Fundamentals of Crowd Management

By Rich

I have joked over the years that I’m more qualified to run security at a stadium concert than an IT shop, and it’s somewhat true. My security career started way back at the young age of 18 when I started working on the event staff at CU Boulder, and for Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC), who managed most of the Denver venues. By 21 I was running security at CU and supervising for CSC – managing or supervising sports, music, and other events ranging from under 100 people to over 100,000. Sometimes I was in charge, sometimes I just managed one area, and I was often a rover/troubleshooter.

I did this multiple times a week for about 4-5 years (including working summers at Red Rocks), then dropped down to occasional contract work for bigger events after that. Including some with extreme logistical complexity, high risk profiles, or other complicating factors. (Like the time my employees called to ask why the bomb squad was walking around and Secret Service snipers were in the rafters).

I was also fortunate the the people I worked with were true professionals. Crowd management is an industry filled with low-bid/minimum-wage contract firms with very poor work ethics and management. CSC are the guys who run the Super Bowl and most other ‘massive’ events, and I learned a hell of a lot from them and running my own teams.

I have been watching a lot of the coverage of the Occupy movement and the police response and see a series of common, preventable mistakes being made over and over. Rather than specifically criticizing YouTube clips without context, here are some of the fundamental principles I learned over the years with comments on mistakes I see.

  • Deescalate. Always. – The single most important fundamental is that crowd management is all about deescalation. You’ll never outnumber the crowd… and the more tension rises, the greater the chance of physical conflict or transitioning to a riot. There are always more of them than of you.

  • Peer security is more effective than policing – Peer security the principle of staffing the event with demographic peers of the attendees. Police are law enforcement officers, and so they naturally and unavoidably escalate any situation they are at, by the role they play in society and the weapons they carry. Unarmed peers of the crowd have much greater flexibility in response – they are not required to arrest or enforce all laws, they are not perceived as the same kind of threat, they do not carry weapons, and they do not have arrest authority.

  • Weapons are not your friend in a crowd – Crowds are messy, fluid affairs that make it impossible to maintain a safe stand-off distance. I have never met an intelligent police officer who went into a crowd without more than a little fear that someone would try to grab their OC spray, handgun, or other tools. Where I worked, peer security would go into crowds and pull people out for the police – who would almost never enter the crowd itself.

  • Know your crowd – You can fully predict the behavior of a crowd if you know the demographic and environmental conditions. I know how everything from the weather, to ages, to kinds of music affect a crowd… and it isn’t what you’d think. For example, serious injuries (and deaths) were far more common at Grateful Dead and Blues Travelers shows than metal bands with mosh pits.

  • Slow and steady wins the race – When dealing with an uncooperative but nonviolent crowd, you have to eat at it bit by bit. From dispersing a crowd to ejecting a big group, you have to handle it piece by piece and person by person – even when force is used. That goes for removing tents (yes, I have had to do that at ‘campout’ events) and clearing the aisles at a Dead show so people could move around.

  • The more authority you have, the less you should look like security – This was one of my favorite tricks – when I ran events I rarely wore an event staff shirt. As the last person able to deescalate most conflicts before turning someone over to the police, the more I looked like a normal person or non-security staff the better. If they think you’re with the band/team, even better.

  • Defense in depth – Crowd management is like IT security – you need multiple people with different specialties, properly trained and positioned. For example, I hated going into a mosh pit without a spotter. At a large stadium show I might have 500 people working for me. We’d have rovers, ticket takers, people inside and outside, folks dedicated to ejections, supplementing medical (to help them through the crowd), and more.

  • When you need to use force, don’t hesitate, but don’t hit – I have no problem using force when it is needed (and we frequently had to, especially to break up fights). In a crowd your goal is to get the person out of the crowd as fast as possible. You never punch or kick… that is excessive use of force (the exception is when you are in serious danger yourself). Your goal is to solve the problem without anyone getting hurt. Deescalation, remember?

  • Spontaneous crowds aren’t riots – I sometimes dealt with spontaneous crowds appearing where we didn’t expect them, which weren’t tied to a normal event. Usually these were campouts, but I was also called into a few protests and such when the police wanted trusted people in the crowd but not uniformed officers. All normal crowd dynamics still apply.

  • Riots are for the police – Crowds need peer security. Riots need cops and all the OC spray you can get your hands on. A riot is an uncontrolled situation where mob behavior takes over and there is serious damage to life/safety and property. I was at a Guns ‘n’ Roses show we thought might turn into a riot when that ass-hat Axl Rose slipped out of the stadium for some idiotic reason. Our instructions were to pull all our staff backstage (a few hundred people), lock it down, and let the police deal with it. Fortunately the concert promoter called the limo driver, recovered Mr. Rose, and had our biggest damn bouncers kindly escort him back to the stage – and the problem was solved.

The biggest issue I see with much of this OWS response is massive unnecessary escalation. Even if you feel the need to remove a camp, you can do so with far lower levels of violence and hostility – even if you are the police. We can clearly see people managing these situations without the proper experience or training, massively arming themselves, and forcing a hostile dynamic.

No Related Posts

Ah, memories (from the other side of the pond though).  Glad you posed this Rich - great insights/advice.

And I’d like to second that Mr Rose is a total asshat.  Worst shows I had to work on.

Strange thing with certain band audiences. Worked on New Model Army once, and their fans are *huge* guys - sure I was going to get killed if I hit the mosh pit - But they were the nicest people.

By MikeA

Great post. The obvious caveat is that your crowd management experiences seem to be related to events that were not politically motivated in which almost everyone had their incentives aligned against escalation of trouble and there were few or no externalities.
The events surrounding the Occupy * movement do not necessarily fit that profile. In these cases parties on either side may be interested in escalating trouble. The amplification impact of the media coverage may even foster those interests.
You see a series of common, preventable mistakes being made over and over but if you see the same things happen many times at multiple events worldwide, ie. a repeating pattern. Are those just mistakes or the general standard for dealing with dissenting protest transmitted in police training?

By ivan

  I think we had a total of 168 police officers show up for that call.  All hell broke loose, and Axl did nothing but inflame the crowd.  The hospitals were busy for 2 days after that, and the St. Louis County court system had a few extra cases to work through.  I was fortunate that I was in the back stage area when things went south.  Some of my co-workers weren’t so lucky.
Interestingly enough, the Buffet shows were my favorite back then.  Everyone was too busy singing along and drunk to cause any issues.  I must have worked 4 of his shows, and can’t remember one fight. 
  Surprisingly, I found Metallica to also be a reasonable show.  A couple people would inevitably get thrown out for drugs, but for the most part the crowd was pretty well behaved.
  Those were good days.  Saw a lot of shows that I normally wouldn’t have gone to, met a lot of interesting people, and saw some strange sights.

By Mike


A lot of it was drugs, and a weird kind of selfishness with the Dead-style crowds.

At Blues Traveller we had a death due to someone climbing up Red Rocks and falling off; landing on their head. Drugs were involved. One of the Dead shows I worked (I did a bunch, the band liked me and a couple other guys from CU and would bring us in) we had someone twirling on the second level, fall over the ledge, land on someone else and seriously injure them.

There was another injury due to some guy plowing through the crowd and destroying some woman’s knee… I almost got deposed for that one (as a witness).

Mosh pits are insane, but there is a set of informal rules that most people follow. If someone falls, the rest will try and pick them up and push them to the edge. People on the edge will push moshers back in if they bounce out, unless they clearly want out.

One thing I used to do when I was supervising (not running) shows was cover the pits (despite my small size). I’d have a spotter in the rafters with a radio who would guide me to the ones that needed watching. I’d bring one person with me and have them hang back in the crowd while I stood at the edge. If someone got too violent (it happens… throwing elbows and fists and such) I’d try to talk to them. If they didn’t comply after a few times we’d pull them out to talk outside that area. If they kept going we’d eject them.

Some of this likely has changed. In the late 80’s/early 90’s it was Jimmy Buffett shows with the most fights due to all the coked out lawyers. I go to a don of Buffett shows now and have never seen a problem.

By Rich


That riot happened before the Denver show and was why we were expecting it. Actually, I think there were 2 riots due to Asshat Rose leaving during the show on that tour. Which sucks, because Metallica played a great set.

We did have a big group go nuts during Metallica and start throwing chairs around, but we just sent people in, pulled them out one by one, and got it all settled.

The deeper part of the story is that Barry Fey (the promoter) called the limo driver on the car phone. He said, “turn around right now. Don’t stop at any lights, and don’t go less than 25 miles an hour. If he jumps out of the car you’ll never work in this town again.”

Then, when the limo showed up, Axle was escorted to the stage by a bunch of our biggest guys. Fey grabbed a .357 and sat on the hood of the limo and said he’d shoot the tires out if Axle made it that far.

The cops fully supported that approach.

By Rich

  Ah yes, I was working concert security at the GnR concert in St. Louis that devolved into a riot back in 1991. I knew we were in trouble when the boss got on the walkie talkie and told us to remove our “security” shirts, and let the police handle it.  “Ass-hat” is one of many descriptors I have for Axl. :)

By Mike

“For example, serious injuries (and deaths) were far more common at Grateful Dead and Blues Travelers shows than metal bands with mosh pits.”

This is interesting. Would you care to elaborate Rich on why this might be?

By Somebloke

Rich, I’m glad to see you post about this, because based on previous posts, I knew you know this stuff and I value your insight. I agree, it’s all about deescalation, and that’s one thing I don’t think LEOs are trained to do. They escalate until they win, which in the end means you’re handcuffed, put into a car, arrested. They’re tigers, not arbitrators.

By LonerVamp

If you like to leave comments, and aren’t a spammer, register for the site and email us at and we’ll turn off moderation for your account.