AMU Homeland Security Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

The DC Riot: A Failure of Ideas and Police Planning (Part I)

By Andrew Bell
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

and Bruce Razey
35-year police veteran

Editor’s Note: This is a three-part series on the riot that occurred at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. This series will explore potential key questions, failures, outcomes and implications to the criminal justice system concerning what will likely be known as the most infamous riot in modern history.

Just when you thought the state of affairs within the U.S. could not get worse, they did. The U.S. Capitol riot was an embarrassment to law enforcement and the nation. The fact that it took place suggests that the U.S. has become like a Third World country, with officers unable to protect the rule of law, missing the will of the people, and divided by extremism.

[Podcast: Police Response to the Capitol Riots]

After all the riots in 2020, you would think people would know better. You would think the United States, with the greatest law enforcement and military capabilities in the world, could have handled this event. Surely in the Capitol region, where protests are as common as the tourists that visit, this type of event could not occur.

The events surrounding what occurred at the Capitol Building present what can only be described as a recipe for a riot. So, what exactly happened?

Planning for Riots

As former police supervisors who have been involved in policing riots and who have published articles on use of force and preparing for riots, we understand there will always be a fine line between peaceful protests and riots. To prevent chaos, departments must have proper “Police Allocation and Deployment” (also the key components of a Patrol Methodologies & Community Policing class we teach at AMU) and proper logistics to support those efforts. 

Riot planning is not normal police planning. As we have found out in the riots of the 1990s, and police departments all over the country found out last year, policing riots requires special training, planning, and implementation.

Once the riot has started, it is too late to plan for reinforcements and additional equipment. Sometimes, it’s even too late to call for the cavalry to prevent destruction and injury.

There Are Valid Reasons Why Police Will Use Force

In the past, we have said many times that there is a reason police use force and this is one of them: to enforce the rule of law. The idea that if you take away aggressive police action, remove protective riot gear, and use less lethal tools (gas, tasers, and rubber bullets), the crowd will follow suit and act peacefully is flawed. 

As with most riots, the one at the Capitol began a peaceful gathering. But afterward, there was a period of increasing agitation, which led to minor clashes and testing law enforcement weaknesses.

That was the optimum time to use the force necessary to deter a potential riot. Police leadership must mentally commit to the reality that use of force could be necessary and less lethal weapons help reduce deadly force incidents.

This begs several questions:

  • Was there a lapse in judgment by law enforcement leadership in planning the defense of the Capitol?
  • Did that lapse of judgement include the failure to entrust officers to use force?
  • Was there a failure to properly equip and allow officers to use less lethal weapons?
  • What about turning down help in advance? Was that due to social or political pressure?

Planning for Riots and Protests Requires Identifying Problems and Creating Partnerships

Planning for protests must include worst-case scenarios such as what occurred at the Capitol, which left officers, legislators, and Capitol property vulnerable and at the mercy of rioters. Logistics for planning includes allocating the proper number of equipped personnel, getting them in position and making sure they are ready when you need them.

[Related: The Less Well-Known Attack on the US Capitol 67 Years Ago]

The ultimate goal is to be more prepared for what might occur than the potential rioters. Unfortunately, many rioters seemed more committed and better equipped than police. Some came with less lethal weapons and protective equipment.

A plan to use “non-aggressive” or “soft” police tactics against potential protestors without the proper tools of the trade is a poor choice at any demonstration. The saying comes to mind, “bringing a knife to a gunfight,” and that is what happened to law enforcement at the Capitol with its lack of adequate preparation. Some recent articles on the riot indicate that the fear of looking as if police were too aggressive based on previous riots may have led to the ineffective soft tactics that were used during the D.C. riot.

In addition, calls for defunding the police and police reform appeared to also be a factor in stopping officers from using less lethal weapons. The combination of soft tactics and lack of less lethal weapons was apparently a factor in local police officers’ inability to fight back the rioters and control the escalating violence of the crowd.

Could the DC Riot Have Been Prevented, Since There Were Strong Indicators Something Would Happen?

In hindsight, was there a failure of law enforcement to identify and correct the problem of violent behavior at the onset of violations? Clearly, there were early indicators of potential violence in the D.C. area, and social media postings indicated there would be an effort to “Occupy the Capitol.”

But it was also clear the permit for the rally was only for the assembly at the Ellipse and not for a march and rally at the Capitol. Therefore, as soon as the demonstrators left the Ellipse, they established themselves as an unlawful assembly. Police in D.C. should have quickly dealt with the protesters as they did during protests earlier in the year.

Were buffer zones properly positioned? It is not as if the leadership did not know where the protest was going.

It was clear the Capitol Building was a target whose defenses should have been hardened. Part of that defense includes buffer zones, which are a critical part of riot plans.

With the existence of a potential vulnerable target location, a security assessment must be completed, including where barriers should be placed. These barriers can be created by two police lines (for quick reaction on the move) or a combination of barriers and police lines.

Presently, there are two barriers around the Capitol and White House. By design, these barriers create a buffer zone between police and protesters. They also provide law enforcement with the ability to see breaches in the lines and also to arrest and move those instigators out of the way before the demonstration turns into a riot.

Was there a contingency/rescue plan? The big question is “What if rioters make it past police lines?” According to the New York Times, it appeared there was no pre-plan of escape for officers or civilians trapped by rioters. This lack of an escape plan seems inconceivable, considering the importance of the Capitol and those people who work inside.

However, riot scenes are fluid. Many times, police must give up ground or even retreat to succeed. Remember the police officer in the Capitol who led rioters away from the room of legislators to the location where he was met by backup officers? The same is true for police riots in general.

While it might look chaotic for police to move or give up ground, the important part of bringing a riot to a stop is knowing where to go. That is why it is a priority in riot planning to identify rally points and staging areas. These areas should be known to all police, should they become separated for any reason from their team. Contingency areas should include locations for regrouping, reequipping, and redeploying as a larger force to combat the riot with those holding the line or creating a new line to push back rioters.

Read the next articles in this series:

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. He was part of the Army Logistics Corps and worked in various positions in operations, planning, and various leadership positions.

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. Andrew has authored and co-authored many published police and military articles that focus on prominent police issues like use of force, de-escalation, investigations, strategies, and riots and protests. He is also the co-author of the fiction series, “Cops of Acadia.”

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. Bruce has co-authored many published police articles that focus on prominent police issues like use of force, de-escalation, investigations, strategies, and riots and protests. He is also the co-author of the fiction series, “Cops of Acadia.”

Andrew Bell has been a teacher for AMU since 2004. He has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. Called to active duty as a U.S. Army Reserve Officer after 9/11 and served in Afghanistan. He has authored and co-authored publications on police and military and is co-author of the fiction series, “Cops of Acadia.”

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