3 key things to remember when policing an unruly crowd

To effectively work a crowd, constantly pay attention, analyze, assess and take action early and often

Whether it is a political gathering, a demonstration, or an athletic event, anytime high passion and negative leadership takes hold of a crowd you are policing, expect that you will earn your money before that shift is over.

If you find yourself working crowd control, it is imperative that in addition to team tactics, you need to possess an understanding of types of crowds, behaviors in a crowd, and volatility multipliers.

1. Types of Crowds

A protester on a bicycle rides past a burning police car during a protest next to the city of Miami Police Department, Saturday, May 30, 2020, downtown in Miami.
A protester on a bicycle rides past a burning police car during a protest next to the city of Miami Police Department, Saturday, May 30, 2020, downtown in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

First, let’s consider the type of gathering you may be looking at. There are four:

Casual: This is the crowd you would find walking on a busy street, or in a mall. No bond is drawing them together.

Cohesive: This is a crowd that has bonded, by an activity, a person, issue, or event. This might be a crowd coming together to watch a football game, attend a political rally, or even watch a suicidal man standing on the ledge of a 10-story building.

Expressive: A deeper bonding occurs when a crowd becomes expressive. The volume rises and they begin to cheer or chant as one. The cheer might be "Go! Fight! Win!!!" at the football game or the chant may be "Jump! Jump! Jump!" from the crowd standing below the man on the ledge.

Aggressive: As a crowd gradually turns aggressive a few will test the police by pushing into restricted space. Some individuals will commit isolated acts of lawlessness, testing the police response. Aggressive leaders, unchecked, can lead a crowd down a path of incredible destruction. Remember it is easier to tell one person to step back up on the curb than it is to tell 100.

By closely monitoring the crowd you will easily be able to determine the direction the crowd is being taken in and identify any leaders at the forefront of the gathering storm that is an aggressive crowd.

Address negative leaders early and often, when working an event. 

2. Behaviors in a Crowd

You can sharpen your focus in a crowd once you can recognize behaviors in a crowd. Consider the following behavior types.

Impulsive-Lawless: While policing an event, identify people who you know to be lawless on a daily basis and monitor them because it is highly probable that behavior will manifest itself in a passionate crowd.

Suggestible: Most individuals in a crowd are not leaders, but followers. This is why normally lawful people can be led to incredible acts of violence in a crowd. If you pay attention it is relatively easy to determine the lawless leaders from their suggestible followers.

Cautious: Cautious members of a crowd are less susceptible. Before they take action in a crowd they will want to know that they will remain anonymous. High-profile police cameras can deter the cautious.

Yielder: The yielder will wait until it appears there is 100 percent participation in the violence and then will then join in. This is why in past disturbances when it appears as if the police were doing nothing the violence snowballed or more accurately fireballed.

Supportive: There are those, who will never join in with the violence, but will stay to the bitter end to shout support.

Resister: These individuals, will resist the pull of the crowd and do their own thing. This might be positive, or negative. The resister may step into the middle of a group beating a bystander and rescue the beaten man. The resister might also ignore the peaceful intent of protesters, don his black attire, pull out a cut-off Louisville Slugger from his backpack and start smashing windows. Resisters march to their own drumbeat.

Psychopath: The wild card in every crowd is someone, who is dangerously psychotic and capable of anything imaginable, during times of high emotion.

3. Volatility Multipliers

No matter how carefully a group prepares to peacefully demonstrate, there are people drawn to these events, who have another agenda. These agitators always bring a can-of-violence with them, hoping for the opportunity to open it up at every event they attend. These people are volatility multipliers.

Anarchists: These individuals often mark their presence with their black clothing, the anarchists "A," as well as the mask of their hero, Guy Fawkes. Many anarchists are professional protesters and part of a team, schooled in tactics that are designed to elicit an over-response by officers. We defeat them by remaining calm and purposeful in our actions.

Communists/fascist/nazis: The big three of totalitarianism are making a comeback. A significant communist presence was visible in the large crowds at the Moscow and Seattle May Day gatherings in 2016.

Radical-Muslim-Jihadist-extremists: Call them what you want, but watch for them. A crowd to a terrorist is simply a target-rich environment.

Pro-/anti-________: Anytime you have opposing groups at a rally, the job of police officers on scene has instantly been made more challenging.

Anti-cop: Those who are anti-cop harbor an unreasonable assessment of all police officers, which is inaccurately negative. Their attitudes toward all police are comparable to those of a virulent racist. They possess a biased mindset, which will cause them to exasperate and obstruct police officers, not only in crowds but during daily contacts. Some of them are so overcome with their hatred of police they are dangerous to police officers. Examples of those who are dangerous — who acted on their emotions and killed officers — were Maurice Clemmons, Christopher Dorner, and Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

Violent criminals: Crowds gathered in correction facilities are inherently volatile.


Every officer in a team working an event must realize they are not policing one crowd of a thousand, but a thousand individuals in one crowd. By identifying threats as they develop early and dealing with them effectively you keep small disturbances from erupting into major disturbances.

To effectively work a crowd, constantly pay attention, analyze, assess and take action early and often. Don’t just be present, be a presence.

This article, originally published 07/06/2016, has been updated. 

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