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Police Tactics to Use During Protests and Riots

Police Tactics to Use During Protests and Riots

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This article first appeared at In Public Safety.

By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice at American Military University and
Bruce Razey35-year police veteran

Important issues need to be considered to prepare for any large gathering. Police must always remember to “what if” the worst-case scenarios. Concerning large, unpredictable crowds, police will often establish a command post and staging areas as a safety net should the crowd become disorderly. The command post is where the senior police officials will be located, making major decisions based upon crowd actions. This is also where radio dispatchers will be housed for communications. If a mobile command post is not available, a building away from the action is the ideal location.

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Staging areas are where officers are on standby and store their riot gear until needed. These locations should be close to the event.

[Related: Protecting the Right to Protest: Intervention and De-Escalation Tactics]

In Virginia Beach, we partnered with hotels along the ocean front using break rooms and convention halls as staging areas. We conducted foot patrols, wearing our normal (unintimidating) uniform. We chatted with people and even showed empathy with their various complaints. In the citizens’ eyes it was simply normal activity. However, if the crowd got out-of-hand, we were just minutes away from suiting up to respond to possible criminal activity.

Our planning process enabled us to think pre-emptively and we employed a variety of tactics behind the scenes. This strategy enabled us to show little police presence, but when lawfulness began, it was easy to nip it in the bud.

Mobile Response Teams

One of our other tactics was establishing mobile response teams (MRTs). MRTs consisted of one sergeant and three officers in a patrol car who can quickly respond when needed to rescue an officer or citizen in danger. Additionally, MRTs could be dispatched to armed individuals, instigators, and looting locations to arrest violators. Employing numerous MRTs during peaceful demonstrations should always go unnoticed. These teams could work as an individual unit or be scaled to work in unison depending on the threat and number of persons arrested.

Add Spotters on High-Rise Rooftops

Spotters located on high-rise rooftops with video cameras can be of great benefit. Everybody has a camera on their cellphone today and during a riot police must have them, too. We can personally attest to the benefits of police documenting disorders. Today, most everyone has seen video clips posted on social media or on national news programs of police acting badly. However, these clips seldom depict the full story.

In 1989 a photo in Jet magazine showed Razey “manhandling a subject for no reason” and he was accused of police brutality. Fortunately, police spotters provided video of the entire encounter. It showed the alleged manhandled subject throwing bricks at the police and assaulting the arresting officers. The Jet photo showed Razey bending down to help the offender off the pavement.

Officers should be aware that there are professional instigators baiting the crowd. In a joint effort with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Taskforce, three men with the “Boogaloo Movement” were indicted on federal charges seeking to incite violence in protests connected to George Floyd’s death.

While standing on a street corner during his department’s third consecutive summer of rioting, Razey saw what he thought was a potential incitement to rioting. He was wearing his everyday uniform and observing a peaceful crowd when he was approached by a well-dressed man. After the initial greetings exchange, the man said, “I suppose you’re ready for another riot tonight.” Razey told the man the department was prepared, but hopeful things would stay peaceful. The man’s response was, “There’s thousands of blacks out here, you know that means rioting, right?”

Razey told the man if rioting and chaos ensued it would have nothing to do with race or ethnicity. “Good answer,” the man said as he handed Razey his business card. “I’m the local chapter president of the NAACP.”

Undercover Officers

In addition, it is important to use undercover officers to infiltrate a crowd. Their purpose is to obtain intelligence about the crowd’s purpose and plans. Such tactics might identify people carrying concealed firearms or quelling the planned looting of a jewelry store. Intel from undercover officers has the potential to ward off planned attacks by a criminal element and eliminate numerous illegal mob actions. Such tactics also work well for peaceful protesting.

Supervision of Officers

During an emergency situation, senior officers are called to provide direct supervision of their personnel. To do this effectively, the supervisory control should be limited to about eight to officers. However, during rioting, our department assigned as many as 15 officers to each sergeant.

During the first riots in the summer of 1988 in Virginia Beach, Virginia, our department was in response mode and little attention was given to leadership principles. However after repeated training and research, the department went to great lengths to maintain these principles, in the second and third years of the riots.

[Related: Planning for Riots and Protests Requires Identifying Problems and Creating Partnerships]

Teams trained together throughout the year and a color code system was devised so that supervisors and officers could identify their specific team members. These small tactics improved understanding of what was required during the riots and provided a tighter chain of command. That gave supervisors better control at keeping their personnel in line such as following laws, policies, procedures, and keeping a level head during the rioting.

Riots can also be frightening to cops too. For example, one night a wedge formation consisting of over 100 officers and supervisors was moving an unruly crowd of hundreds during which gas was used. A squad of 15 officers and their sergeant were positioned several blocks ahead, as the crowd ran wildly toward them. One officer yelled, “We’re going to be trampled, everyone run!” The sergeant quickly ordered the squad to stand their ground and stay in position, but leave a six-foot distance between themselves. This simple strategy allowed the rioters to run past without incident and disperse out of sight.

As supervisors we often called out officers who were out of line and reminded them to act appropriately, as if the chief were watching. As for training our squad on tactics we often advised them that they could think whatever they want but their words and actions better be in accordance with our policies and procedures. These principles of leadership help to increase control and maintain order of both officers and protesters.

Command Post and Interagency Response Tactics

As previously explained, the command post is an area outside the perimeter of the chaos, housing the incident commander and top police executives and on occasion politicians like the mayor and city manager, dispatchers and analysts. It is where the major decisions are made. During the planning process, most departments form reciprocal agreements with sister cities and the state police.

These agreements can take effect when crowds of unruly protesters or rioters are so big the police become overwhelmed. The best method is to use the outside agencies to cover the areas of the city that is unaffected by the rioting. This allows additional manpower from the city to be brought to the affected area, ensuring all police personnel have been trained in the department’s philosophy and tactics. The importance of this strategy should not be overlooked. Bringing outside officers and supervisors to the problem area would likely result in more chaos, as they would follow their own departments’ training methods.

Some would have us believe police are out of control and must never be trusted or respected. This is not only misguided, it is intentionally damaging our country. The thin blue line is a universal symbol used to commemorate law enforcement officers and to symbolize the relationship of police as the protectors of their fellow citizens from criminal elements. This is the primary role of police during times of unrest. Remember their oath. They swore to protect the people’s rights under the Constitution and that is why they appear at the protest demonstration.

About the Authors

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.