Oakland Riot Strategy and Tactics (Part 1 of 2)

I watched as police response, low key at first, transformed to counter the crowd that had turned into a riotous mob. I was highly impressed by the professional, organized and disciplined police response.

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For weeks the San Francisco had been dreading one thing: The verdict.

And then it came on July 8. Former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted by a Los Angeles jury of involuntary manslaughter.

This was the announcement the entire Bay Area was anxiously awaiting.  The trouble began after midnight on Jan. 1, 2009 with a report of a fight on a BART train at the Fruitvale station in Oakland. Five transit police officers responded.

At the time, no one knew things would soon turn deadly and become Oakland's "Rodney King" incident, sparking community outrage and rioting. What happened next was caught on at least five cell phone cameras—the video and pics would be seen by millions of internet viewers.

Video clearly showed Mehserle draw and fire his service pistol into the back of proned-out Oscar Grant, killing him. Community outrage was immediate and overwhelming, a racial firestorm fueled by the fact that Grant is black and Mehserle is white.

Mehserle promptly resigned from BART PD, and was indicted for murder. Community outrage sparked several January 2009 riots in downtown Oakland. Prosecutors moved the trial to Los Angeles.

An already tense Oakland was rocked to its core March 21 with the shooting deaths of four Oakland PD officers—including two SWAT sergeants—by a lone gunman who was shot and killed by the tactical unit.

In June, the entire Bay Area watched the Mehserle murder trial intently, anxiously awaiting the outcome. Trial coverage dominated the Bay Area's daily news. OPD announced that it's preparing and training to respond to potential rioting in Oakland.

On July 8, Bay Area TV stations interrupted regular broadcasting with the verdict announcement. Mehserle is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Reaction in Oakland is immediate, controversial, and emotional. 

Those who have experienced riots know there's an electricity that fills the air just prior to things "hitting the fan." Live local television coverage brings that electricity into millions of Bay Area living rooms—mine included.

The planned and authorized protest rally started at Oakland City Hall. Small at first, it was initially peaceful, but grew in size and intensity. At first, police maintained a low-key, nearly invisible posture to avoid inciting crowd reaction.

The first sign of a situation heating up was aerial coverage of dozens of marked police vehicles in field-force formation moving slowly in the direction of City Hall. It was also the first sign of how many LEOs would be involved in handling the violence that would erupt.

Television coverage provided live ground and aerial coverage from all angles. I watched as some in the peaceful crowd transformed into a mob, that would eventually wreak havoc in downtown Oakland.


Substantial mutual aid came from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, California Highway Patrol, Fremont PD, Hayward PD and several other LE agencies throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Most rioters appeared to be anarchists who wore the Black Bloc "uniform" of black clothing, hoodies, bandanas on their faces, and backpacks that contained hammers, Molotov cocktails and other improvised weapons.

It was obvious, these anarchists were there to cause trouble and create mayhem. At first they were content to verbally taunt and challenge police, trying to goad them into "overreacting." Police responded with professionalism, discipline and restraint, while holding their lines and making "select" arrests.

As darkness set in, anarchist splinter groups began rampaging through downtown Oakland streets, where many of the businesses had been boarded up in anticipation of rioting. Rioters set fires in dumpsters, spray painted buildings, smashed windows with hammers, looted a number of businesses, threw rocks and bottles, and physically assaulted or resisted police. 

It's not often that you get to watch a riot unfold live, right in front of you from start to finish. But that's exactly what Bay Area viewers did from the safety of our living rooms.

Only those experiencing a riot in person can fully grasp the enormity of swirling, out-of control chaos and confusion. Crowds turned rampaging mobs are bent on causing mindless mayhem, destruction and injury. 

It's the police—the only ones standing in the way of rampaging rioters fury—who are tasked with restoring order. As police moved in to restore order in Oakland, rioters attacked, assaulted and bombarded them with every conceivable weapon. 

Police response, while forceful, was remarkably disciplined, restrained and ultimately successful. Police were able to quell the rioting quickly, making 78 arrests with minimal casualties and damage. 

This success wasn't lost on OPD's new Chief Anthony Batts who praised the officers involved for their remarkable restraint, discipline and effectiveness.

And from the safety of watching the Oakland riot from my home, I concur with the chief.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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