"Tools like Stinger grenades and other long-distance less-lethal tools can't be used. When we enter the room, we are right in the middle of 40 inmates," Smith explains. "Less-lethal options such as 37mm multi-launchers might work great at 40 feet, but when you are 15 feet away you can't use them."
Technology at the Forsyth SORT team's disposal includes PepperBall launchers designed for shorter distances that enable officers to fill an area with PAVA (Capsaicin II) powder. LASD employs 40mm launchers that utilize five approved munitions inside the custody division. "We have munitions for unique situations," Greene says. "If you need to impact somebody 90 feet away, we have munitions for that. We also have munitions that can be used in close quarters incidents."
Two munitions at LASD release a powder, be it OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) or CS, which Greene says work well in area treatments. The department’s PepperBall launchers are useful for dormitories, which are 90- to 100-feet deep. Officers shoot rounds against the wall and let the PAVA powder fall onto inmates. Aerosol agents, be it OC or OC/CS blend, are also often sprayed into crowds to break them up.
"We also use CS hot gas under certain circumstances and in restrictive situations we also deploy TASERs," Greene says. "For officers to use these less-lethal weapons, they must obtain primary certification from the Custody Division Headquarters Training Unit."
When selecting the tools to use, Greene recommends starting at the lowest use of force possible and moving up the continuum as needed.
The first question to ask, he says, must be: "How can we stop this with the least level of injury to inmates and staff?" Typically this involves employing OC spray, PepperBalls, and OC/CS blend chemical agents. "These things cause pain and panic but do not cause any lasting injury or side effect," he says.
It is also important to protect officers working in the thick of a disturbance. Beyond stab-resistant vests, helmets, and shields, Valdemar recommends issuing breathing apparatuses. "Everyone gives these teams shields, sticks, and pepper spray, but they overlook breathing apparatuses," he says. "Team members need to breathe. Fires often start in confined areas during riots. Smoke will create some real problems for officers without breathing apparatuses."
Train, Train, and Train Again
Training cannot be overlooked because response tactics and technology deployment must be second nature before an uprising, says Greene.
The LASD puts new deputy sheriffs through a jail operations course that includes a section on using less-lethal weapons in jail settings. Here deputies learn about less-lethal technologies, when and why they may be used, and how to use them. "This gives them an understanding of what munitions to use in which circumstance," Greene says, noting supervisors generally determine which munitions to use but in life-threatening situations officers need to make these calls themselves.
Training must cover tactics too. The LASD trains officers about basic squad movements and formations, hostage rescues, and the anatomy of a disturbance.
"Our team gets more training because they are the ones who are going to respond to an incident," says Forsyth’s Hughes. "Our general staff gets trained to identify the indicators. They are the ones with the inmates every day and they can tell when something is a little bit off."
The Attica Prison Riot and the New Mexico State Penitentiary Riot put large-scale prison incidents on the map. But while disturbances at the local jail may not make the national news, they can be just as dangerous to the officers responding to them.
Because of this, jail riot prevention and control is something all departments need to pay attention to, adds Smith. "You've got a lot of emotions going on in a jail. When you bring somebody into the jail, whether it's their first time or their fifth, at some point it hits them that they are not getting out. They can’t turn on the TV without asking and have to shower and go to the bathroom with people watching. Their wife or husband might leave them," he says. "All of these things come into play and it’s a volatile situation that could go off any time."
The words of the old English proverb, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," make complete sense in the world behind bars at the county jail.
Response Team Basics
Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sergeant Richard Valdemar offers a few tips for jail response teams.
Size. This varies by facility but a jail system the size of L.A. County might have 20 to 30 people on a single response team while smaller systems might only have 10 to 15 members. Large facilities typically have dedicated response teams while smaller institutions do not.
Members. Response teams should be comprised of physically fit, experienced officers known for keeping their cool in the heat of battle.
Training. Teams should train weekly and the entire staff should participate in daily briefings that cover everything from riot indicators to what tactics or technology can help things calm down.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.