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Date last updated: Monday, February 23, 14:40 PST
Crowd and riot response for the 21st century
With the Republican and Democratic conventions looming in Minneapolis and Denver, now is a good time for us to consider how our agencies will respond to large crowd and riot-control situations. Some departments have massive annual events requiring their response. The streets of Pasadena are lined with more than a million parade-watchers on New Year’s Day and the French Quarter of New Orleans is filled with throngs of people every year at Mardi Gras. Both the Pasadena and New Orleans PDs would be overwhelmed if they attempted to deal with these events on their own and each have had long standing agreements (and response plans) with other agencies. But it is one thing to manage large crowds that may act unruly. It is something else again to deal with sophisticated adversaries using tactics against us ranging from passive resistance to black bloc aggression. Crowd and riot-control tactics and equipment must grow and adapt to deal with all challenges that we might face.
After the events of May 1st, 2007 in MacArthur Park, my agency, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, took a hard look at itself and concluded it might not have done much better in a similar situation. It was determined that a full commitment to a modern crowd and riot-control unit would be created. This unit would be equipped with the most modern equipment and would also be designed to respond to jail riots (an all too common occurrence for us), natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. So was born the Sheriff’s Response Team (SRT).
It Starts At the Top
Similarly, platoon and squad leaders should consist of those who want to lead in these situations. When an incident escalates suddenly, individual squad sergeants and watch commanders will assume these roles. Hopefully, these people will be up to the challenge, but when large events are in the offing, squads and their leadership should be pre-selected. Large agencies have an obvious advantage over small, but small agencies can band together and create regional platoons and many already do this. Before the creation of the SRT, the LASD had what was called the Tactical Response Force (TRF). The TRF consisted of patrol personnel and detectives who were supposed to rally together when an incident swelled to large proportions, or if a planned event required a special response. The reality was that many of the people in this force didn’t want to be there. Training was irregular and equipment was less than state-of-the-art. The only two units that trained together regularly and were truly prepared to respond – the mounted unit and motor detail – were not part of the TRF, though they frequently worked with it.
This all began to change last summer when the SRT was conceived. After command leadership was selected, platoon and squad leaders were chosen. Deputy personnel were then offered the opportunity to participate rather than being compelled to do so and many of the deputies selected were young and still assigned to our jails.
Training & Equipment
While this was ongoing a lieutenant was selected to manage training. He chose a cadre of teaching sergeants each possessing overlapping skills in force training, squad tactics, less lethal weapons, passive protest devices, and crowd and riot-control management. This cadre began doing basic riot and squad formation training for all of the deputies selected for the new unit’s infantry. This formation training was critical because it was the foundation upon which everything else was to be built. This was additionally critical because we were deploying a new, modified squad. This squad consists of fourteen deputies and two sergeants. One of the sergeants acts as squad leader while the other manages the less lethal weapons cadre. Both sergeants need to be versed in each other’s role.
We were introducing many platforms and tools that our department never deployed before. All personnel went through the basic formations and we brought in less lethal weapons manufacturers representatives to give us less lethal weapons training.
Once our personnel were trained in less lethal weapons and basic formations we began to step up our training as our gear began to arrive. We began to introduce more sophisticated riot-control formations involving multiple squads and more than one platoon. We also began to work with our mounted and motor units.
Deployment and Technical Equipment
The adversary we are up against today is sophisticated. Many anarchist groups train longer and harder than we do. They study police tactics and attempt to find ways to thwart us and goad us into responding in a way that is designed to advance their political agendas at our expense. In order to thwart our efforts to disperse unlawful assemblies they turn up the volume level with drums, megaphones and other noise making devices and then say that they never heard our order to disperse them or it was spoken in a language that they did not understand. We have procured two devices to thwart this effort.
The first is called the Phrasealator. This device has been very helpful to our troops in the Middle East. The Phrasealator stores a series of common commands and phrases in numerous languages for playback when needed. If you want your crowd to hear an order to disperse in Spanish, you could probably find an officer to do it. But what if you required one in Mandarin? The Phrasealator is your answer. But being able to speak the correct language is only part of the problem. How do you project this message over the mobs efforts to drown it out? The answer is the Magnetic Acoustic Device, or MAD, for short. This system can project sound with absolute clarity over distances as great as a mile. The amount of noise generated by mobs is irrelevant when using the MAD. Our message will be heard.
One goal of anarchists and extremists is to eliminate all chemical agents and less lethal weapons as tools from our armories. They are proud to show off their less lethal weapons injuries as badges of honor and always claim that they were doing nothing and acting peacefully when they were shot for no reason by “jackbooted law enforcement thugs.” Sadly, our own performance with less lethal weapons has at times been less than stellar and we have been goaded into using these tools in ways that helped to advance the radicals’ agenda. To help combat this, the SRT has eliminated all multiple projectile less lethal weapons from our armories. Gone are sting balls and multi-ball or foam projectile ordnance. This is not to say that we have eliminated impact weapons, far from it. We are deploying the FN 303, TAC700 Pepperball launcher and PGL65 40mm weapon. But these weapons will fire individual rounds at specific targets and each deputy carrying one of them will also have a camera mounted to his helmet to document the behavior that precipitated the employment of this weapon. Weapons will not be used indiscriminately. Squad sergeants will also wear helmet mounted cameras to document the reason for their orders.
TASERs will also be carried and employed in a variety of ways. But all TASERs will be equipped with cameras to show why and how they are used. One of the jobs of the deputies in technical support is to assist with the downloading of TASER cameras and helmet mounted video equipment.
You Never Know Who Might Be Watching
What We Stand For
The LASD’s SRT still has a long way to go. At present the only person not working the SRT as a collateral duty is the unit’s operations lieutenant. Fortunately, he was the commander of the old TRF. He personally selected the unit’s equipment, is tactically savvy and sophisticated, and has spent years studying all the moving parts and pieces of the modern riot-control squad. We have only completed two complete training cycles with each platoon. We have yet to train for each of the missions to which we might be deployed. So a lot of work is still ahead of us. Also many of the skill sets we are teaching are new and perishable and must be maintained. The commitment to training remains ongoing.
It takes a big vision and determination to establish and maintain a riot and crowd control force. It may be months or years between massive incidents that require intervention, but recent history (Oakland in 2003, Boston in 2004, Los Angeles in 2007) has shown us what can happen when agencies are unprepared or their skills are allowed to deteriorate and atrophy when they are called upon to use them.
We have the tools, tactics, and talent to be prepared when the time comes. And when given enough lead time before a major event we can be ready. Both Minneapolis and Denver will no doubt do very well in the next few weeks as they host the party conventions. Neither city wants to go through what Chicago endured in 1968. And no city ever should again. The question is where will each of them be a couple of years from now? There was no agency better prepared for a national convention than LAPD was in 2000. Yet they endured MacArthur Park only a few years later. Given the world in which we live and the forces arrayed against us, none of us can afford to be unprepared when it comes to riot and crowd control.