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Civil Disturbance Readiness: How Ready Is Your Agency?

By Jerry Harper, Undersheriff (Retired), Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department

ow ready are we? This is the question that political and law enforcement leaders should be asking themselves, assuming they have seen the television coverage of the turbulence in the Mideast and the riots in Great Britain, in Canada, and in Greece. Does law enforcement have a sound civil disturbance philosophical doctrine, backed by officers who have been well trained and are properly equipped and led by confident, tested incident and field commanders? History is replete with examples of agencies overreacting or underreacting to disorder. Some critics note the so-called Chicago Police Riot of 1968 during the Democratic National Convention as one example of police overreacting by using excessive force on demonstrators. Conversely, some critics characterized the 1992 Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, California, as an underreaction by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

To be successful, law enforcement agencies must be prepared to respond to the situation at hand and be able to escalate or de-escalate the types of tactics used. The philosopher George Santayana’s quote is a reminder that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”1 Recently, it has been especially depressing to see police in different parts of the world failing to cope with the raw tactics of anarchists and looters. All have witnessed, once again, scenes all too reminiscent of the tactical debacles endured by departments of the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s. Highly mobile groups of rioters attack the police and innocent bystanders. They destroy or damage millions of dollars worth of property while frustrated cops plod along in slow-moving, ineffectual formations. Meanwhile, the rioters move on to other targets of opportunity blocks away. Officers sometimes endanger themselves by taking independent, individual actions—actions typical of the untrained and the poorly led. Skirmish lines of 50 to 100 cops behind bulky shields exist as targets for the barrage of rocks and bottles, while the officers involved wait for orders from their leaders to do something decisive.

This article contends that the key to effective control of civil disturbances is continuous preplanning and the utilization of mobile tactics. By identifying mobile tactics as a best practice, law enforcement will be breaking from traditions that have emphasized slow, cumbersome, unwieldy formations incapable of controlling fast-moving, scattered bands of marauding rioters. What follows are principles that have served the military and best practices employed by various law enforcement agencies in quelling civil disturbances.

Tactical and Strategic Decisions

The majority of strategic policies should be set forth in the planning stages prior to the deployment of police formations. This policy guidance should include the rules of engagement, the list of the law enforcement agencies to be involved, the memorandum of understanding binding the participants, the point at which the appropriate authority requests that the National Guard or other military assets be activated, and the agreements on how to interact with the media.

The most important factor in determining whether the strategic and tactical decisions result in a favorable outcome resides in the political and law enforcement leadership piloting the government response to the crisis. However, politicians need to defer tactical decisions that are best reserved for the incident and field commanders.

Commanders closest to the conflagration are the ones most likely to understand actions that need to be taken in the heat of the fast-changing situations. While chiefs and sheriffs cannot always control politician’s statements or actions, they can focus on their own spheres of influence. The repercussions from postriot commissions can be career ending. Therefore, the selection of the agency’s incident commander and the subordinate field commanders is absolutely critical. Having made these selections, chiefs should discuss rules of engagement and broad policy guidelines with the incident commanders, allowing them to implement the general direction with more specific orders to the field commanders. It is important that tactical decisions should not be foisted on field commanders from a central command post, devoid of a nitty-gritty feel for the ebb and flow of the real street situation. If incident and field commanders are properly selected, trained, and grounded in a chief executive’s rules of engagement, then they should be trusted to make tactical decisions on their own.

Simplifying the Challenge

Whether studying films of recent riots or riots from five decades ago, one fact is fairly consistent: Only a small percentage of a mob tends to be the most active participants. One example was the 1999 World Trade Organization Riot in Seattle, Washington. Prior to the event, estimates of the number of demonstrators likely to gather were close to 50,000. That estimate was fairly accurate, although many in the crowd were simply spectators mixed with passive demonstrators. Unfortunately, a small number—probably no more than a few hundred—turned out to be anarchists and vandals. While the multitudes mingled, took photos of themselves, and played drums and guitars—presenting no real threat to the police—the anarchists, vandals, and looters began the assault on businesses a scant few blocks from where the police had drawn their lines of containment. Despite alerts to the command post, a mobile force was not available at that time to respond to the destruction taking place inside the general area circumscribed by the rest of the demonstrators.2 Such a response could have made quick work of the rioters.

It is rare that a riot fully involves the large numbers of demonstrators, spectators, and passersby who remain in the general environs of the tumult and violence. The profile of the usual violence-prone individuals is one made up predominantly of young males with a scattering of females. They throw the missiles, vandalize stores, and even set fires. If the riot goes on for long enough, more people become emboldened and begin looting. This fact reinforces the need for the police to respond as quickly as possible, with adequate force and with the flexibility that is the signature of mobile tactics. The longer it takes to respond decisively, the more likely the riot is to attract more participants and spread to other parts of the city, making the law enforcement mission more difficult.

Tactical Mobility

Mobility and speed are two of the principles underlying success on a battlefield, but mobility and speed are not owned exclusively by elite military units. Law enforcement can and actually has used mobile tactics to defeat rioters. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s (LASD) mobile platoons outmaneuvered numerous dispersed groups of rioters in the last two of three major riots in East Los Angeles, California, in 1970 and 1971.3 The tactics were again effective in the 1992 Rodney King Riots.4 Mobile field forces were effective in the Miami riots in the 1980s, after law enforcement efforts floundered in the first riot without the use of the mobile principles.

Mobile tactics do not mandate that law enforcement abandons the use of the line, the wedge, and the echelon standard tactical formations used for decades. But the fluidity and evasiveness of the rioters requires that police executives ramp up the variations on these traditional formations. They have to be able to field well-equipped; well-trained; and, most importantly, well-led mobile field forces. These units will have trained and mastered maneuvers that they actually will use during a riot. For example, a skirmish line of officers will almost always draw the more ambitious, daring rioters to throw rocks and bottles and shout epithets and challenges. While the rock throwers are focused on the skirmish line, a separate group from the field force should be flanking or enveloping the rioters by using side streets, alleys, or even the backs of stores. Rioters are conditioned to police confrontations from the front. They are not accustomed to the surprise of having cops suddenly appear behind them or on their flanks or being surrounded. An aggressive show of force, accompanied by some arrests, the use of chemical agents, or both, can neutralize rioters.

Considering human limitations, it is critical that each mobile field force shed its arrestees as soon as possible and return to confront other groups of rioters, to make even more arrests. The objective is to have multiple field forces repeating this cycle of confronting, arresting, and transferring the arrestees, over and over, until the dispersed groups of rioters have been eliminated or vastly reduced. While ensuring the mobility and the economy of police resources should be a priority, an equally important objective is to maintain the chain of evidence so that successful prosecution of the rioters can follow the arrests.

Effective Utilization of Vehicles

Mobility and speed require vehicles adaptable to riot conditions. Trucks and vans that have been modified with equipment that allows 10 to 20 officers to quickly mount or dismount provide speed, surprise, and shock capability. Cages and screens can be attached to give additional protection to drivers and any special weapons officers accompanying the maneuver force. Some agencies even use military-type armored personnel carriers. Vehicles help protect officers as well as providing for rest, hydration, and food. They also give the leader more flexibility in dividing and reassembling resources as situations change. Security must be provided for the vehicles once the officers dismount and go into action, as thinly protected vehicles are vulnerable to various kinds of disabling attacks such as puncturing tires. Drivers, special weapons officers, and predesignated squads should be responsible for securing these vital transportation resources.

To maintain the field force’s effectiveness, vans or buses—with escort security units—should take the arrestees from the field force as soon as possible and deposit them at a field booking site for the formal arrest procedures to take place. The turnaround should be quick for these vans and buses so that the mobile field force has a continuity of support for ridding itself of arrestees. A field booking process that involves identifying the arrestees through a combination of video, photos, bar codes, wrist bands, fingerprints, and other methods allows prosecutions to proceed effectively without slowing or handicapping the mobile field forces. Making arrests at the riot scene ensures faster and more certain identification of rioters than does using investigative skills to identify and prosecute them after the fact. Moreover, more rioters, taking their cues from the Internet, choose to wear masks and balaclavas, which make identification almost impossible. While some jurisdictions invest in large numbers of fixed television cameras to both deter rioters and identify them for investigative follow-up, it is more cost effective to invest that money in truly preparing police forces to conduct effective mobile operations.

Safety Equipment: A Help or a Hindrance

Agencies motivated by safety concerns often provide equipment for officers such as bulky, heavy riot shields and turtle-like shells, which actually handicap the officers. What does one do with a six-foot-tall and two-foot-wide heavy, plastic, or Kevlar-coated shield when it is time to run after the rioters and arrest them? Both hands are needed to make an arrest. Does one drop the shield so the rioter can pick it up and attack the officer with it? Vests and protective clothing coupled with speed and maneuverability can prevent most injuries inflicted by missiles. Shields and other cumbersome and heavy protective equipment can inhibit officers trying to quickly exit or dismount vehicles. Additionally, the longer that officers on the line are forced to stand passively behind shields while rioters pelt them with missiles, the more likely officers are to use excessive force when they finally engage with a demonstrator.

Weapons: Integration with Tactics

Tactical preparation should give considerable attention to the weapons to be employed by the field forces. Rules of engagement pertaining to both lethal and less-lethal weapons are critical, and mistakes have been made on both extremes of the scale. Lethal weapons and less-lethal weapons have sometimes been used when not justified by the circumstances. Other times, both types of weapons have been unavailable or made unavailable by policy or fiat by a chief or political authority. Field force commanders need to have considerable flexibility in employing various weapons and also need to be held accountable for their usage. Tear gas, pepper devices, guns firing rubber bullets, sting balls, and other grenades all have appropriate times and places where they aid the police in providing protection. The weapons should be integrated into the tactics to be used by the officers so that weapons usage complements the tactics. Overdependence on any weapons system is not ideal. An example is the occasional overreliance on vehicle-mounted water cannons. While they have some value, these water cannons also have their limitations. They have to be protected by officers on foot, and they generally do not have the maneuverability needed for many of the closed-in street applications.

If these various devices are not used as convenient standoff methods of inflicting pain and injuries to rioters but rather are employed to stop protesters from resisting arrest, then they are invaluable complements to the tactical methods used by field force commanders. Personnel need to be trained not only in how to use these weapons but also for their usage in a riotous environment, which is quite different from the ordinary, day-to-day implementation where one or two suspects are confronted in a contained or semicontained event.

Air Resources

Like the military, law enforcement must make proper use of available air resources during the tumultuous, scattered incidents that characterize the most serious riots. In the past, incident commanders have used helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft to achieve an overall view of the scope of the riot. This is absolutely necessary, although commercial television often provides that service for free and often to the detriment of the police. However, there is an equally important, if not more important, function the eye in the sky can provide: direct air-to-ground support. A mobile field force commander can divide and reassemble units much more effectively when assisted by an experienced aerial observer who also understands riot control tactics. Maneuvers can be more efficiently controlled. Streets clogged with masses simply trying to leave the area, but not engaged in the riot, can be avoided. A secure radio frequency allows the air observer to give timely intelligence to the field commander so decisions can be made quickly and with assurance that the intelligence is current and competent. Technology also allows for real-time images to be directly downloaded to incident or field commanders.

Helicopters, whether owned by law enforcement or part of a military support mission, also can provide an essential role by helping to secure the heights of tall buildings to prevent rioters from dropping heavy objects or sniping. Special weapons teams can be dropped onto roofs that might otherwise be inaccessible, allowing for reconnaissance and countersniper coverage. Larger helicopters can transport squads of officers to hot spots or complement the tactical maneuvers of the field force commander. Helicopters can carry vital equipment and evacuate the injured. Helicopter personnel can communicate with the airborne news media personnel who may sometimes pose hazards to operations.

Mutual Aid Considerations

Few police departments have enough officers to handle major disturbances extended over days or weeks. Assisting agencies have frequently been called in, usually through states’ mutual aid frameworks. Planning for civil disturbances should include all of the most likely agencies that would be counted on to assist. Memorandums of understanding between various agencies should specifically spell out the expected roles that the responding departments would perform. For example, it took two days for the LAPD and the LASD to assign the California Highway Patrol (CHP) the responsibility of protecting vulnerable firefighters during the 1992 Rodney King Riots.5 This should have been seen as a very necessary and suitable role for the CHP in the planning stages. When this mission was finally put into effect, it was executed extremely well by the CHP. It also accomplished three other very important objectives: It conserved police and sheriff’s deputies to battle the rioters; it protected the firefighters; and it obviated any need for the California National Guard to protect the firefighters, freeing them to occupy areas cleared by law enforcement.

Military support must be carefully considered in the planning stages, as such assistance has the potential to either help or hurt the overall effort. In both the 1965 (Watts area) and 1992 riots in Los Angeles County, the California National Guard was called upon to assist local law enforcement. The guard was extremely helpful in holding areas once law enforcement had saturated areas and made arrests. Had the guard not been available, police officers either would have had to remain in the newly secured area or the area would have been abandoned, leaving it vulnerable to rioters again. Area security by the guard ensured the proper role for the police as the arresting agents who must go through the ensuing court proceedings for arrestees. This procedure largely avoided burdening the guard personnel with having to make arrests and appear in courts.

However, there can be problems when utilizing military support. For example, during the latter stages of the King Riots of 1992, the guard was federalized and came under the command of the regular army. Missions that had been given to the guard by law enforcement had to be approved not only by the guard’s chain of command, but also by the United States Army’s chain of command. 6 What had been a smooth and efficient mission assignment and acceptance process involving law enforcement and the guard became laborious and ill-timed with the additional layer of the regular army command. This potential pitfall should be worked out with both the federal and the state military in the development of mutual aid agreements so that it does not become a problem once a riot breaks out.

Media Relations

One fact of life is certain besides death and taxes: The news media will swirl around and over the conflagration. Their live coverage shows the public how the authorities are responding to the crisis. In early televised scenes of the 1992 King Riots, outnumbered LAPD officers were televised watching helplessly as the looters swarmed uncontested. This of course encouraged those sitting at home or in bars watching television to join the mobs and steal whatever they could carry away. Millions watched while endless lines of looters carried away furniture, refrigerators, televisions, and cases of liquor. But the next day, the same television stations were showing LASD deputies and LAPD officers making mass arrests in multiple locations across the city. The May 1, 1992, Los Angeles Times front-page photo depicted dozens of rioters lying face down on the pavement, their hands flex-cuffed behind them. LASD deputies stood over them waiting for jail buses to take them away. The clear message to all viewers was the same: Anarchists, rioters, and looters would be arrested on the spot and go to jail.

The point here is that the media can be an advantage or disadvantage to law enforcement; this depends on how the police conduct their visible response. Since media omnipresence is a given, the smart incident and field force commanders will engage the media and the viewing public with images of officers acting professionally and effectively in controlling the rioters. Instead of trying to keep the media away from their operations, the smart field commanders will think like the military and actually embed media in their operations. This not only provides doubters with transparency, but it reassures the viewing public that law enforcement is extremely competent.

Of course, the media is not the only source for photos and video during riots. Cellphone cameras, capable of both still shots and video, are in almost everyone’s hands today. Law enforcement especially should have its own video crews sampling activity for a lot of reasons. The media sometimes depicts key but small parts of a series of officers’ actions. Cameras used by cops may capture the whole incident. When it comes time to critique the performance of the mobile field force, commercial media footage and amateur footage, as well as law enforcement video and still photos, can be invaluable. Training needs can be assessed similar to what athletic coaches do when they view video coverage of their teams or opposing teams. While law enforcement’s own video and still coverage may help or hurt the department later in either criminal trials or civil proceedings, law enforcement executives hopefully will desire the truth surrounding these incidents. Video coverage by law enforcement during riots should be viewed as a natural progression and consistent with the already existing efforts taken by mounting video cameras on radio cars and in booking areas.


The foregoing discussion does not intend to be all-inclusive of the subject matter relative to the handling of riots. It does presume to present some of the more critical decision points and offer best practices to avoid common mistakes made by law enforcement agencies. These mistakes must be corrected in the planning stage before training proceeds and successful operations on the street can be achieved. Law enforcement will never be successful in handling the fast-moving, Internet-savvy rioters of the live-television environment it faces unless it changes its outdated ways of responding to riots. The following best practices are offered for chief executives to properly prepare their agencies to successfully handle civil disturbances:

  • In the planning stages, commit to preparing the agency for events that may fall at any point of intensity along the civil disturbance continuum, from passive demonstrations to violent outbursts.
  • Train incident commanders, field commanders, and line officers in the principles of mobile tactics.
  • Use vehicles and safety equipment that incorporate speed, maneuverability, and flexibility into the mobile field force concept of operations, and train with the actual equipment to be used in a disturbance.
  • Select and train with crowd-control weapons that integrate well into mobile tactics.
  • Give direct air-to-ground support to incident and field commanders to maximize the principle of economy of force.
  • Use the media and its live coverage to the agency’s advantage, instead of trying to keep news media away.
  • Always have up-to-date mutual aid plans that quickly determine who is in charge, and, depending on the location and type of incident, which assisting agency will accept, by said agreement, certain types of missions from the command post or the incident commander.
  • Consider briefing and educating key political leaders and the media about the concept of civil disturbance control based on the continuum and on the use of aggressive and decisive mobile field force tactics that will be used, if necessary, to safeguard lives and property. ■


1Donald Bolander et al., The Laurel Instant Quotation Dictionary (New York: Dell Publishing, 1990).
2LASD Captain Richard Odenthal, personal interview with author, December 1999.
3LASD Commander Patrick Devaney, personal interview with author, September 2011.
4LASD Division Chief (Retired) Kenneth Bayless, personal interview with author, April 1992.
5LASD Undersheriff (Retired) Robert Edmonds, personal interview, October 2010.

Please cite as:

Jerry Harper, "Civil Disturbance Readiness: How Ready Is Your Agency?" The Police Chief 79 (March 2012): 54–62.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 3, March 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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