AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

The DC Riot: Ineffective Tactics and Crowd Control (Part II)

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By Andrew Bell
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

and Bruce Razey
35-year police veteran

This is a three-part series on the riot that occurred at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. In this series, we 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. Read the first article in the series.

Was there a failure of command and control in collecting intelligence, and communicating and directing operations at the scene of the D.C. riot? There was plenty of intelligence leading up the riot that was either downplayed or ignored by law enforcement.

However, what was more detrimental to maintaining order that day was the lack of command and control. Who knew what, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? Law enforcement leaders need to answer these questions.

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Knowing about a pending riot is one thing, doing something about it is another. A command post should have been established to provide that command and control. That command post can be a temporary mobile location — like a vehicle — or a building far enough from the potential riot to ensure leadership at the command post is not in danger.

That command post would still allow for the control of law enforcement assets and serves as a control center for the collection and analysis of information from police spotters and undercover officers at the scene and in the crowd. The incident commander at the command post should direct police actions by communicating with supervisors at the riot to promptly gain control of the rioting crowd with the ultimate goals of reducing injury and property damage.

Even to the average American watching TV that day, there was an obvious lack of command and control prior to and during the D.C. riot. Real-time intelligence must be incorporated at the command post, away from the riot and relayed back to the supervisors.

[Podcast: Police Response to the Capitol Riots]

Good command and control operations can direct action at the scene before the protest turns into a riot. Riot instigators like people with Kevlar helmets, flack vests, zip ties, tactical communication devices, and bear pepper spray should have been quickly identified and removed, but it appears this did not happen.

A Lack of Interagency Communication Also Contributed to the DC Riot

In addition to the lack of a proper command post, prior communication was lacking between government law enforcement agencies. Communication is critical for the coordination of police operations: seconds matter during a riot and pre-coordination is necessary to reduce response time.

One article indicated that within 50 minutes, three FBI SWAT tactical teams were at the Capitol once the call was made. That was about 49 minutes too late to help those officers trying to hold back the initial rioters.

While pre-coordination can shorten the response time to a riot, FBI SWAT should not have been the second line of defense during the D.C. riot. Based on mutual aid agreements already in place, initial communication should have included pre-coordination with other local and state police to allocate and deploy additional assets for quick action, if necessary.

A request for military aid normally takes even longer, so early coordination is a must. During situations where you need such assets immediately, consider that their response time will be hours or days, not minutes. As a result, they may come too late to help.

During the D.C. riot, riot police were unable to protect and hold the line of defense against the overwhelming number of protestors. A key concept in riot control is holding back the crowd with a police line. That day, it was difficult to fight on several fronts and prevent rioters from getting to a vulnerable area like the Capitol.

Once a line is breached, if the rioters are not quickly repelled back in the direction they came — or arrested and removed from the scene — control is lost and police must regroup. The longer it takes to retreat and regroup, the more dangerous the riot becomes. That’s why we saw police officers and rioters fighting hand to hand at the Capitol, and this is where the next issue of mobile tactical teams is important.

The Use of Mobile Tactical Teams

Mobile tactical response teams are intended to be on hand quickly. As we have found out during numerous riots in Virginia Beach, seconds matter when officers and citizens need help.

In such situations, mobile tactical teams are the answer. Our mobile teams were out of sight but at every protest, they suited up and put down hot spots and breaches of the protest line. They also arrested and took away instigators within seconds of the calls for help.

The Role of Supervisory Directives

Supervisory directives clarify various aspects of riot control, including:

  • Direct supervision of riot officers
  • Tactics such as holding the line; how, when and where to move; when to retreat and where
  • Who should arrest rioters and when, versus just holding back an angry crowd

Once a law enforcement team member makes an arrest, that officer is gone and supervisors must determine if the arrest of the rioter is more beneficial than losing the officer to hold the line. Without reinforcements, even arrests are a bad idea in maintaining the primary objective of holding the line.

In addition to operational tactics, supervisors are responsible to keep officers in line with rules, policies and laws. Usually, a word from a supervisor making an on-the-spot correction will put those who are out of line in their behavior back in place.

In our experience, our police department promoted the unity of command, sending out squads of officers with the supervisor they normally worked and trained with. This structure allowed the squad to better work as a team.

In addition, supervisory control is also span of control. Ideally, supervisors should be in charge of no more than 10-12 officers. If there are too many officers, you lose that control. Use too few officers, and you lose effectiveness.

Intervention and De-Escalation Tactics

Intervention tactics must be flexible, and both should be verbal and physical. Verbal commands are always the initial intervention method and using less lethal weapons is a better option than deadly force.

Would anyone have ever believed that the Secret Service would need riot gear and less lethal weapons inside the Capitol? Maybe now they do. Equipment that is not standard issue for police officers, including less lethal weapons for riots, should be staged in convenient locations close by.

Note that we are not saying that the officer who shot and killed the rioter entering the inner rooms of the Capitol was not justified in using deadly force. But we are saying that few alternatives leave few choices.

Also, the use of less lethal weapons like gas and rubber bullets is more effective in outdoor locations and more dangerous inside buildings. This intervention with less lethal weapons could have helped police gain control and prevent the breach of the Capitol building.

Every year, our department prepositioned riot equipment out of sight during potential unrest at the Virginia Beach oceanfront. However, at the first sign of a large assembly, officers were ordered to “suit up” before the crowd even became a potential threat. 

Police departments must train in de-escalation tactics to preempt violence. For our Virginia Beach police, riot training involved both classroom and hands-on practical training. These tactics included:

  • Understanding crowd mentality
  • Maintaining self-control, especially in the face of aggressive action
  • Identifying and confronting agitators

During practical training, adversarial groups posing as rioters tested police lines by throwing wooden blocks and getting in officers’ faces to intimidate them. They attempted to cause officers to either run away or become aggressive, which would surely incite a crowd and escalate the situation.

To prevent either situation from occurring, officers were taught to look to their supervisor for commands and not be drawn in by the crowd. Officers were also instructed to work with a larger group of police, chaplains, and volunteers, who would talk with the crowd to advocate for a peaceful demonstration.

We learned, as have many cities, that many times, mediators are successful at de-escalating aggressive individuals and groups and may prevent a riot.  But we also learned that when there is a clear sign that de-escalation has failed, police must quickly protect mediators and move them to a safe location

Read the next article in this series:

The DC Riot: Crimes, Criminals and the Future (Part III)

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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