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Like many people, I’ve kept my mouth shut on the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, on the grounds that I don’t want to form a judgment before knowing the real facts. I do, however, know a little about about how police control riots, and sharing that knowledge may help others evaluate the police’s behavior in restoring order.
While I was getting my masters degree, I did a practical class (i.e., an internship, but one that was also a job) in a city of about 30,000. While I was there, I rotated into the police department for a week to learn how cops work and train, and part of that included a day at a riot control training sponsored by the Kentucky State Police. I was the best dressed rioter of the day, suit and tie and all.
The trainer explained that riot control has one basic principle: disperse the crowd. Everything the police do is with that goal in mind. Riots are the result of mobs and, as Ben Franklin might have said, a mob has many heads but no brain. When people are in a crowd, mass psychology takes over and they do things they never would do otherwise in order to fit in. That’s why people stay quiet in meetings unless someone else speaks out first. I saw it most vividly at a bullfight in Spain a few years ago. I found the idea distasteful, while one of my classmates was adamant that bullfighting was barbaric. Yet there we both were — standing on our feet and screaming for blood with the rest of the crowd — when the bullfighter leapt from his horse, grabbed the bull by the horns, was pushed back, then wrestled the animal to the ground and killed it with his spear. It’s the same thing, but where I simply joined a crowd in cheering in a stadium, during a riot people join the crowd in throwing bricks at the police.
So police want to disperse the crowd. Once the mob is broken up into groups of two or three — or, ideally, individuals — sense returns and everyone goes home.
Dispersing a crowd has three steps. First, the announcement. Tell the people that this is an illegal assembly and that they must go home. Many people on the fringe of the crowd will do so. Just being told that they are rioting is enough to break them out of the spell.
Second, secure the perimeter. Make sure the riot doesn’t spread and make sure no one else joins in. This is very important: the perimeter will allow people to leave in small groups but no one is allowed in. Police don’t like reporters because reporters add to the mob, and their reports — if broadcast live — tell people where to go to join the rioting.
The third and final step is the show of force. The police turn on the noisemakers, roll irritants into the crowd, and start doing “the stomp dance.” They stomp their feet, hit their batons against their shields, and start — very slowly –advancing towards the crowd, all in rhythm; having been on the receiving end of this during the training, I can assure you it’s actually pretty terrifying. The police leave the perimeter slightly porous so, as the shieldwall moves down the street, the mob is forced to move away, but they can’t move away as a group. Some people will have to go this way, some will have to go that way, and others will have to go a third way. In the end, the mob is dispersed.
“Don’t stop to arrest anyone,” the trainer said (forgive me for paraphrasing). “If someone lays down in the street ahead of you, step over them — carefully — and only let them cross one at a time. Let the second line of police arrest them. Use your camera: if you see a crime, take a picture. Check the mugshots tomorrow and go arrest them at their house, when they’ll be alone, and not part of a mob.”
The trainer was also clear that officers shouldn’t “touch the crowd.” The show of force is a rolling wall of intimidation, but it breaks if it touches the crowd. If one police officer gets out of step or gets hurt, the mob will decide that attacking the police is the new fun thing to do and will swarm the formation. Then, you have no choice but to fire into the crowd in self defense (for which there is a third line of police). He drilled the cops for hours: don’t break formation, don’t raise your batons, don’t break step, don’t respond to the incitements. If the police have to use their guns it’s because the formation screwed up, not because the mob was too violent.
When I watch these YouTube videos from Ferguson — to the extent you can make out anything — and I mostly see exactly what the riot training called for. People complain about “lobbing teargas into front yards” yet that is exactly what the training would have called for. A group of people standing in a yard as the wall passes is dangerous. Police have to clear the street and that means everyone inside, where they won’t be influenced by the mob.
I’ve also seen people complain about “attacking fleeing protestors” except the videos show what is supposed to happen: police using noisemakers and irritants (teargas in this case, but pepperballs can do the trick too) to hurry the crowd along wildly so that it breaks up, group psychology breaks down, and everyone goes home, ending the riot. And as for clearing a McDonalds and not allowing reporters into the perimeter? Recall that securing the perimeter is step two; once a reporter is on the wrong side of the line, they become part of the many brainless heads and must be treated as part of the crowd. If the wall breaks for one person with a camera, the mob can turn on the outnumbered cops and that ends badly for everyone.
I can’t say if the police agencies in Ferguson are doing all of this right: I’ve not seen enough to evaluate their performance and — even if I had — one day of training hardly makes me an expert. That said, I don’t see anything obviously wrong with their tactics, and I’m a little bothered by the armchair quarterbacking of people who know even less than I do. Even the snipers everyone’s been complaining about are used more for surveillance more than anything else. As for why they use their scopes rather than binoculars (though that might be a better idea in some circumstances), recall that you can’t just pick up a sniper rifle and expect to hit what you’re aiming at: you’ve got to constantly adjust the aim.
One final point. The trainer kept stressing the importance of staying in formation, not touching the crowd, and using the threat of force rather than actual force. He pointed out that striking a protestor with the baton endangers not only the officer, but the entire wall, because it can lead to calls for firing the weapons, endangering everyone in the area. He further stressed to the second line of police that their job is to flex-cuff rioters, lay them facedown, and move on; don’t try to subdue them further. They were told to avoid chokeholds at all costs, as they’re ineffective, time-consuming, and dangerous to the rioter.
The day ended on a darker note. After the trainer left, I hung around with four of the police officers trained and two or three other non-uniformed police employees who had been rioters. “Man, did you hear all the stuff about the formation. If I’m in a riot, you bet I’m gonna hit some punk with that baton! It’s why we have it! He comes at me, I’ll whack him!” he said, dramatically miming the action. “Yeah, and if he causes me trouble in the second line, I’ll pin him on the ground and I’ll choke him out, like this! At the end of the day, I’m going home alive.”
And because of the way groups of even seven or eight people behave, I never reported it to the police chief — which still gnaws at me, obviously. Even a small group of cops can form a mob, and forget their training because of group psychology.
Image Credit: Flickr user Chris Huggins.