Get Ready to Read the Riot Act

Regardless of the actors involved, when an angry protest hits the streets of your city, you will be called upon to maintain the peace and prevent or stop violence.

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There's a lot of turmoil and anger in the country. You feel it on the right and on the left and in many people in between. People believe their voices are not being heard and the government is not responsive to their needs.

When people are this angry, it's likely that they will take to the streets in protest. As every cop knows, the difference between a peaceful protest and a full-blown riot is razor thin. You can have an anti-war demonstration led by pacifists, but some bad actors can join in the group and turn it violent. The same could happen to any other group of protesters, regardless of cause.

A peaceful crowd can become a mob. Or a demonstration can be planned from the get-go as a riot. Which is exactly what happened in the 1999 "Battle of Seattle." And if the Internet traffic is any indicator, it appears that the anarchists who fomented that mess are preparing for round two at this summer's Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Regardless of the actors involved, when an angry protest hits the streets of your city, you will be called upon to maintain the peace and prevent or stop violence.

For decades now the first goal of law enforcement when dealing with a crowd management situation was to isolate the crowd and contain any threat that it might present.

It was a good strategy for a time when law enforcement had respect from society and usually rational people followed commands. But this is the 21st century, society has changed, and the overall respect for law enforcement is not what it used to be.

I have noticed a change in not only how agencies respond to these types of threats but also how society has viewed a law enforcement presence during such incidents. This affects not only how law enforcement handles business, but also how society will respond to the force used.

Fortunately, law enforcement tacticians have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem, and they have used the lessons of the past to develop crowd management techniques that are effective and defensible in a court of law or a court of public opinion.

Initial Response

The first goal of any agency's crowd management strategy is to show organized force. You show force by deploying simple formations, exhibiting a professional and organized appearance, and displaying the basic tools of crowd response.

In 1988, when I first started evaluating various departments' crowd management responses, I was shocked to see that they had spent more time in training on drill and ceremony. They looked good, but they had spent little to no time on the tactics needed to be effective.

I can even remember hearing the old timers say, "The better you look the less you will have to fight." This statement may have been true back in the day, but today's crowds are more educated and less likely to be impressed by how you look. People bent on civil disruption will no longer disperse just because you look tough; you will have to back it up with action.

The first type of response by the agency showing force is the "Initial Line Response," sometimes called the "soft squad" approach. This is nothing more than officers showing up in the proper response protective gear.

In addition to your standard police duty gear with firearm, handcuffs, radio, soft body armor, etc., the proper gear for effective "soft squad" crowd control response includes the following:

  • Ballistic helmet with drop face shield (not a plastic helmet)
  • Protective mask to counter all common riot chemicals and biological threats
  • Self first-aid kit with CPR mask
  • Non-flammable chest protector, non-flammable elbow protection, non-flammable knee and shin protection, and non-flammable gloves
  • Chemical aerosols such as OC, OC/CS, or just CS
  • Impact weapon (riot baton not recommended)
  • Flex cuffs with cutter (minimum 10)

The primary purpose of a "soft squad" is to disperse the crowd and deter it from violence. To achieve this goal, the squad shows organized force through verbalization tactics; squad formations; and if needed empty hand tactics, chemical aerosols, and/or impact weapons.

Crowds have a tendency to do certain things when ordered to disperse. One of the things they like to do is block streets and walkways, impeding vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Clearing people out of these areas is an ideal mission for a soft squad, since the people involved are non-compliant or at worst resisting with their bodies and hands.

The Hard Squad

If the crowd starts to become more violent and begins to use conventional or unconventional weapons to assault and attack the officers or others in the area, then it's time for the "hard squad."

The hard squad consists of officers prepared and equipped to use the necessary force to end the disturbance. These officers should have all of the equipment and gear of the soft squad plus riot shields and nonlethal weapons such as chemicals and specialty impact munitions. Their ranks may also include horse mounted units and K-9s.

Whether an officer is assigned to the hard squad or the soft squad, he or she must have a strong knowledge of crowd management training and equipment training.

Members of crowd management squads need to be trained in defensive tactics (single and multiple subject techniques), arrest and control techniques, ground stabilization methods, riot shield deployment, baton technique, electronic control devices, aerosol deployment, chemical and specialty impact munitions, use of personal protective gear and masks, close-quarter combat, and firearms. They also need to know when they can legally use force to disperse a crowd or arrest or detain people in the crowd. As officers, they already know when they can use force, even deadly force, to counter threats and resisting suspects.

Small Unit Tactics

Not long ago, the conventional wisdom in law enforcement was that crowd management required long lines of officers ready and willing to march into the crowd.

Today, however, many agencies are seeing the benefit of small unit tactics in crowd management. Small unit crowd management squads consist of 13-person groups broken down into three teams of four officers and one squad leader. This lets a team function independently from the other teams and still accomplish the same objective.

These squads have readily available everything they will need on the line for quick deployment. Other advantages are that they can adapt to the environment and use a variety of formations to accomplish their goals, based on the situation. 

This allows for a more organized show of force while permitting the squad to be versatile and have a flexible response. Instead of isolating and containing the crowd, which means the officers have a 2-to-1 disadvantage, the new concept is to move quickly and make arrests if needed.

A good design for quick response squads is using the "mini-team concept," consisting of three four-officer teams commanded by a squad leader. Of course, multiple squads are often deployed at an incident, so most agencies organize three squads into a platoon, and three platoons into a company.

How these units will respond in the field depends on the rules of engagement set by their agency and the law. But here's a good idea of the tools they will need to perform their mission: empty hands, batons, riot shields, electronic control devices, specialty impact munitions, chemical munitions, air launcher projectiles, K-9s, sidearms, shotguns, rifles, 37/40mm launchers.

To enhance the effectiveness of its techniques, it is recommended that every department review quarterly its crowd management tactics and how they were used during specific incidents.

Dave Young is the Director of Specialized Programs for the Northcentral Technical College—RedMan Training and the Director of Training for RedMan Training Gear. He has served in the U.S. Marines as a Staff Non-Commissioned Officer and as both a corrections officer and a sworn law enforcement officer. A member of the POLICE Advisory Board, he can be seen on the National Geographic Channel hosting shows on law enforcement technology and techniques.

Riot Squad History

From about 1920 through the 1940s, there was no organized or structured response to civil disturbance. At this time, a riot line consisted of 10- to 20-man lines of officers holding batons, axe handles, baseball bats, sticks, clubs, or anything they could put their hands on.

The mission of these riot lines was to forcefully disperse the crowd. So when the crowd came in contact with police, there was usually a free-for-all.

The riot lines of this era were poorly organized and had no structure. There was a person in charge, but often the chaotic nature of the event resulted in too many people in the area giving commands.

Each officer also used a different method of controlling the person(s) they had contact with, which sometimes resulted in them unknowingly taking away control another officer might have already established. In many agencies, we still have this problem.

During this era crowd control officers wore little-to-no protective gear. They didn't have soft body armor, so they hit the line with whatever protection they could create from seat cushions, newspapers, and any other makeshift armor that they could fashion. They did not wear the helmets we know today or face shields, no arm guards, and no groin guards. Imagine what it was like wading into an unruly mob under those conditions.

During the late 1950s, crowd control tactics began to evolve, and the first containment teams and standard squads using riot shields and batons were introduced. Some officers today are still familiar with the riot baton tactics and some are still using them.

The idea was to first use the shield squad to push the crowd back. When the shield squad came into contact with the crowd, the baton squad was usually right behind them.

There were some problems with this concept. For example, it took for granted that no one would shoot at the officers. If the baton and shield squads were confronted with deadly force, there was no planned, practiced, or rehearsed response to deadly force.

The limits of such containment squads and baton-shield squads became readily apparent in the 1960s and 1970s when American officers faced race riots, anti-war riots, and labor riots.

It was during this period that police use of chemicals such as CN and CS became common. Squad tactics also took a giant leap forward as riot shield, baton, chemical, and containment teams operated separately and independently from each other.

However, when chemicals were used during the response, many officers were not trained or prepared to operate in a vision-impaired and/or oxygen-depleted environment. Officers were trained in control methods, but they were not tactically proficient in these techniques while wearing a protective mask.

The reason that officers did not know how to operate in chemical protective gear is that they hadn't trained in it. Also, most agencies did not have enough money to purchase the right type of gear. When they did have the funding for the gear, there was not enough for everyone to wear. (Not much has changed, huh?)

Today, we have the benefit of studying the successes and failures of the cops who have gone before us. We have used this information to refine squad tactics for crowd management. And we will need them as history marches forward.

About the Author
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Director of Specialized Programming
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