Looting in Progress
Should looting break out, establishing containment and control become your primary missions.
"If a looting incident has occurred, then you need to isolate the problem," Odenthal says. "There should be a two-pronged approach. You need to arrest major offenders and make sure that you have some measure of televised accountability. Because if the only images being absorbed by your public are of people carrying off television sets with impunity, you can rest assured that you will have more of the same."
Odenthal makes this emphatic point about police response. "Your most powerful tool is the arrest," he says. "It has an immediate impact, as it communicates to the public that there are prices to be paid for the violation of society's laws. It also shows the public that you are being proactive on their behalf.
"This is one of the reasons why Sheriff Sherman Block (Los Angeles County) made sure that the news media rode along with our field forces when they were rounding up looters [during the Rodney King riots]," Odenthal says. "He wanted people to know what would happen to them if they were caught looting."
Another way to help turn the tide against looters is to get the media on your side. Odenthal says this was critically important during the Rodney King riots. "Within the first 24 hours, the media saw themselves as fast becoming victims in what they were chronicling, and few could be found entrenched in either the 'detached air' or sympathizers camps. After their news vans had been vandalized and some of their own had been robbed and assaulted, more than a few were only too happy to assist us in this mission."
Odenthal is a realist. He recognizes that even in the best of circumstances, law enforcement personnel may find themselves seriously outnumbered.
"In such circumstances, the focus should be on removing disruptive influences and establishing sector-by-sector control. If you simply do not have sufficient means to effect arrests, then at least consider video documentation of any looting. In the aftermath of the 1985 Huntington Beach riots, video documentation proved invaluable in prosecuting those responsible for damages," Odenthal says.
Whether a looting incident has been prevented or quelled, policies and procedures have to be in place to allow for the safe re-entry of business owners and residents to the affected area. This may entail a lengthy process, particularly in those instances wherein displaced owners have traveled hundreds of miles away from their homes.
"You have to protect the area against the potential for crime," Odenthal says. "You can't just open the gates and let people in. Your plan has to allow for the reoccupation of the area in an orderly manner. This will almost always entail some degree of checkpoints and passes. This will help you ensure that you're not letting criminals back in."
Odenthal adds one important point. "You need to be able to 'envision the end.' You need to picture what the end result of all your planning and execution has gotten you, and how life will be thereafter. This will help you understand where you need to get to and what you need to get there. Finally, it will let you recognize when you have succeeded in getting there."
This is an important consideration. "At one point during the East Los Angeles riots, we were on our 10th day standing on the streets," Odenthal recalls. "There wasn't even a curfew, but there was absolutely nobody out and about. Actual problems had long since dissipated, but we were still out there. It got to the point where we really felt like we were an occupying army. There was simply nothing for us to do."
Responding to Looting
- Have a plan
- Set up mutual-aid agreements
- Coordinate mutual aid as needed
- Respond quickly
- Show force
- Know your mission
- Know who is looting
- Know what triggered the looting
- Know where the looting is happening
- Establish containment
- Harden key targets
- Make arrests
- Seek media coverage of arrests
- Document looters on video for future prosecution
- Guard area until peace is restored
A Logistics Nightmare
Since looting often strikes a population like some mass hysteria, it can be extremely taxing on an agency's, or even on multiple agencies', resources. For example, in the aftermath of Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Department had to use makeshift jails as holding centers for suspects charged with looting. The official jail buildings were flooded.
What to do with arrested looters is an especially difficult problem for many agencies after major disasters or during civil disturbances. "You have to ask yourself, do you have the resources to arrest looters?" says Commander Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The question of whether to arrest looters is a critical logistics issue not just in terms of what to do with the prisoners, but also in terms of street resources. In other words, a couple of officers facing down a mob works great in the movies but on the street, not so much.
"If you think about the most obvious logistics deployed to a civil disturbance, it's often about three or four radio cars, each containing three to four officers," says Heal. "When these officers arrive at a problem location, they need to know the rules of engagement and have a clear-cut mission. The rules become more pressing as the numbers of looters grow. Can you effectively face a huge crowd, let alone arrest its participants?"