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7 keys to successfully policing a potentially unruly crowd

A large disturbance is an opportunity for officers to look very good or very bad in front of millions; use the Madison Method to successfully police a crowd


A large disturbance is an opportunity for officers to look very good or very bad in front of millions.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

During the 80s and 90s, my department repeatedly faced violent riots that threatened the historical heart of our city. Our team tactics – guided by our knowledge and philosophy – ensured our city’s heart and our officers’ careers were intact when the smoke cleared.

At the time, the “La Crosse Method” – as it was called by others – became a national model for crowd control. The La Crosse Method was actually a combination of Classic Crowd Control Tactics blended with Mobile Field Force Tactics. These were performed by officers who were highly trained in those tactics and versed in a philosophy called the “Madison Method.”

The Madison Police Department had developed this method during the violent anti-war riots and rallies of the late 60s and early 70s and it was embraced by our department. This helped us repeatedly police unruly crowds with great success, and entails these seven keys:

1. We facilitate and protect the public’s right to freely speak and assemble.

When officers realize that they are at the scene of a protest to facilitate the right of speech and assembly it guides and shapes the law enforcement response from planning to the implementation of the plan.

2. We use restraint in the use of force. We protect people first, property second.

Force may have to be used at any large gathering, especially one born in passion. Officers working such a large event have to realize that all arrests will be widely watched and recorded. These officers should be well-trained at making team arrests and that training should be freshly updated just prior to each event, whenever possible.

3. We dialogue with participants before, during and after demonstrations.

When events are being planned, it can be extremely beneficial for law enforcement to speak with the organizers before, during and even after that event. This reinforces the police role as peacekeepers rather than as a force to be confronted. By maintaining a dialogue, it allows for the opportunity to encourage peaceful gatherings and minimize sources of conflict.

It also gives your agency insight on the, who, what, when, where and why of demonstrations, also known as intelligence.

This does not mean we march and carry signs with them. That is unacceptable behavior for a uniformed officer of any rank.

4. We enable citizens and the media through constant communication.

It is important to prevent potentially dangerous rumors from being reported as fact. Irresponsible journalism is not the fault of law enforcement, but getting facts to the press in a timely manner can be beneficial to the police, the public and even the media.

5. We show leadership in preparation and training for special events.

A large disturbance is an opportunity for officers to look very good or very bad in front of millions.

Extensive training not only leads to success, but a trained team can reinforce that your police officers are not only good guys and good gals, but they are also good at what they do. A calm and effective professional team response will not only win the day, but it will also contrast drastically with the mercilessness of anarchy.

6. we Remember we are peacekeepers.

Peacekeeping must always be the primary function of police at the scene of any crowd or demonstration. Peacekeeping is a balance between the tolerance of lawful protest and the ability to recognize and respond effectively to criminality, which threatens the peace.

7. We are open and communicate constantly.

You do not police one crowd of a thousand individuals. You police a thousand individuals in one crowd. As long as the event is peaceful, officers should remain approachable. Treating people with visible courtesy and respect does not cost a penny, but it pays dividends.


A balance must be maintained when managing a crowd. Brave Americans have bled so other Americans could have the right to gather and loudly complain about anything – even us.

However, this gives no one a legal right to burn down in one night what took others a lifetime to build. It is between these two points that officers must clearly draw a line – and then hold that line!

NEXT: 8 tactics to prevent or survive gunfire at a demonstration

This article, originally published 06/16/2015, 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. 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.