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Evolution of Police Tactics to Manage Riots and Protests

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a four-part series on police preparation for riots and protests.

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

As a police detective the late 1980s with no riot training, Andrew Bell was given a riot helmet, stick, and leather strap and told to guard a post turning traffic around just two blocks from a large riot. An armored State Police vehicle drove down the street with loudspeaker blaring that the crowd had been declared an unlawful assembly and protesters would be arrested if they did not disperse immediately.

Earlier in the night, police retreated to regroup after crowds broke into most stores and cleaned out merchants’ property. Some stores even had the lighting fixtures broken or stolen.

The wedge, a police tactic to manage riots and clear the street of people, was making its way toward our cross street where three other officers and I were positioned for the night. We could see several hundred people moving away from the police wedge and toward our position. We could also hear screaming and yelling but could not make out the words.

As the wedge pushed rioters toward our position, someone in the crowd started throwing full Coke cans at us. One hit the cop next to me on his helmet. On instinct we ran toward the crowd, flanking the large group and sending the rioters running past our position. As the fastest runner in our group, I caught up to the back of the crowd and saw their frightened faces looking back at me with my stick held high, ready for a traditional baseball swing. The people running closest to me yelled, “Please don’t hit me.” I stopped, as the crowd continued to run away. I then returned to my post.

[Related: Preparing for Protests, Civil Unrest Requires Coordination among Agencies]

Three days into the rioting, one of only a handful of officers previously trained to manage riots stopped by our position and showed us how to properly wear and use our equipment. The leather strap was tied around the end of the baton for extra grip. Who knew? This was my first riot and an introduction to my studies on police and order maintenance. In the next few years, I would learn and practice police theories and tactics, later teaching college students those same lessons.

Recently, we have seen presumably peaceful protests turn into mayhem across the country. It is common to turn on the news to see police lined up in riot gear on one side and peaceful protesters marching and chanting on the other. In addition, we see fires, looting and individuals throwing bricks, frozen water bottles and overturning police cars.

Sometimes we see police pushing back, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and so on. Other times police merely stand their ground and watch, as the destruction and looting continues. Why is this happening? Some believe this chaos is the result of police wearing riot gear, carrying shields, long batons and military-style rifles. They say police show up to intimidate those protesting and it’s only human nature for the protesters to push back.

History and the Theory Behind Police Tactics to Manage Riots

Writing in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson said the unrest and riots of the 1960s brought new policing studies and methods which were hailed at the time by criminal justice experts as revolutionary.

Those who teach and practice criminal justice know and understand the terms: Broken Windows, Order Maintenance, Zero Tolerance, Community Policing, and Problem-Oriented Policing. However, many of these terms have been challenged in recent times, none more so than the Broken Windows theory.

Once hailed as making neighborhoods and citizens safe, the Broken Window theory has now been turned on its head. It has been labeled as being bias toward minorities and responsible for the aggressive police tactics (Zero Tolerance) that cause fear and death to a segment of the public. Even the authors of The Atlantic article “Broken Windows” advised that police departments improperly implemented the theory as a high-arrest program.

Kelling later claimed that proper implementation of the theory should have been for police to work with other government services and the community to solve problems and prevent social disorder using arrest as a last resort.

In view of recent media reports showing incidents of police using force while trying to manage riots, it is easy to believe that police in general are out of control and that there is no foundation or science for the use of tactics to back police action.

In reality, the basis for tactics used by large cities like New York, stemmed from these studies and the direct work with the social scientists like Kelling and Wilson to make communities safer. These studies indicated a correlation between crime and disorder; that using order maintenance to reduce crimes like graffiti, toll jumpers, and pan-handling could reduce crime in general and fear of crime that once plagued the citizens of New York.

A more recent review of Broken Windows debunks the crime and social disorder correlation and replaces it with a theory that disorderly behavior in crowds is contagious: “Crowd mentality, social inequalities and community anonymity could prompt ‘good citizens’ to act destructively.

This contagion coupled with the fact that wearing masks (once illegal, however now thought of as required when demonstrating due to COVID-19) provides anonymity that also encourages deviant and criminal behavior. That is a toxic mix for “peaceful” demonstrations to become violent riots. Finally, there is the notion that when protesters are demonstrating against police the police are less patient and sympathetic toward protesters and are quick to use force that they might not have used on a protest for some other cause.

Police Face Scrutiny for Tactics

If these theories are true, police departments have their work cut out for them. Not only are police under the public microscope, they are under the judicial microscope as well. Many prosecutors are now focusing on police with swift punishment: “There must be zero tolerance for police misconduct.” Once given the benefit of doubt, the police use of “zero tolerance” has come back to haunt some officers as they become the center of attention for quick judgment by the public and prosecutors in any “questionable” decisions they make.

While both law enforcement theories and practice are in question in figuring out how to manage riots, criminal justice is an art not a science, and police are not social scientists. What works in one place or time may not work in other similar situations and there is no “silver bullet” in implementing solutions to stop crime and disorder.

So does this mean nothing works? No, there is anecdotal evidence that some tactics and techniques do work to manage riots. Before using these techniques and tactics some analysis is called for to determine what works best.

In the next article in this series, we will discuss the importance of proactively planning for riots and identifying issues that caused unplanned protests.

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.

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