The most underutilized tool for maintaining peace and order
When policing in a crowd, employ tactics that are well-trained, effective and consistently present you in a positive light
One of the laws that is most frequently violated yet least enforced across the nation is undoubtedly unlawful assembly.
While it is critically important for law enforcement to respect citizens’ rights to lawfully assemble, it is equally important for officers to take effective action when an assembly becomes unlawful and poses an imminent threat to the property or lives of the citizens we are sworn to protect. They rely on us to do just that.
There are numerous recent examples of unlawful assemblies where officers were ordered by their superiors to “stand by” or even “stand down” in the face of violence. This inaction only served to embolden unchecked troublemakers to tear down historical statues, smash, loot, burn, and terrorize communities without facing consequences. In one such instance, a police precinct headquarters was even set ablaze and destroyed.
Unlawful assembly, defined by law
To prevent an unlawful assembly from devastating large areas of your community, you must first understand the statutory definition of an unlawful assembly in your state.
Here is the statute our trained team enforced to restore peace in our community when it was necessary:
An unlawful assembly is an assembly that consists of three or more persons and causes such a disturbance of public order that it is reasonable to believe that the assembly will cause injury to persons or damage to property unless it is immediately dispersed.
An unlawful assembly includes an assembly of persons who assemble to block or obstruct the lawful use by any other person, or persons of any private or public thoroughfares, property, or any positions of access or exit to or from any private or public building, or dwelling place, or any portion thereof and which assembly does so block or obstruct the lawful use by any other person, or persons of any such private or public thoroughfares, property or any position of access or exit to or from any private or public building, dwelling place or any portion thereof.
Elements of the crime of unlawful assembly (according to this statute, not necessarily yours)
The elements of unlawful assembly offense above are three or more persons whose assembly:
- Will or does cause injury or property damage if not immediately dispersed.
- Will or does obstruct access or exit, or the lawful use by others, of any private or public building.
- Will or does obstruct lawful use of others of any public thoroughfare.
These specific aspects that may be present in an unlawful assembly should not just be properly dealt with, but they should be properly documented. To justify your declaration of an unlawful assembly, you should document:
- Estimated number of citizens blocked, threatened, obstructed and/or impeded
- Emergency vehicles unable to pass because of the assembly
- Cars rolled over
- Property damaged
- Bonfires set
- Incendiaries thrown or fired
- Citizens battered
- Women assaulted
- Occupied vehicles stopped and their occupants threatened or assaulted
- A history of violence exists for the event
Once a group is designated as an unlawful assembly and you determine that action is necessary, first notify the individuals making up the unlawful assembly. Use an effective method for the circumstances, such as individual contact, a public address system, a bullhorn or a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) to communicate verbally.
A good communication model to follow in this circumstance would be to follow the ACT acronym: Ask them to disperse, check and confirm their compliance or non-compliance and if they remain non-compliant, tell them:
- Who you are and your lawful authority
- They are an unlawful assembly
- They are ordered to disperse immediately
- If they refuse to do so, they will be subject to arrest
- If necessary, the direction they should disperse toward
It is important to give them a reasonable amount of time — considering the circumstances — to disperse.
You should also document:
- The specific order given.
- The number of times and time (a.m. to p.m.) each order was given
- The method of delivery
- The specific response to each order that the crowd gave, especially those whose actions warrant their arrest
If the crowd disperses, great!
On the other hand, if its leader orchestrates a chanting response such as having one section shout “F—k!” and another section answer “you” at the police, this should be noted. The entire process should be recorded.
It is important to arrest the leader.
When members of an unlawful assembly refuse a lawful order to disperse, a plan should be enacted to either disperse or arrest them. Consider issuing one final warning just before dispersal efforts begin, whenever possible.
For instance, your trained and certified grenadier could pause and stand ready, holding a chemical munitions canister high in the air that they are about to deploy. This highly visible gesture provides one last chance for those inclined to disperse before being exposed to smoke, CS, CN or OC. Note: This also gives officers, who may not have received prior notice, the opportunity to put on their masks.
Based on personal experience, here are effective methods a trained team can use to disperse individuals who constitute an unlawful assembly and refuse to disperse:
- Classic crowd control tactics in conjunction with methods listed below
- If it is chilly, indirect spraying a controlled mist of water over the assembly
- Chemical munitions, smoke, OC, CS or CN (This should be done by a trained grenadier and I have found from experience this is the quickest, least physical way to disperse a crowd)
- Mounted (horses) units
- Physically moving them with trained teams in an organized manner
- Mounted (vehicles) mobile field force tactics, in conjunction with above tactics
Note: You may support any dispersal efforts with “less lethal impact munitions,” but it is important to remember that most impact munitions are designed as defensive tools to protect your people and the public from serious injury or serious physical attacks. Each individual use of impact munitions should be performed by a trained individual, be defensible and documented. Whenever possible arrest the suspect for the attack he made, or attempted, which prompted the use of the munition(s).
If you choose to arrest those who will not disperse, then make certain you have:
- The backing of your prosecutor. Note: If your prosecutor refuses to prosecute individuals who have been legitimately arrested violating this or any other law, such an arrest will place you in civil jeopardy.
- A manageable number you can physically arrest, transport, process and hold. Note: To emphasize the importance of the term “manageable number, an old sergeant once told me something I will never forget when we were moving in to disperse a rowdy crowd. He said, “When you are in a crowd, never let your mouth write a check your ass(ets) can’t cash.”
- Identification of each arrestee, their charges and the name of the arresting officer. Note: No matter what the offense, jailing a suspect during such chaos without a named arresting officer can place your agency in monumental civil jeopardy.
An arrest observed by the crowd should be necessary and carried out by well-trained officers who are adept at distinguishing between and effectively handling “passive” and “active” resistance. Each arrest should be conducted professionally and documented thoroughly. Professionally executed legal arrests convey a strong message, whereas a poorly managed arrest can exacerbate a bad situation.
Before arresting for the offense of unlawful assembly, I recommend personally issuing the dispersal order to each individual you intend to arrest, offering one final chance for them to leave. If they ignore this final order and you proceed with the arrest, this last warning in court can counter any defense claiming the arrestee did not hear the original order to disperse given to the group.
In situations where offices, gates, highways, construction sites and similar locations are blocked by multiple passive resisters, take your time. Your motto during such operations should be: “Take it slow and spoil their show.”
Consider the lawful, informed enforcement of your state’s unlawful assembly statute as an effective strategy to prevent small disturbances from escalating into larger ones. I will conclude by sharing two statements I have consistently made to every team I’ve led and in every crowd control class I’ve taught:
- Extinguishing a cigarette butt is easier than putting out a forest fire.
- When policing in a crowd, employ tactics that are well-trained, effective and consistently present you in a positive light.
Remember: In these situations, the entire world may be watching.