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Planning for Riots and Protests Requires Identifying Problems and Creating Partnerships

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a four-part series on riots and riot control. Read the first article.

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

In the summer of 1988, riots broke out on the on the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The rioting was the direct result of Greekfest, a college fraternity and sorority celebration held at the city convention center, where entertainment promoters oversold the capacity of people that the convention center could hold. When paid students were turned away at the door, the police were called to quell the mini riot. That made the angry students even angrier and there followed three consecutive days and nights of chaos.

The department learned its lesson and began planning and preparing for the following year’s event. The agency deployed the Problem-Oriented Policing strategy, which employs the SARA model, Scanning-Analysis-Response-Assessment. When addressing any problem police should seek to involve as many departments, organizations and citizens as possible. Our agency involved the hotel association, beachfront merchants, traffic engineering, public works, the sheriff’s department, the NAACP, and even the military.

Identifying Problems that Led to Riots

One of the problems we identified was that during Labor Day weekends there were too many tourists in the small area of the oceanfront, with too little to do. Most of the hotel reservations were from college students and very few from families. So, our first goal was to provide more family-oriented entertainment. It took more than a year to correct these issues, as the city worked closely with various sports and entertainment officials, as well as with the Navy.

When it all came together, we had multiple concerts along the oceanfront with well-known oldies and country-western stars. We hosted the East Coast surfing championship tournaments, a rock-n-roll half marathon, and even got the local Navy base to schedule its annual air show during the Labor Day festivities. Adding family entertainment drew more families to the event and fewer college students. This entertainment strategy continues today.

Establishing a Plan for Riots in Advance

Another problem we identified was that we had failed to plan for the riots in the first place. We knew we would be overwhelmed with college students, but never anticipated things could go wrong. Simply arresting thousands of people in a few hours overwhelmed the system. Every person arrested had to be taken before a magistrate and then to jail. This took officers off the street and jammed magistrates and our jail capacity. The more arrests that were made, the fewer officers we had available to address the riots.

[Related: Will Trump’s Executive Order Lead to Better Training and Education of Officers?]

In the following years we had a plan that worked well for us, not the rioters. We partnered with the organization that ran the jail and the sheriff’s department. Deputies stood by with paddy wagons. When an officer made an arrest, the person was flex-cuffed with the officer’s name and code number and a deputy would transport the arrestee to the magistrate at a make-shift jail at a city sports complex.

Many additional issues were identified such as logistics, supervision, mobile response teams, and foot squads. Most importantly, we had to develop our strategy concerning when and how to intervene with the demonstrators.

Leave Areas Police-Free Zone

While police may be able to monitor demonstrators remotely, our experience, and the results from both Broken Windows and Crowd Mentality, would indicate that to do so would be a recipe for disaster. It would increase the response time in life-and-death emergencies in that area even if it were possible to get through at all.

While police presence provides for a quicker response time, it does nothing to prevent damage and injury as exemplified by the serious injury of a demonstrator in Portsmouth, Virginia this June when other demonstrators toppled a statue as police looked on.

We have seen areas free of both protesters and police in riot gear providing a safe zone. However, these zones are difficult to maintain and it does nothing to prevent escalation. There has been some success providing specially trained community policing/relations officers or social workers in plain clothes or regular uniform to engage the demonstrators in an attempt to deescalate hot spots and maintain order.

A full complement of police assets provides plain clothes, regular uniform officers, and officers with riot gear ready may be the best of all situations. Officers in uniform can be deployed with police chaplains or trained citizens (our department called them “ambassadors” identified in yellow shirts) to mingle with peaceful protesters to discuss and de-escalate problems.

Undercover officers blend in with the crowd providing intelligence information and monitoring crowd temperament. Police in riot gear can be staged away from the protest area but prepared to deploy if needed. It is important to keep on hand riot equipment for the remainder of the police officers deployed in the crowd should de-escalation fail and they need to be utilized for riot control.

Many times these options are mixed or attempted in unison. Even with all these options sometimes de-escalation fails and violent protests occur. Once the crowd reaches the tipping point and rule of law is disrupted the time for de-escalation methods are over and riot-equipped police must intervene.

While we have come a long way with technology, equipment, and research in law enforcement, policing is still more of an art than science and there is no magic formula to fix the social issues that police must deal with. Yes, some of these situational studies are flawed and police are attempting to change as the science improves. Educating the general public on what efforts law enforcement have made and committed to in order to make communities safe can only improve the relationship. It is important that police be seen as members of society and part of the solution to problems and not as the problem.

In the third part of this series, we will cover legal aspects of demonstrations and riots, duties of demonstrators and police tactics and supervision.

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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