Trending Topics

Signals for dynamic crowd control tactics

A riot has many moving parts and to quell one, police must have many moving options


Dan Marcou

Officers facing a crowd as it becomes violent must be able to perform pre-trained orderly movements on command in the midst of chaos to be effective. The uncoordinated, disjointed movements of untrained officers will have a tendency to not only be ineffective but may add to the chaos.

The signals for tried and true classic movements like columns, lines, wedges and echelons, were described in a previous article. We will discuss here movements that are much more dynamic but have a time and place where they can be used with effect.

To have these options available, commanders must be pre-trained in their tactical applications and signals and the teams they lead must be trained in how to execute these options in the midst of the incessant roar of a riot. Pre-trained commands will have to be given visually and audibly by the pre-trained commander and understood by a pre-trained team.

Arrest teams

When facing a riotous crowd, there is a need for at least three sets of teams to be working together:

  1. The front-line team will be facing the crowd.
  2. The arrest team provides close support just behind the front-line. They are hands-free, with the exception of the videographer and the grenadiers.
  3. The close support arrest teams are primarily used to help the front-line team commander give direction to the line by passing along commands to the three to four officers in the line each arrest team officer supports. They also watch for attacks and incursions against the line that result in members of the line sweeping an arrest through the line. The close support arrest teams are there to quickly control these individuals and take them back for documentation and transport (which should also be following behind the line).

There should be another team behind the line formed up in a column or two that will support and enhance the front-line. This column behind the line can be called upon to extend the front line, as well as to give rear, or lateral support to the front line.

These columns can also quicken the continual dispersal of the crowd through dynamic movements and actions. This column, which is led by its own commander, can also be used to effect arrests and rescues in front of the line as well.

There exists an entire category of dynamic movements that can be performed called “crossbow movements.”

Crossbow movements

Crossbow movements are so named because the teams used to execute these movements start from behind the line in a column. To complete the specific tasks they are assigned, the team will shoot through the line and their movement from a bird’s eye view will initially look like a bolt being shot from a crossbow.

When it comes time to move, the commander of the column will have to communicate first to the arrest support team as to the spot they will be cutting through the line and when the move comes, the arrest support team members will physically arrange for the line members to pivot back opening a door in the line for the crossbow to travel through to perform a:

  • Crossbow line
  • Crossbow encirclement
  • Crossbow arrest.

Crossbow line

There will be times, during a dispersal effort when a gap is created between the crowd and the police line, especially when chemical munitions are deployed, causing the crowd to scatter. A slow-moving line that is re-taking an area will allow time for the hardcore rioters to regather and regroup. A tactic that can be used to more quickly retake the area and inspire the continuous dispersal would be the crossbow line movement.


Crossbow command.

Dan Marcou

The team commander/leader of the column behind the front line notifies the front-line support team that the movement is coming, and where. This commander then addresses the column and signals crossbow while shouting “Crossbow.” To signal the crossbow, the commander puts both arms over their head, knuckles to knuckles, and forms a crossbow. This command/signal is followed immediately by signaling line while shouting “Line!” This is the preparatory command so the commander should pause to let the team mentally process what it is about to do. The commander then shouts and signals “Move!”


Move command.

Photo/Dan Marcou

The column can make noise or not as it comes through the line at a quick-step. That should be pre-determined by the commander. Before the column reaches the line, the members of the front line already designated and notified will pivot back, opening a door in the line. The column at quick-step travel through the line at a predetermined distance (15’, 25’, 75’ or whatever distance serves to close with, but does not catch the regrouping rioters). Upon reaching the designated distance, the lead person slows from a quick-step to a step-slide movement shouting “Back! Back! Back!” to encourage the rioters to continue to move.

To form, the second in line falls in line to the left of the first person. The third in line person falls in line to the right. The next goes left and the next after that goes right and so on. Each person joins the chorus of “Back! Back! Back!” All members of this line will be in a pre-determined configuration, for example, batons out and in on-guard position. They can even be with empty hands both up showing palms forward indicating “We want you back.”

The commander of the original front line forms their team into a column to catch up then follows at a distance of about 25’ from the new front line. The original supporting arrest team moves up to support the new front line. This crossbow movement can be repeated as often as the commanders deem it to be needed to effectively keep the crowd dispersing into smaller and still smaller numbers.

The crossbow line can also be used to quickly send a column, whose members are equipped with shields, through the front line to form a new stationary front line equipped with shields to face rioters tossing items at officers. This is a time for the grenadiers, who should be in close support of the front-line with less-lethal munitions, to meet the threat of projectile throwers.

Marcou_Dan_Crowd_Control_Signals_Crossbow Encirclement.JPG

Crossbow encirclement command.

Dan Marcou

Crossbow encirclement

The crossbow encirclement is used to secure an area around a person or persons in need of rescue, or arrest. To audibly signal a crossbow encirclement, you must first shout “Crossbow,” while signaling a crossbow followed by shouting “Encirclement!” To visually signal an encirclement the commander configures their arms above and beside their head forming a circle with their fingertips touching together. The issuing of these signals is a preparatory command. The commander will then pause after which they will shout and signal “Move!”

Crossbow arrest


Crossbow arrest command.

Dan Marcou

When there is a need to make an arrest in front of the line, the suspect and his location are identified. The three members of the column following the front line are assigned to arrest the suspect. The commander of the column shouts and signals “Crossbow!” Then the commander shouts “Arrest!” and signals this, by placing both hands over their head and grasping a wrist with their opposite hand. There is a pause to think after these preparatory commands. Then the commander shouts and signals “Move!”

The pre-notified members of the line will open up and pivot to make a door in the line. The column shoots through the line at a quick-step and swings wide right of the suspect and past him, which should confuse the suspect. The column immediately swings back left blocking the suspect’s flight. In a continuous movement, the team encircles the suspect and the designated arresting officers converge to make the arrest. Once the suspect is controlled, the team moves back behind the line still surrounding the suspect.

Arresting officer

An arresting officer must be assigned to each arrest, who can write a report documenting the arrest and its legal justification for later prosecution. If this is not done, a solid arrest will be dismissed and it opens up the agency for civil liability. It helps when teams have their own videographers documenting as much activity of the team as possible, especially when orders to disperse and arrests are made.


There is a tendency for people to think that riots are destructive. Riots are not destructive; individuals that instigate violence and the people who follow along are destructive. A police team that wants to bring peace back to their city has to possess the skills and tactics to spot and legally arrest the instigators and disperse their followers legally. To be able to do this takes training.

A riot has many moving parts and to quell one, police must have many moving options. To be effective, our options must be pre-practiced and purposeful. If you have never had the time to prepare to perform such options under stress in the past, now is certainly the time!

NEXT: Performing classic crowd control signals

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.