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A 15-point plan to prevent or survive a large disturbance

Be cognizant of what is working – and what is not – and be flexible enough to change tactics quickly as needed


Protesters attack a CHP cruiser during a Black Lives Matter protest on a freeway in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Hundreds of people protesting the death of a black man in Minneapolis police custody blocked the freeway.


Law enforcement leaders – and street officers – have watched from afar as large-scale disturbances have erupted and quickly gotten out of hand. We have to remember that if we don’t learn from history, we’re bound to repeat it.

Here are 15 things to remember for preventing or surviving a large disturbance.

1. Know what you are facing

When you have the luxury of having advance notice of a crowd-control situation, determine the “who, what, when, where and why” of the event. This kind of intel can help you set a winning strategy for preventing violence, or responding quickly if violence does occur.

2. Don’t act alone

That old story about “one riot, one ranger” may be true, but chances are you are not a Texas Ranger. Crowd control takes a coordinated team effort to succeed. Solo heroics are not part of the program.

3. Recognize that a large disturbance can ignite with little warning

A dangerous brew is to mix a large number of people, add one negative leader and stir in a generous serving of emotions. The passion can emanate from something as major as a burning social issue, or as minor as a homecoming game.

4. Monitor a crowd for danger signs

Don’t be just present in a crowd, be a presence. Pay attention to the demeanor of the onlookers gathering and what they are saying. Take early notice of people who are urging violence, or pushing into your space.

5. Don’t enter a large crowd if another alternative exists

Give verbal command first and get enough help to be effective before you choose to enter a crowd.

6. Stay alert for entrapment

A sudden disturbance or obvious violation can be a trap set for unwary officers who might rush in to stop one thing and end up being caught up in another.

7. Control the location of any contact

Avoid making contacts in volatile spots where trouble makers can be found in large numbers. A traffic stop was the spark of the Watts riot in 1965, which caused $40 million in damage and led to 34 deaths.

8. Recognize cop baiting

Professional trouble makers know how to get officers to overreact. Recognize the spitting, the screams, and the “going limp when you touch them” as the behavior of a professional agitator. Contrast the professional agitator’s outlandish behavior with your calm demeanor.

9. Rely on the right equipment

There is a time to police a crowd wearing an eight-point hat and white gloves. There is also a time where officers should be in full protective gear. The question “helmet or eight-point?” should be answered by an analysis of the tactical situation at hand, not the political situation at hand.

[Police1 Resource: How to buy riot response gear]

10. Consider the effects of noise

An approaching siren may encourage some members of a disturbance to disperse. It may also have the opposite effect. Pounding shields may encourage a crowd to back-off, but it may also rile them up.

Be cognizant of what is working – and what is not – and be flexible enough to change tactics quickly as needed.

11. Let crowds leave

Never forget you are outnumbered. Give crowds enough time to leave after commands are given and leave a path open for them to travel. It is not wise to trap a crowd or to slow its dispersal by making minor arrests.

12. Watch everyone

Watch people at demonstrations with backpacks, stilts, clipboards, armbands, gas masks, whistles, or wearing shirts with the Anarchist ‘A’ on it. These are often indicators of the professional protestors who travel to hotspots to add fuel to an existing fire.

Be especially aware of people making threats, wearing balaclava-type masks, communicating with hand signals, and/or carrying weapons.

13. Protect your transportation

Have fleet keys – and a defensible parking plan – at large events because the destruction of a squad car is all the impetus that the makers of mischief need to get a crowd to invest itself in violence.

Don’t provide the opportunity by leaving behind an unoccupied squad. On the other hand, don’t get trapped within a squad.

14. Act decisively, but with restraint

A crowd does not start a riot. Individuals in a crowd incite riots. Identify trouble-makers early. Gather enough evidence to make your case and – when it is tactically sound – make the arrest quickly and efficiently. Remember that it is easier in a crowd control situation to extinguish a cigarette butt than a forest fire.

Arresting the right person at the right time in the right way can send a powerful message. Arresting them in the wrong way can inspire chaos.

15. Don’t act out of emotion

Hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of people are watching you. When you are policing a crowd, do not forget that the crowd that angers you conquers you. The first person you must control when doing crowd control is yourself.

NEXT: How to train for mass gatherings, protests and riots (eBook)

This article, originally published 05/06/2015, has been updated.

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. 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.

Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. He is the co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters.” 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 two non-fiction books, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History” and “If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street.” All of Lt. Marcou’s books are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.