Tradecraft for Cops: How to Effectively Stop a Riot

An email exchange between Justin King and someone claiming to be a Baltimore cop.

An email exchange between Justin King and someone claiming to be a Baltimore cop.

Baltimore, Maryland (TFC) – An email from a police officer provoked sarcasm at first, but then the question arose as to whether or not he was actually seeking advice. The Fifth Column will now cross the riot line and offer advice for officers that truly want to stop riots.

The most important thing to realize is that a police officer cannot “stop a riot.” He or she can only contribute to stopping a riot from starting. Riots rarely appear from the ether; they are born from a protest that becomes inflamed. The following things contribute to that inflammation. While following this advice will not stop every possible instance of civil unrest, it will greatly lessen the chance of a rowdy protest spawning a riot.

Appearance: Patrolling protests in riot gear or tactical gear does not create a deterrent. It inflames tensions. When protesters show up, they are already angry. Attempting to create a deterrent is a nice way of saying that officers are attempting to intimidate protesters. Fear creates a “fight or flight” response. Herd mentality kicks in and the protester herd is larger than the police herd. Flight is not an option. More importantly, the tactical gear doesn’t generally create fear. It creates contempt. Speaking as a protester, when I see a man in full riot gear or a man carrying an M4, I no longer see a cop. I see a traitor. You, whether intentional or not, are attempting to discourage people from exercising their Constitutionally-protected rights to free assembly, free speech, and redress of grievances. You are then not a cop, in my eyes or the eyes of many protesters. You are the enemy. I have shown up to cover protests that are not causes I particularly agree with, but when I found cops shouldering M4s, I immediately became an ally to the protesters. The implied threat of using a weapon like that against US civilians generates a distrust and hatred that unites spectators and protesters. If you dress and act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

An officer’s knee jerk reaction to this will be to state that they might need the weapons. First, research for yourself and find an instance where an automatic weapon with live ammunition was used properly during a protest or riot. You won’t find one. Second, the mentality that makes you believe you might need to gun down civilians proves that yes, you are a traitor. If the department feels that a riot is likely and wants to have officers already outfitted in riot gear, there is nothing stopping them from from having officers staged somewhere out of sight.

Orders to protesters: A protest is, by its very nature, fluid and uncontrollable. Attempting to control it will spark defiance. The number one rule of being in command and maintaining control is to never give an order that will be disobeyed. Establishing arbitrary lines to cordon off protesters creates the potential for the erosion of mutual respect, because the order won’t be obeyed. Once protesters begin disobeying, they won’t stop. A great example of a department doing it right was the Ohio State cops during a protest at the capitol earlier this year. They had every legal right to keep protesters on the sidewalk just outside of the capital grounds. When protesters began entering the state house grounds, they didn’t order them to leave. The order would not have been followed. Instead of elevating tensions, it created a belief among protesters that the cops “weren’t that bad.” Later, during a live demonstration of a waterboarding, when they ordered it terminated out of safety concerns, they had already established a rapport and a basis of mutual respect. The order was followed even though the protesters did not have to comply. Three officers contained and effectively controlled a demonstration that was filled with some of the people I met rioting in Ferguson. They did it by using a proper attitude and by choosing their battles wisely. They didn’t demand compliance like the goon squad of a totalitarian regime. If you act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

Intelligence gathering: While a protest may seem like an ideal location to gather intelligence on dissident groups, it almost always backfires. Good activist groups run counter-intelligence operations at protests. A department has two options. They can place a street cop in plain clothes that will almost certainly be identified, or they can place an experienced undercover officer in the protest and run the risk of him being identified. When officers are identified they are often publicly outed on scene, or they are photographed and their image is circulated on the web. Having images floating around of one of your narcs is a great way to get him a bullet to the head when he’s working another assignment later. More importantly, an undercover cop that gets outed and overreacts can start the initial wave of violence that triggers a riot. Lastly, the department should consider what intelligence they really hope to gain. There isn’t much there to be had, and it, again, casts your department as the Gestapo-like secret police. If you act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

Tear gas: I challenge any officer to furnish an example of tear gas diffusing a potential riot. It turned Ferguson from a petty vandalism into arson. If used when a protest is just starting to get rowdy, officers have effectively guaranteed a riot. When a peaceful protester is exposed to a chemical agent because of the actions of someone near them, they are now a rioter. They’ve been assaulted for no reason. Traditional arrest tactics are an officer’s best bet at keeping a crowd calm. The officer should also determine if the arrest is truly worth pursuing. This is not the time for enforcing petty laws. Is arresting a man for breaking a window worth triggering a full scale riot? Imagine the same scenario taking place in a bar. If two patrons get into a fight and break up the bar, do officers pepper spray every patron in the bar? Of course not. This is collective punishment. This is something that security services in third world regimes do. If you act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

MRAPs: Nothing says “We want things to remain peaceful” like showing up in a vehicle designed for warfare in Iraq. Much like tactical uniforms, it sets the tone that your department wants violence. It casts your department as active participants in the police state. It casts you as traitors. What benefit does it provide? None. It looks intimidating, but as previously stated, intimidation creates fear which creates violence. It should also be noted that there is a reason the Army is giving them away; they aren’t very good. If the situation gets to a level where protesters are actually attacking police officers, you’re sitting in a $600,000 vehicle that can be turned into an immobile bunker, and then into an oven, with less than $6 worth of materials. If you want to play soldier, the people can accommodate. If you act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

The reality of the situation: Officers are not in control of a protest. Officers are not in control of a riot. These are moments when the social contract is no longer in effect. Officers do not maintain tactical supremacy. They only have the illusion of it. The protesters know your location, your weapons, your tactics, and your limitations. You don’t even know which protesters are armed. If one of them opened fire, officers would not be able to accurately return fire into the crowd without killing scores of civilians and triggering a massive incident. Make no mistake, you are at the mercy of protesters, not the other way around. If protesters chose, you could easily be dragged through streets and lit on fire, as we saw happen in Ukraine. If departments continue militarization instead of de-escalating the violence, this won’t be a “what if” scenario. It is an inevitable event. If you doubt the validity of this prediction, review this article describing the five stages of insurgency that was written just after Ferguson. Pay special attention to the part where cops being shot while sitting in their cars is predicted. Yes, it was written before the New York shooting. If you act like the Gestapo, we will treat you like the Gestapo.

At the end of the day, your only hope of controlling a riot is to not allow one to start. The only way to reduce the chances of one starting is to entirely change the tactics that have been employed (and failed) for the last thirty years. The officer needs to remember that by attempting to control a peaceful protest they are greatly increasing the chances of a riot. If you don’t want the protest to occur, stop killing unarmed people. If you want to maintain the idea that you are above the law and that transparency is not something that applies to your department, just remember what happened to Gestapo officers at the end of World War II. If the current police state continues to advance, officers should expect to see something other than their cameras hanging from light posts.

Come over to the good guys, and be part of the solution. Encourage your department to demilitarize before it’s too late, or continue to be a problem for your community. Your call.