Police and military forces are better trained and better equipped to handle crowds that get out of control. In handling riot situations, it is important to know what causes riots, how police approach crowd control problems, and what equipment they use to clear the streets safely.
What Makes a Riot?
First we must understand how a riot develops in the first place. A riot is a crowd that takes aggressive and illegal actions as a reaction to fear or anger. The crowd takes on a mob mindset and does things they normally would not do because the crowd makes them anonymous. Being anonymous and seeing the actions of the others makes them feel like they can damage, burn or harm whatever and whomever they want.
The fuel for a riot builds up over time. In many situations, this can take years or even decades of racial prejudice, unfair treatment or abuse. When people have no effective way of dealing with these issues or bettering their situation, an undercurrent of anger and frustration grows stronger and stronger.
Once the situation is at a breaking point, almost anything can set it off. An incident that angers one group can immediately turn them against another group of people. Sometimes an actual incident isn’t even required and it may just a rumor that spread through a group to turn anger into a violent outburst.
Sports teams losing or winning a major game can sometimes cause riots. In this case, the fuel doesn’t build up for a long time and it’s mainly the result of alcohol. The drunkenness of the crowd contributes heavily to these riots and is simply sparked by the excitement or disappointment.
Riot Control Tactics
The tactics used to control riots in the past were very simple. The success was based on the fact that the police were almost always better armed than the rioters. The tactics they used basically consisted of forming a line and charging into the crowd. The police today are even better armed, but the techniques have advanced significantly and usually prevent the injuries that we have seen in the past.
When a riot is in full swing, police will arrange themselves in a square formation with a command team at the center. The command team is protected on all four sides by echelons of troops deployed in groups of 10 or 12 officers. There is also an arrest team at the center of the square.
This riot control unit is very mobile and can adapt quickly to changes in the mod or situation. If a threat suddenly appears in a different direction, the echelon facing that direction is designated the front of the unit. The entire team can change direction without a lot of reorganizing. The echelons can also cover each other when the team moves to take new positions. If a section is under attack, the whole team does not move together. One echelon moves while the others provide covering fire or an actual physical screen using riot shields. Then another echelon moves up into position.
This layout is not meant to be an impenetrable wall of police. Actually, the riot team leaves an escape route to let rioters run past. The officers can take a passive stance by spreading out and leaving a large opening between each officer. The crowd can then easily filter through them. If an overly violent person or group moves toward the officers, they can immediately close the gaps and form a tight line.
As the officers move forward into a crowd, they push at anyone who doesn’t respond to verbal requests to move away by. If they still refuse to move, the unit continues moving forward, but the front line opens up and passes around the protesters. Once the specific people are inside the square, the unit stops and the arrest team processes the rioters. The front line closes and the unit can continue moving.
Riot Control Technology
When crowd control units get ready to engage, the first thing required is protective gear. The full outfit typically consists of:
* Helmet with face shield
* Body armor
* Large body shield
The body shield and face shield are typically made of a material called Lexan. If thick enough, it can be bullet proof. But in this application, it basically protects against thrown objects or attacks with sticks and similar weapons.
The most basic offensive weapon a riot control officer has is a baton. These are usually between 24 and 42 inches long and are made of various materials. Expandable batons or expanding batons are also used because of their size when closed. They can fit into holsters and worn on the belt similar to handcuffs. There are also batons that are fashioned after stun guns and referrer to as stun batons. Most crowd control units use some type of baton instead of rifles because the presence of guns are likely to escalate any situation. If someone manages to take a gun away from an officer, the results could be disastrous.
If guns are being used, the police typically employ a variety of non-lethal rounds. Although these are not generally considered fatal rounds, anything fired from a gun has the potential to be deadly. But, they are trained to use these weapons in ways that minimize the risk of death or serious injury.
These rounds are commonly fired from a 40mm single shot or multi-round gun. They are similar to military grenade launchers.
Riot Control Rounds
Some of these non-lethal rounds include:
* Blunt-force rounds – These rounds cause pain when they strike, but they don’t penetrate the skin. They are often fired at the ground so the round skips off the pavement and strikes the rioters in the legs. Each round is filled with small discs. When officers skip the rounds off the ground in front of the crowd, they separate and tend to hit multiple rioters. It can cause a lot of pain, but has a lesser chance of doing damage as compared to a solid piece of the material. The objective is to cause enough pain to make the rioter comply with the officers.
* Bean Bag Round – These are square-shaped bean bags that have a long-range but they tend to be inaccurate. There are teardrop-shaped bean bag rounds with a tail that are geared toward accuracy.
* Sponge Round – Bullet-shaped round with a sponge tip. They are all-purpose with average range and accuracy.
* Stinger rounds – A Stinger round is loaded with small, rubber pellets that disperse on impact.
* Pepper ball rounds – A paint ball gun is slightly modified to fire pepper spray pellets instead of paint balls. When these strike someone, the severe burning sensation in the eyes and nose will incapacitate most people without doing permanent harm. When children or elderly people might be present in a crowd, the police can use water pellets instead. It still stings to get hit with water pellets and sometimes people are afraid they have actually been hit with pepper spray, so the crowd disperses.
* Aerosol grenades – These are metal canisters that are activated and thrown like regular grenades. They spray tear gas or pepper spray gas over a wide area. Officers rarely throw these directly into a crowd since it can increase panic. They typically use the gas to create a type of barricade to direct the crowd’s movements in a certain direction. A gas grenade might be thrown into the crowd if a particular group is extremely violent or attacking a single victim.
* Ferret rounds – Ferret rounds are made to penetrate windows or wooden barricades, where they can then deposit the gas. These are used to flush people out of barricades and other standoff situations.
* Dye rounds – Sponge rounds, ferret rounds and pepperball rounds can all be filled with marker dye. These are used to mark certain people in a crowd so that other officers can identify them or so that they can be caught later if they leave the scene. In a riot, the leaders are often tagged with marker-dye rounds so the arrest team can pick them up later.
* Gas rounds – These rounds are loaded with a gas that causes severe irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and even causes contact skin burns in some cases. These most commonly contain pepper spray or tear gas. Officers don’t like to use gas rounds, because they know they’re going to experience some of the effects of the gas themselves. Still, they wear gas masks and goggles to protect themselves in case the need arises.
Crowd Control Prevention
Today’s riot control units are not usually called riot squads anymore; they are crowd-management units. Rather than trying to beat the rioters in battle, the police just try to calm them down and get them to go home. The use even non-lethal force is a last resort.
The first step in crowd management is making sure a riot doesn’t happen in the first place. Although riots can erupt unexpectedly, they are frequently tied to a planned protest or organized demonstration. When the police think a situation could potentially get out of control, they contact the organizers of the protest ahead of time. They set up ground rules that the protesters are to follow and they designate a specific area for the event to take place. The police assign specially trained officers to monitor the event and to ensure that everyone stays safe. The police will only take action if the ground rules are broken.
If the officers disagree with the opinions of the protesters, they are still trained to maintain an unbiased attitude. The officers try not to look at the protesters as enemies. Instead, they recognize that the rioters are part of the same community that the police are entrusted to protect and serve. There is fine balancing act.
Even though police are trained to be polite, they are careful to not give off an impression of subservience. They have to be seen as being in charge and in control at all times, even while they stay passive and allow the crowd to operate within the ground rules set out ahead of time. Occasionally these preventative measures don’t work and a riot breaks out despite police efforts to keep everyone peaceful.
Crowd Control Conflict
If a crowd gets disorderly and starts taking violent action, the police will switch to a more aggressive approach. They understand that most riots are lead by a few individuals who feel strongly or have something to gain from a violent confrontation. The majority of the people are present either because something exciting is going on or they are simply bystanders that get caught up in the mob mentality. The likelihood of arrest or confrontation with police usually prompt them to escape and go home.
The first step is simple intimidation. Riot police stand in strict formations and act with military precision. Once they form the lines of barriers, they tap their batons on their shields or stomp their feet in unison. The result can be quite intimidating to unarmed civilians. It can appear that the group is getting ready to attack. In reality, this display is meant to scare off as many of the rioters as possible without the officers ever getting near them.
Police do not try to arrest every person in the riot. Their first targets are those who are leading the riot because the crowd will often disperse without their leaders encouraging them. Everyone seen breaking a law are also targeted for arrest, especially if they injure someone.
When the officers are actually in conflict with the rioters, the objective is still to disperse the crowd. A combination of advancing lines of officers and the use of gas is used to move the crowd in a particular direction. The crowd is never pinned down and always given an escape route. The main purpose of the crowd management team is to get the people to disperse.