Tale of two rioting cities: What Seattle, Baltimore can teach about police leadership

Two recent examples demonstrated what happens when community and law enforcement leadership get it right and when they get it wrong — one disturbance occurred in Seattle, the other in Baltimore

As a platoon leader for the Sheriff’s Response Team (SRT) — the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s riot response unit — I have watched with great interest the civil unrest going on across the country over the past 12 months. The reason for these disturbances has been well chronicled, but what has not been widely discussed is the reason for the failures and successes we have witnessed.

There is one thing that I believe goes without saying: whether you are a law enforcement officer in St. Louis County Mo.), Baltimore City (Md.), King County (Wash.), Los Angeles County (Calif.), or any other location in the United States, LEOs can be trained to perform successfully in the face of riots and civil unrest. 

When failures occur in these situations, they can almost always be traced back to poor leadership and misinformed or timid direction from community leaders. Two recent examples demonstrated what happens when community and law enforcement leadership get it right and when they get it wrong —one disturbance occurred in Seattle, the other in Baltimore.

Communication and Outcomes
The city of Seattle is no stranger to civil unrest. Beginning with the WTO riots in 1999, law enforcement officers in King County (Wash.) have dealt with so-called protests that deteriorated into acts of hooliganism most often instigated by the Pacific Northwest’s well-organized and trained anarchist groups. 

The elected leaders of Baltimore City can learn a great deal from their peers of similar politically liberal-leaning in King County. Seattle leadership has learned that while the First Amendment permits crowds to voice their freedom of speech in protest, it does not sanction mobs committing acts of vandalism, looting and arson. 

At this year’s May Day protest in Seattle, the civic and law enforcement leadership expressed a very clear goal to riot control officers on the street: should the crowd of protesters gathering at Seattle City College begin to engage in acts of anarchy and vandalism and move out into the city, they were to be quickly cut off, primary agitators arrested, and the rest of the crowd forced back onto the campus grounds — a strategy seemingly aimed to confine damage. 

What followed when protesters turned into rioters and vandals was a brilliant illustration of riot control maneuver tactics. Seattle PD employed bicycle mounted officers as flying squads. They made arrests and thwarted the advance of rioters at every turn as they pushed them back toward the college. 

Supporting the mobile officers were ground units selectively employing blast balls and other non-lethal weapons to effect the commander’s intent of pushing the mob back to their place of origin. The vigilance and persistence of the officers reflected both their training and sound leadership of their mobile field force commanders. But the best training and leadership in the world would have been stifled if not for the strong support shown by city leaders and law enforcement executives.

Contrast Seattle’s successes with Baltimore’s recent failures. First, in fairness to the city of Baltimore, they have not had years of recent experience dealing with these kind of issues as has Seattle. That said, past incidents in the Pacific Northwest and the recent unrest in St. Louis County (Mo.) should have been no secret to the leaders in Baltimore City. Rather than learning from these events, or perhaps because of them, Baltimore city leadership opted for a more peculiar course of action.  

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hastily backed away from her initial comments that protestors be given “space to destroy” claiming that she was misunderstood. Regardless of her intent, protesters hearing those words surely felt emboldened, and the message to police seemed to be that law enforcement personnel in Baltimore were to surrender the initiative to protestors and take a passive role to their actions. 

After being initially assaulted and sustaining numerous injuries, Baltimore PD formed long static skirmish lines that appeared purely defensive. As a CVS Pharmacy was looted and state police vehicles burned in front of it, the officers remained massed down the street. 

This is no criticism of the officers themselves or their squad or platoon leaders — their inaction clearly was mandated by individuals above their paygrade. 

Their ability to perform when given the opportunity was demonstrated two days later when, with a curfew in place, officers on the ground were at last permitted to do more. The use of an armored vehicle to cut off the avenue of escape of one instigator and then take him into custody with an arrest team that emerged from behind a skirmish line was a particularly creative and impressive tactic. It was clear the Baltimore PD knew what to do, but were restrained from doing it.

Leaders as Lions
There is a quote attributed to Alexander the Great that is all too often true when riots and civil unrest descend on a city. “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” 

There is little that law enforcement lions can do when led by timid sheep. But as was recently demonstrated in Seattle, even leadership with sheep-like tendencies in the past can eventually be persuaded to think like lions.

Our role as law enforcement leaders is to tactfully inform and educate our civic and elected leaders — as well as some law enforcement executives — of the wisdom and prudence of a prompt and coherent response to agitators when unrest breaks out while also providing proper equipment, tactics and training in this area to our personnel. 

Riot and crowd control is a perishable skill that requires vigilance in training. The results recently obtained in Seattle demonstrated this awareness by the Seattle PD and also showed the results that can be obtained when a well-trained force under wise municipal leadership work together to deal with civic unrest. 

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