9 good and bad crowd control lessons from Ferguson's riots

Riots are inherently unpredictable, so it should be no surprise that there were some things that went well, and others that didn’t go quite as well

Riots are inherently unpredictable, so it should be no surprise that there were some things that went well, and others that didn’t go quite as well in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson on Monday. As with any major incident of this magnitude, it yielded crowd control lessons that should be discussed among police professionals.

As a trainer who has a great deal of practical experience in crowd management, I would like to share some observations on both the good and bad lessons that came from Monday’s riots in Ferguson.

1. BAD: A Poor Choice of Words
“I understand your anger” was a poor choice of words. They were used over and over again by everyone from the President to law enforcement representatives. They are words which should never be used in what is called the ‘tension-building phase’ of a disturbance.

Police officers approach protesters Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
Police officers approach protesters Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Image)

These words give credibility to any level and expression of anger an individual is feeling, whether that be general annoyance or destructive rage.

Better words would be, “I hear you,” or “We are listening to you.”

2. GOOD: Visible Leadership
Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Patrol served as an example of a great leader. He came forward and led from the front. He seemed to be everywhere, doing almost everything. Every action he took appeared to have one of two purposes, to prevent violence or stop violence. Putting a face to the law enforcement response can be a positive thing, when it is someone like Captain Johnson. Bravo, Sir!

In watching tapes during the riots, many nameless Team Leaders could be seen effectively controlling the police teams facing the rioters. This, too, was a job well done.

3. GOOD/BAD: Timing of Announcement and the National Guard
There was public outcry about the timing of the announcement, but in this I believe authorities got it right. It allowed for people time to arrive home and shelter in place while awaiting the announcement and its subsequent reaction. In my opinion, this was a defensible call.

Hindsight being 20/20, the National Guard should have been at their posts, when the announcement was made. No one needed a crystal ball to predict this one.

4. GOOD: Handling of Peaceful Demonstrators Who Were Overshadowed by Violence
The ability to peacefully gather and express an opinion is a constitutionally protected right. The police in Ferguson visibly made every effort to allow peaceful assemblies. The police and demonstrators interacted often, admirably and peacefully throughout the months-long-vigil in Ferguson.

Those who came with violent intent destroyed those peaceful assemblies, not the police.

Officers in Ferguson showed great tolerance and restraint in the face of blatant agitation. They did not reflect the emotions of the crowd.

5. BAD: What Guy Fawkes Signals
It is important to note one person who continues to come to demonstrations all over the nation. Once again, he showed up in Ferguson. That person is “Guy Fawkes.”  

In 1605, Guy Fawkes was a British Rebel who was one of the leaders of the “Gun Powder Plot” in Great Britain. He was brutally executed for his part in the unrealized rebellion and he has become the spirit of many anti-“fill-in-the-blank” movements internationally.

He arrives in the vestige of the “Vendetta”-masked individual, and his presence usually indicates the crowd is at least sprinkled with sympathizers of the prone-to-violence anarchist movement.

Some of those present in Ferguson — such as the riot-medics and the oven-mitted, black-clad masked subjects tossing incendiary devices as well as tear gas canisters at police indicated that some of the violence was planned by some members of the crowd.

Some violence was what I call ‘impulsive-lawless’ violence. It was committed by chronically criminal individuals who roamed and attacked unguarded targets of opportunity.

6. GOOD: Great Use of Classic Crowd Control Tactics
Officers in Ferguson shined in their use of classic crowd control tactics. They were well equipped, well trained and showed great restraint while facing everything from insults to rocks, bottles, and returned tear gas canisters. Arrests were made efficiently.

Multiple agencies blended well on scene and did an excellent job of dispersing the violent rioters, who immediately confronted them. Police Commanders used smoke, tear gas and pepper spray with effect rather than higher levels of force.

These tactics worked on the relatively stationary, aggressive crowds.

7. GOOD: Field Force Aspect Needed
Ferguson’s urban-style riot is a good example of why every crowd control plan should contain the ability to implement the ‘Miami Field Force’ concept.

Field Forces are self-contained, highly-mobile teams capable of responding quickly to hot spots such as arsonists, looters, and shooters.

Each unit should have its own commander, chemical munitions and tactical capabilities. These units should train together and have an established movement, parking and deployment protocol. They can be dispatched as a team to address trouble spots.

The lesson of Ferguson is that agencies nationwide need to have the equipment and ability to respond as one unit and use both Classic Crowd Control tactics as well as Field Force Tactics. 

8. BAD: Woeful Media Response
Rumor control is absolutely necessary when facing potential civil disturbances. The ball was not dropped here — it was never even picked up in order for it to be dropped.

Rumor control is an essential aspect of crowd control. False rumors that can effectively lead to major civil unrest need to be addressed immediately. In this case, the false narrative ,became the only narrative.

This case was absolutely not an example of ‘racial profiling.’ It was a perfect example of police pursuing criminality, not color. This message still has not been delivered effectively.

By advancing this false narrative, certain ‘leaders’ and media pundits helped fuel the fires of Ferguson by sowing the seeds of rage.

9. GOOD: The American Story
Do not despair. This story is not just about the bully who pushed around a store owner, then pounded and tried to disarm a cop. Nor is it just about those who bore false witness. Nor is it about the rioters who turned the bully into a hero.

The real American story is about the small business owners in Ferguson who will sweep up the glass and rebuild their shattered lives. It is also about those principled African-American witnesses like Witness #10, who courageously came forward despite duress to defend the embattled truth.

When you are standing on the line between order and chaos, weathering the storm, remember that those courageous Americans are the community we serve.

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