Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Notes on Riot Control

 

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.

There are 37 comments.

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  1. Merina Smith Inactive

    That’s interesting, Sabrdance. I would never have thought about this way to control a mob, but it makes sense.

    • #1
    • August 18, 2014, at 9:21 PM PST
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  2. Chris Member

    Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

    • #2
    • August 18, 2014, at 11:33 PM PST
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  3. Mole-eye Member

    Wow – reminds me of an advance by Roman legionnaires, but with batons instead of gladii.
    And of the thing that made the Romans so successful against their enemies: discipline.

    • #3
    • August 18, 2014, at 11:51 PM PST
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  4. Profile Photo Member

    The things one finds on Ricochet.

    • #4
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:41 AM PST
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  5. donald todd Inactive

    Thank you. That was fascinating reading.

    One assumes that some police departments properly led will do things the right way every time; and others, not under control, will be failures and put into situations which degrade for all.

    • #5
    • August 19, 2014, at 6:53 AM PST
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  6. Tuck Inactive

    The problem with this analysis is that the simple fact that it’s effective doesn’t make it Constitutional.

    There’s absolutely no excuse for arresting those journalists in the McDonalds, or tear-gassing the Al-Jazeera video crew. Arresting a journalist who’s in the middle of the riot in the heat of battle is one thing…

    • #6
    • August 19, 2014, at 6:59 AM PST
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  7. Xennady Inactive

    Was this supposed to make me feel better?

    I have no doubt police have a procedure for riots. My problem is exactly that the procedure includes arresting reporters, clearing a building some might call a restaurant, firing tear gas into uninvolved citizens’ yards, and aiming guns at random people. Plus, somehow now they need tanks, too.

    Bluntly, this is not a procedure for a free country. It’s a procedure for a regime looking to intimidate people, so they are afraid to protest.

    And as seems usual, the police were too busy following their riot control procedure to actually deal with the widespread looting.

    Something is wrong with all of this. I suggest the police find something new, because the procedure they have now plainly doesn’t work.

    • #7
    • August 19, 2014, at 7:25 AM PST
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  8. Jeffery Shepherd Member

    Thanks for this. I was watching Fox last night as Shepard Smith was describing the actions of the police as something like “keystone cops” but I was pretty sure he was clueless as to what he was looking at. It sure looked to me like the police were doing exactly what they intended to do. Yet another example of the uninformed informing us.

    • #8
    • August 19, 2014, at 7:44 AM PST
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  9. Teresa Mendoza Inactive

    Xennady:

    Was this supposed to make me feel better?

    I have no doubt police have a procedure for riots. My problem is exactly that the procedure includes arresting reporters, clearing a building some might call a restaurant, firing tear gas into uninvolved citizens’ yards, and aiming guns at random people. Plus, somehow now they need tanks, too.

    Bluntly, this is not a procedure for a free country. It’s a procedure for a regime looking to intimidate people, so they are afraid to protest.

    And as seems usual, the police were too busy following their riot control procedure to actually deal with the widespread looting.

    Something is wrong with all of this. I suggest the police find something new, because the procedure they have now plainly doesn’t work.

     There is a difference between a protest and a riot. I expect the police to protect me and my property by breaking up riots. (And arresting looters. I’m not sure that failure resulted from the manpower diverted to mob control. I got the impression – from television news, so bigs chunks of salt – that Johnson thought that some looting would have the effect of dissipating the anger.)

    • #9
    • August 19, 2014, at 8:01 AM PST
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  10. Old Bathos Member

    I am a veteran observer of many “gatherings” in the 60s and 70s. I saw some brilliant tactics by the DC police, even using undercover rabble rousers to march large groups of people in the wrong direction. And some tactical errors. The largest anti-war protests in DC could have gone very much worse without a lot of outstanding work by cops. From a rise by the Smithsonian, I watched a thin blue line hold Constitution Ave at 10th St NW against a massive surge I thought would overrun them and smash up the DOJ during MayDay ’71. Reinforcements appeared. Gas was released. Crowds were redirected. The hand-to-hand never materialized.
    The discipline, training, tactical genius and rapid judgment required to manage large angry crowds is probably more challenging than military combat command–you can’t just shoot ’em or call in an air strike because you are charged with protecting the adversary as well as your own command.
    The issue for me in not whether the cops wear camo or have “tanks.” It’s about the skills and virtues required for the challenge and whether the rest of us appreciate that.

    • #10
    • August 19, 2014, at 8:09 AM PST
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  11. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance Post author

    Tuck:

    The problem with this analysis is that the simple fact that it’s effective doesn’t make it Constitutional.

    I am not evaluating the specific circumstances -perhaps ordering the McDonalds dispersed was improper -I don’t know. If it was proper, reporters don’t get a pass.

    The Constitution does not protect riots -which is why the procedure begins with the reading of the riot act, as you saw in the video Claire linked. “It is no longer a peaceful protest when you try to injure people.” In Kentucky, the text is something like “You are in violation of KRS 525.050 and are ordered to disperse immediately.” This is a lawful order you are obligated to obey -and if you do not, you violate 525.050(1)b, because being part of the mob makes it worse. Every state has a similar law. I am not making any judgement on whether it was a riot that violates Missouri’s equivalent, 574-040.

    • #11
    • August 19, 2014, at 8:25 AM PST
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  12. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance Post author

    Xennady:

    Bluntly, this is not a procedure for a free country. It’s a procedure for a regime looking to intimidate people, so they are afraid to protest.

    And as seems usual, the police were too busy following their riot control procedure to actually deal with the widespread looting.

    Something is wrong with all of this. I suggest the police find something new, because the procedure they have now plainly doesn’t work.

     If I heard the story right, it was police not following their riot control procedures that lead to the looting over the weekend. To be blunt, if you want the looting stopped but you don’t want the intimidation tactics used, you are asking the police to fire on the crowd. If the police are dispersed to arrest looters, they will be swarmed and have to fire to protect themselves.

    If you ask the police to go as a group -for protection -to arrest each individual looter, they won’t arrest many, because 20 men in formation don’t move very fast, and the looting won’t be stopped.

    The root of the looting is the mob, which is why the police focus on dispersing that crowd.

    • #12
    • August 19, 2014, at 8:29 AM PST
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  13. Doug Watt Member

    Nice post. That’s how it works. The smart people leave as soon as the order to disperse is given. I was in the front line of officers during a Rodney King demonstration in Portland. The order was given to disperse when newspaper vending machines were set on fire. The order for us to move came when the first store window was smashed. We were three deep. We marched across the street. The first person I encountered refused to move and gave me the finger. With both hands on my baton I knocked him down and the second line passed him to the third line and he was zip tied. A woman in front of me started screaming police brutality. I put both hands on my baton and said move now or you’re next. She decided to move.

    • #13
    • August 19, 2014, at 8:47 AM PST
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  14. flownover Inactive

    Good stuff Sabrdance, made me think of Elias Cannetti and one of the best books I have ever read, and continue to read : Crowds and Power
    I highly recommend this book as it analyzes how a crowd or mob forms and how it takes on a personality that is different than its participants. Your recall of their tactics shows an apparent knowledge of Cannetti theory.

    It is also one of the most interesting books ever as it describes examples of dysfunctional societies. After reading some of those, you will truly understand the meaning of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction .

    • #14
    • August 19, 2014, at 10:46 AM PST
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  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Really interesting post, thank you. I’ll try to come up with a more thoughtful response tomorrow–just got in from a long day at work and I don’t think I can be as lucid as I want to be right now. But it’s great to hear something from this perspective, and very much helps me understand some of the things I’ve seen both on TV re. Ferguson and up-close-and-personal at various riots and demonstrations. Thank you!

    • #15
    • August 19, 2014, at 11:09 AM PST
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  16. Tuck Inactive

    Sabrdance: In Kentucky, the text is something like “You are in violation of KRS 525.050 and are ordered to disperse immediately.“

     Yeah, apparently they arrested a bunch of journalists last night who were in the midst of the crowd when it was ordered to disperse. I really don’t have a problem with that, as they’re being treated the same way everyone else is, and the journalists were all released on the morning. The cops have a tough job, they can’t pick and choose in the middle of chaos.

    Apparently the journalists were also provided a “safe zone” so they could observe. If they’re outside of that, they ought to be treated the same as everyone else.

    • #16
    • August 19, 2014, at 11:23 AM PST
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  17. Tiger4Truth Inactive

    Thank you so much for putting actions into context which resulted in putting events into perspective. Well done!

    • #17
    • August 19, 2014, at 11:48 AM PST
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  18. Paul A. Rahe Contributor

    This was an admirably lucid post and provides us with a standard by which to judge police conduct in such circumstances. Doug Watt’s comment (#13) is exceptionally helpful as well. A peaceful demonstration is one thing; a riot in which the demonstrators wittingly or unwittingly provide cover for the destruction of property or an attack on other human beings is another. Reporters who wittingly or unwittingly become participants in a riot ought to be treated like everyone else.

    • #18
    • August 19, 2014, at 11:57 AM PST
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  19. Wylee Coyote Member

    Great post. I’ve been a member of my department’s civil disturbance unit for several years now, and can tell you the training we’ve had jibes very well with what you describe.

    I think a lot of the problems that we’ve seen with the police response in Ferguson stem from bad or nonexistent leadership. I read (granted it was on Vox, but still) that until Capt. Ron Johnson was appointed by the governor, that each day of the riots, there was a different commander from a different agency. Nobody knew who was in charge. This partly explains why Chief Jackson of Ferguson PD always seemed so dazed and unresponsive when asked questions about the riot response – people assumed he was the Incident Commander, and he was not.

    Ironically, while people on the left (and not a few on the right) talk about the police in Ferguson as though they are some malevolent hive mind, the precise opposite appears to be the case. There is a danger in this, because it causes people to mistake the police’s disorganization for deliberate malice.

    Sadly, after a promising start, Capt. Johnson has proved to be quite unequal to the task.

    • #19
    • August 19, 2014, at 12:00 PM PST
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  20. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    There was a guy at Kent State taking photos for the FBI who fired several shots from a handgun just before the National Guard opened fire. There are reasons to believe that the Guard’s thinking they were under fire contributed to the bad outcome. Not all the people who learned lessons from that are on the side of civil society.

    If, as reported, there were NOI and Panther “organizers” in the crowd in Ferguson, there were people willing to provoke the authorities into what would surely be portrayed as an overreaction. Maybe even people who had participated in training like Sabrdance’s – except intended to teach them to carry out counter tactics to serve malignant political ends. They would have been armed if that suited their plans. 

    That would be in addition to any thugs in the crowds armed just because.

    • #20
    • August 19, 2014, at 12:10 PM PST
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  21. SkipSul Moderator

    Ontheleftcoast: There was a guy at Kent State taking photos for the FBI who fired several shots from a handgun just before the National Guard opened fire. There are reasons to believe that the Guard’s thinking they were under fire contributed to the bad outcome. Not all the people who learned lessons from that are on the side of civil society.

    There were professional protestors brought onto Kent that day, egging the crowds on. They wanted students to get shot.

    • #21
    • August 19, 2014, at 12:16 PM PST
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  22. Xennady Inactive

    TerMend:

    I expect the police to protect me and my property by breaking up riots.

    Ok. How did that work out?

    TerMend:

    I got the impression – from television news, so bigs chunks of salt – that Johnson thought that some looting would have the effect of dissipating the anger.)

    Oh. So the cops decided to let the looting continue.

    In other words, property was not protected and- from what I can gather- the rioting wasn’t broken up, either.

    That’s failure.

    Plainly the camo and the “tanks” didn’t help.

    • #22
    • August 19, 2014, at 12:38 PM PST
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  23. Tuck Inactive

    Wylee Coyote: Sadly, after a promising start, Capt. Johnson has proved to be quite unequal to the task.

     I don’t agree with that. Johnson was being played: he didn’t realize that there were outside agitators in the crowd inciting violence, and unwilling to accept anything else.

    He knows it now, I expect his tactics will change dramatically (apparently they already have).

    • #23
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:05 PM PST
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  24. Wylee Coyote Member

    Xennady:

    Plainly the camo and the “tanks” didn’t help.

     It’s worth noting that the riots got worse after the “tanks” were withdrawn. In the early days of the week, while people were complaining about the police show of force, there was comparatively more peace than there is now. That show of force, incidentally, followed an outbreak of looting at about 8:30 pm Sunday night, August 10th.

    Interestingly, according to Patricia Bynes, a local Democratic committeewoman who is active in the protests, the armored vehicles were only put out on the line after an incident where a man drove a car at the line of police at a high rate of speed, stopping about a foot from hitting them. She added, “There is a lot going on at these protests that everyone doesn’t see.”

    No kidding.

    • #24
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:17 PM PST
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  25. Xennady Inactive

    Sabrdance:

    If I heard the story right, it was police not following their riot control procedures that lead to the looting over the weekend. To be blunt, if you want the looting stopped but you don’t want the intimidation tactics used,

    Stop right there.

    I have absolutely no sympathy for looters or rioters, and to be blunt I’d be just fine if the police did shoot them.

    But I strongly object to the idea that it is a-ok to shoot tear gas at people merely standing in their yards, or roust people out of a McDonald’s, or just point guns at people not rioting or looting for no reason at all.

    I take this as an example of the “just us” mentality too many police display, leading to them to describe everyone else as a mere “civilian” not worthy of consideration.

    Your description of police riot control training strikes me as part and parcel of the same logic that leads to endless no-knock raids, and the like.

    I’ve had enough of it.

    • #25
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:22 PM PST
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  26. Wylee Coyote Member

    Tuck:

    Wylee Coyote: Capt. Johnson has proved to be quite unequal to the task.

    I don’t agree with that. Johnson was being played: he didn’t realize that there were outside agitators in the crowd inciting violence, and unwilling to accept anything else.

     Anyone with knowledge of civil disturbances should have anticipated that. It happens pretty much every time.

    And one of the principal things they teach us about riots relating to controversial topics, is that the police must do their best to appear neutral, firm, and fair. You do not take sides; you are on the side of law and order. You want to avoid anything that makes it look like you are taking a side.

    I wasn’t particularly comfortable with Capt. Johnson marching with the protest when he took over Thursday, but I was willing to give him benefit of the doubt – police sometimes escort marches and the like on foot. That’s not necessarily an endorsement.

    But to appear at a rally like he did? This is the tactical commander of the riot police, sharing a stage with Al Sharpton, saying “I’m sorry” and suggesting that he is ashamed of his uniform.

    Madness.

    • #26
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:27 PM PST
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  27. SkipSul Moderator

    Wylee Coyote: But to appear at a rally like he did? This is the tactical commander of the riot police, sharing a stage with Al Sharpton, saying “I’m sorry” and suggesting that he is ashamed of his uniform. Madness.

     Should have been relieved of duty for that.

    • #27
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:36 PM PST
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  28. Xennady Inactive

    Wylee Coyote:

    Interestingly, according to Patricia Bynes, a local Democratic committeewoman who is active in the protests, the armored vehicles were only put out on the line after an incident where a man drove a car at the line of police at a high rate of speed, stopping about a foot from hitting them. She added, “There is a lot going on at these protests that everyone doesn’t see.”

    No kidding.

    Then it’s a fumbling festival of incompetence all the way around, isn’t it?

    The local cops managed to create a world famous incident, of national political importance, which will surely make their jobs harder in the future. They’ve managed to further anger people such as myself, who are tired of tacticool cops and their MRAPs and M113s, not to mention the no-knock raids. And at the end of the day, after all the sound and fury which apparently signified nothing, they didn’t even stop the rioting.

    Again, that’s failure.

    • #28
    • August 19, 2014, at 1:41 PM PST
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  29. Doug Watt Member

    Xennady:

    Wylee Coyote:

    Interestingly, according to Patricia Bynes, a local Democratic committeewoman who is active in the protests, the armored vehicles were only put out on the line after an incident where a man drove a car at the line of police at a high rate of speed, stopping about a foot from hitting them. She added, “There is a lot going on at these protests that everyone doesn’t see.”

    No kidding.

    Then it’s a fumbling festival of incompetence all the way around, isn’t it?

    The local cops managed to create a world famous incident, of national political importance, which will surely make their jobs harder in the future. They’ve managed to further anger people such as myself, who are tired of tacticool cops and their MRAPs and M113s, not to mention the no-knock raids. And at the end of the day, after all the sound and fury which apparently signified nothing, they didn’t even stop the rioting.

    Again, that’s failure.

     Yeah I know right, the officer should have let the guy beat him senseless, take his gun, and then shoot him with his own gun. Sounds like a good plan to me.

    • #29
    • August 19, 2014, at 2:32 PM PST
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  30. Xennady Inactive

    Doug Watt:

    Yeah I know right, the officer should have let the guy beat him senseless, take his gun, and then shoot him with his own gun. Sounds like a good plan to me.

     No, the officer involved in the original shooting seems to have done what he had to do.

    For example, this report:

    http://hotair.com/archives/2014/08/19/was-the-cop-injured-during-his-altercation-with-michael-brown/

    If this report is true- that the officer suffered a fractured eye socket- then this should been trumpeted by the local police department loudly and immediately.

    But no, instead they did the exact opposite, now apparently including standing on the stage to show solidarity with Al Sharpton.

    Idiots, all the way around.

    • #30
    • August 19, 2014, at 3:37 PM PST
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