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Building a 360-degree civil disturbance response team

Successful outcomes are obtained by advance planning between law enforcement and city leaders, prosecutors, first responders and community members


A bonfire set by demonstrators protesting a scheduled speaking appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, Feb. 1, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif.

AP Photo/Ben Margot

In the 1980s and ’90s my agency responded to several riots in our community. Our responses were successful because our capabilities improved with each instance and we learned to apply this acquired knowledge:

  1. You aren’t managing one crowd of 100 individuals, but are managing 100 individuals in a crowd.
  2. Effectively dealing with a large civil disturbance takes a 360-degree coordinated team response.

A 360-degree team response is more inclusive than you might imagine. Here are the individuals and groups that should be a part of a team response to a civil disturbance.

Mayor or city administrator and political leaders

Mayors, as well as city and county administrators, are an important component in the team effort to manage civil unrest. To ensure a positive outcome for a city, mayors and administrators must:

  • Fund police training to enhance every officer’s skills in communications, hands-on control and deadly force decision-making, deploying pepper spray, and the use of electric control devices, batons and less lethal options.
  • Fund a minimum of 24 hours of crowd control training for every officer in the department.
  • Arrange for a fully equipped multi-agency team response for large crowd control events and make sure the team trains regularly.
  • Make certain the jurisdiction has a crowd response plan and the people who have to implement it know their responsibilities.

Before any event, the mayor should:

  • Communicate with event organizers.
  • Schedule extra garbage pick-up and area policing to reduce attendees’ access to objects that might be thrown or used as weapons.
  • Implement emergency parking prohibition in the event area to ensure there are fewer cars to burn.
  • Communicate with surrounding agencies, state agencies and federal agencies so they are aware of the event and what might transpire.
  • Become familiar with procedures for initiating mutual aid requests so there is no lag time when aid is needed.
  • Understand why police use certain tactics, tools and equipment during disturbances, so the mayor’s office doesn’t unwittingly hinder an effective police response by issuing unreasonable prohibitions.

Once the disturbance starts, a mayor needs to:

  • Let trained police leaders manage the response.
  • Be available to assist police if acquire additional resources, if needed.
  • Avoid micro-managing the response to the event.
  • Ask for state and federal help immediately when requested by the local agency.
  • Be aware that ordering police to stand down or rapidly retreat can be a violence multiplier.

All political leaders need to realize that during violent unrest they should not engage in inflammatory and partisan rhetoric.

Law enforcement

Law enforcement is the key component to every civil disturbance response team. Agency leaders must:

  • Have every officer trained in effective use of communication skills, hands-on control, pepper spray, electric control devices, batons, less lethal options, deadly force decision-making and use of deadly force. If you train for a quality performance, you will get a quality performance every day. (Yes, I know I repeated this.)
  • Have officers receive at least 24 hours of crowd control training so that they understand the dynamics of crowds and how to prevent large disturbances as well as respond to one.
  • Establish a fully equipped, well-trained multi-agency crowd control team that can be called out on a moment’s notice. Make sure they know classic crowd control tactics for stationary crowds that are peaceful, or possibly violent, and know field force tactics that can be used to deal with the violent crowds that are mobile.
  • Have a prepared, pre-rehearsed plan for a large civil disturbance that addresses detours, officer call-out and communication protocols, mass arrest skills/procedures, unlawful assembly declaration procedures and crowd dispersal skills.
  • Have a prepared plan for acquisition of equipment for transportation and communication that most agencies do not normally have.
  • Have a tactical response capability.
  • Have a mass arrest tracking protocol to ensure every person arrested has an arresting officer and that corresponding provable charges are properly documented.
  • Establish the team response mentality through education in all elements of the 360-degree team response.

Corrections intake

Jails must have mass arrest intake procedures ready.

Juvenile intake

Juvenile intake must be a part of the team response, and a streamlined juvenile protocol should be developed and available during these events. Juveniles are sometimes used as pawns in these disturbances.

First responders

An important part of the plan must be to have the ability for a police field force to quickly respond to and secure a scene and standby to preserve the peace, while firefighters save structures and EMTs and paramedics save lives.


Before an event, district attorneys must communicate to officers the elements they will need to successfully prosecute each anticipated crime. Police should also be alerted about any offenses a prosecutor will refuse to prosecute.

During more than one riot to which my department responded, our district attorney was behind our police. What he saw helped him shape a defensible and effective prosecution approach for rioters, which included:

  • Zero tolerance for rioting.
  • Ordering restitution for all damages paid by all offenders.
  • Requesting sentencing that included serving some time in jail during the next scheduled event.
  • Filing felony bail-jumping charges for anyone arrested at the event who bonded out and returned to the disturbance.
  • A plea- bargain protocol for offenders to ensure they understood the seriousness of their offenses before being allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.
  • Special vigor given to prosecution of rioters who injured members of the police department or members of the public.


Judges need merely be a fair and impartial guardian of the law and the state and U.S. constitutions.


The media must understand how they might play a role in preventing large disturbances. The national media is out of reach for most agencies, however, have faith that relationships can be built at the local level between you and your local media so that your local media quickly gets the truth out before rumors and falsehoods are reported as truth.

The community

The community must be assured that they are the most important member of the team. Police can’t protect the community without the support of citizens. Community members can help greatly by not being drawn into the violence. They also can report and testify against rioters, as well as bring in incriminating footage from their security cameras or mobile devices, to assist in the arrest and prosecution of criminal rioters after disturbances.

Community groups can engage in fund-raising efforts to help agencies buy protective equipment needed to respond to civil disturbances. Our riot control team was totally re-equipped by such a citizen group effort.

We discovered during our years of dealing with riots that when a 360-degree team works together in a coordinated team effort most violence can be prevented and what can’t be prevented will be defensibly ended quickly – possibly in 45 minutes, not 45 days.

When you think about it, law enforcement can’t lose when the mayor, prosecutors and community have our backs.

NEXT: Drone deployment during protest response

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.