A Matter of Magnitude
Dennis Beene, a Region 6 law enforcement coordinator with California's Office of Emergency Services, notes that much of what happens during a riot is very similar to what is routinely handled by law enforcement personnel, just at a monolithic scale.
"Traffic control, crowd control, evacuations, we do these things routinely in response to fires, floods, and other phenomena. But with looters we have an added dynamic of a moving problem," Beene says.
Sid Heal characterizes the fluid dynamics of combating looting as plowing water. "You succeed in pushing something aside, only to see it flooding back behind you in the rearview mirror," he explains.
Everything at Once
Cops faced with looters can be as busy as the proverbial one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest. However, they have to persevere or things will just get worse.
"There can be some arguable priority to your concerns," Odenthal acknowledges. "But ideally, you need to do certain things simultaneously. First, establish a containment while sizing up the problem. Determine what exactly the nature of the problem is, as well as the size of the affected area. What is the number of people involved? Or that stand to be involved?"
The next priority and one of the most crucial is to call for help if you need it. Agencies facing widespread looting have to be willing to swallow a little bit of their pride and ask for help.
Beene, a law enforcement veteran whose career includes first-hand experience with multiple riots, says that it's frustrating that more agencies don't have established protocols in place to take advantage of available interagency assistance.
"Unfortunately, many agencies still don't have mutual aid agreements," Beene says. "Even Oklahoma doesn't have one, despite the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Some jurisdictions have a 'y'all come' mentality, leaving things to improvised coordination. You need to have clear-cut missions and people designated to carry them out."
Even when law enforcement brethren from other agencies rolled from considerable distances at great personal risk to assist in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many were effectively told to stand down. The lack of planning and coordination for mutual aid meant that desperately needed law enforcement resources could not be deployed.
Murphy Reigns Supreme
Effective looting response can include the implementation of curfews, executing mass arrests or displacing subjects to other sectors, and making key targets much less attractive to looters.
Beene offers an example of how the allocation of police resources and implementation of policies can change very rapidly during a looting incident.
"The city of Hawthorne, Calif., had a brand new strip mall opened just prior to the Rodney King riots kicking off," Beene says. "Initially, there was consideration given to letting suspects steal, so long as they did not destroy the architecture. But that posture was quickly reevaluated. Instead, the decision was made to make it as difficult as possible for people to even come close to the mall. Effectively, it was locked down.
"A similar decision was made regarding the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City," Beene says. "Some 50 officers from seven different police departments were deployed on site. Some were given rooftop assignments, others foot beats, while still others patrolled around the mall in their patrol cars. Basically, their mission was to baby-sit the location. It wasn't a romantic one, but unlike many other locations, the mall was spared."
Beene says venues that generate a lot of revenue are among the most likely candidates for hard targets. But he adds, "The most coveted and dangerous targets are gun stores. Not only do you then have the immediate problem of looting, but long-term collateral concerns of what the suspect will be using those guns for thereafter," he explains. "If you're looking over your shoulder for armed cadres of looters, you're compromising your ability to bring things under control as quickly and as effectively as possible."