10 crowd control myths
Both the public and cops have many misconceptions about police crowd control
Myth 1: Crowd control team tactics are “confrontational.”
The opposite is true.
Crowd control training teaches crowd dynamics to help police officers better facilitate lawful speech and peaceful assemblies. In most cases, these efforts are successful.
However, when determined individuals intent on inciting violence foment a confrontation there are five available options. Officers can fight, flee, submit, negotiate or posture. Submitting and fleeing are rarely viable options for peace-keepers.
Crowd control-trained police officers will communicate constantly (negotiate) to prevent/diffuse confrontation. Once an assembly turns unlawful, communication will continue via individual interaction, PA, LRAD or bullhorn. Trained officers are equipped with effective crowd control “team tactics,” also known as posturing, which have proved effective in holding, separating, moving and dispersing belligerent crowds without a fight.
Myth 2: Police equipment is militaristic.
Myth two is often used in conjunction with myth one as a talking point by some media. Some police commanders may also have these misperceptions, resulting in officers being placed in harm’s way through being ill-prepared and ill-equipped.
The truth is, when officers don helmets they are not looking for a street fight any more than wearing body armor translates to a desire for a gun fight. Helmets, vests and BearCats are protective equipment designed to keep officers safe in unsafe environments.
Myth 3: All speech is constitutionally protected.
Nationwide, statutes like “Disorderly Conduct” and “Inciting to Riot” exist prohibiting unlawful speech/actions. If shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is unprotected speech it is reasonable to believe, “Let’s burn this city down,” shouted in a crowded demonstration is also unprotected. Courts also recognize that “opprobrious words,” (fighting words) are not protected.
Clarify in advance what your district attorney will prosecute since it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Myth 4: Use of chemical munitions needs to be prohibited.
Many police administrators and mayors disallow the use of chemical munitions, in spite of the fact that proper use of them has been proven to send most violent crowds packing.
Chemical munitions are prohibited by default simply by failing to maintain certifications or failure to replace old chemical munitions. These certifications and munitions have a limited shelf life.
Myth 5: As police officers have TASERs, police batons are no longer are needed.
All street officers should have access to expandable batons on a daily basis, and a wooden baton in a ring/holster, while working a crowd. The properly displayed baton re-enforces lawful verbal commands at close quarters like no other tool.
Formations of officers uniformly displaying batons in a trained manner can more effectively hold, separate or move a crowd than officers without batons.
Myth 6: When working a crowd, you ignore the small stuff and wait for something major to happen.
Not so much.
If you want small problems to snowball into a big problem then continually ignore deliberate acts of defiance and violence. Both everything done and not done by officers will be noticed by the crowd. It is especially important for police officers to identify efforts early of those individuals want to lead a crowd down a violent path. Immediately recruit the help you need and address the problem, because one person can lead many toward violence.
In a crowd if you intervene in an argument, you prevent a fight. When you prevent a fight, you prevent a brawl. If you prevent a brawl, you avoid a riot. In other words it’s easier to put out a cigarette butt then a forest fire.
Myth 7: Mayors should take control during violent civil unrest.
Are you kidding?
This makes as much sense as an untrained mayor climbing into a snowplow when it snows.
If a mayor wants the best results for his or her city, they should see to it that their police department is properly led, trained and equipped. Then let them do their job.
Myth 8: Crowds can assemble anywhere, anytime they want and this is constitutionally protected.
For example crowds that decide on a whim to march onto an interstate and suddenly shut down traffic are dangerous to others and themselves. This is a perfect example of an unlawful assembly. Your state’s statutes will describe what constitutes an unlawful assembly.
Most local jurisdictions also have a permit procedure to follow if a group wants to hold a legal demonstration on a public street or in a park. In most cities, pitching a tent on a city street is prohibited by ordinance. Police can choose to ignore one tent illegally pitched, but the next thing you know you will have to figure out what to do with the tent-city choking off your business district.
Myth 9: Cameras are the enemy of the police.
On the contrary, crowd control situations are an opportunity for well-trained police professionals to shine on camera in front of a national and international audience. When necessary, your own cameras can counteract inaccurate media reporting with your unedited recordings. Your cameras will also greatly assist in prosecution of offenders.
Myth 10: Crowd control training is for teams only.
Every entry level officers should be taught crowd control since these skills will be invaluable throughout their career for preventing/surviving large disturbances. Sadly, however, most academies do not yet offer crowd control training.
Now is a good time to train every officer in the nation, or lament later.
Civil unrest has reared its angry head as cyclically as the seasons. Yet law enforcement is continually caught off guard by its arrival. There will also always be spontaneous crowds that are fueled by passion and/or alcohol that suddenly form to do great harm.
However, nothing has gotten more of these crowds to disperse like a thin blue line of well-trained officers calmly approaching a crowd while politely proclaiming, “Time to go home folks. The party’s over.” And that’s no myth.
NEXT: 12 things every police department's civil unrest plan needs
This article, originally published 02/20/2018, has been updated.