible to ensure they can be easily seen when giving instructions in crowed areas. Signage should be well visible, indicating emergency exits and general wayfinding within the event location. Enhanced security and crowd management training should ensure staff is aware of directing spectators safely during an evacuation (Peter Ashwin, 2018).
In the foreseeable future, the attractiveness of crowded spaces (events and festivals) where large numbers of people gather on a predictable basis will continue to be attractive and viable targets for acts of violence, whether by ISIS inspired attacks by self-radicalized individuals or directed terrorist attacks supported by a terrorist organization or by issue-motivated or fixated individuals (lone actors), remains relevant, considering the possible high number of casualties and the intense media coverage of such acts.
In this context, the challenges law enforcement agencies, private security companies and event organizes face are complex, from preventing such incidents from occurring to dealing effectively with them once triggered, limiting the possible consequences. Certainly, investing in pre-operational planning is needed to prevent first and then mitigate such occurrences (Francesco Semprini, 2018).
To conclude, if the perception of visitors with regards to their safety is paramount for the possible likelihood for a stampede to occur, this can only be tackled through a holistic safety and security plan aimed at providing a safe environment perceived as such by the events’ attendees. Moving forward, further research on event-goers, through qualitative research methods such as surveys, could shed some lights on the correlation between the feeling and perception of safety and security and possible reactive behavior at events such as stampedes.
Peter Ashwin, Beale Street Crowd Control Study Final Report, Event Risk Management Solutions (ERMS), 8th August 2018.
Elisabeth Aubrey (2018), “Barrier collapse at Global Citizen Festival leads to mass panic and injuries amid stampede”, Sep. 30, 2018. Link: https://www.nme.com/news/music/barrier-collapse-global-citizen-festival-leads-mass-panic-multiple-injuries-2384905. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
BBC News (2017), “Turin stampede: ‘1,500 injured’ at Juventus screening“, 4 June 2017. Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40147813. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
Brian J. Berkley and John R Thayer (2000), “Policing Entertainment Districts”. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol 23 Issue.
CBS News (2018), “Chaos, stampede at Central Park concert after false alarm of gunshots”, September 29, 2018. Link: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/global-citizens-festival-central-park-stampede-chaos-today-2018-09-29/. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
Doug Criss (2017), “The Las Vegas attack is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history”, 2nd October 2017, CNN. Link: https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/02/us/las-vegas-attack-deadliest-us-mass-shooting-trnd/index.html. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
Ralph Ellis et Al. (2016), “Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance”, 13th June 2016, CNN. Link: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/index.html. Accessed on the 5th Oct 2018.
The Local (2018), “Eight arrested for sparking deadly Turin football stampede”, 13 April 2018. Link: https://www.thelocal.it/20180413/eight-arrested-turin-football-stampede-piazza-san-carlo. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
Stephen Loiaconi (2016), “After Christmas market attack, experts urge alertness, not fear”, 20th December 2016, WJLA. Link: https://wjla.com/news/nation-world/after-christmas-market-attack-experts-urge-alertness-not-fear. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
Sarah Mervosh (2018), “Panic in Central Park Caused by ‘Popping’ Drink Bottle, Not Fallen Barrier or Gunshots”, Sept. 29, 2018. The New York Times. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/nyregion/central-park-panic-global-citizen-festival.html. Accessed on the 5th Oct 2018.
Tamara D. Madensen and John E. Eck (2011), “Crowd-Related Crime: An Environmental Criminological Perspective.” In Tamara D. Madensen and Johannes Knutsson eds., Preventing Crowd Violence. Crime Prevention Studies, vol. 29. Pp. 115-138. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Emilio Palmieri (2016), “Attacking public spaces: an emerging operational targeting pattern against the “softest” amongst the “soft-targets”?”, 8th January 2016, ITSTIME. Link: https://www.itstime.it/w/attacking-public-spaces-an-emerging-operational-targeting-pattern-against-the-softest-amongst-the-soft-targets-by-emilio-palmieri/. Accessed on the 6th Oct 2018.
Francesco Semprini, Folla impazzita a Central Park: così la polizia evita il disastro, 1st October 2018, La Stampa. Link: https://www.lastampa.it/2018/10/01/esteri/folla-impazzita-a-central-park-cos-la-polizia-evita-il-disastro-QydbTVPVr2hgEDcOUV6DmM/pagina.html. Accessed on the 7th Oct 2018.
US DHS, “Active Shooter – Pocket Card Information”. Link: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/active_shooter_pocket_card_508.pdf. Accessed on the 10th Oct 2018.
Peter Ashwin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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