The High Cost of Policing Riots

The High Cost of Policing Riots

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

As Portland continues to simmer, Minneapolis braced for chaos, and U.S. Capitol Police reconstructs the failures of the January 6th attack, the reality of preparing for worst-case scenarios can be measured in taxpayer dollars.

Crowd control is not to stop large groups from gathering, but. A law enforcement presence is for the safety of the crowd, whether it is an entertainment event or a protest. But when a crowd is agitated, the results can be disastrous and even deadly. Protests aren’t the only crowds where violence and vandalism can simmer. Sporting events, concerts, and parades can become riotous.

For agencies with enough officers available to respond to a crowd, the right protective equipment and response gear is essential. The first hurdle is personnel. Even in a large department, the number of available officers on a shift is often far less than the public realizes. If there is advance anticipation of a potential disturbance, police leaders can plan for staffing, but those plans can fall apart very quickly. Coordination of mutual aid contingencies, planning assignments, and reshuffling daily duty rosters. Overtime and leave cancelations will create a payroll and staffing debt that will create future workforce shortages or budget-busting payouts.

A police presence, even if not enough to handle a major collapse of order, is intended to give a signal that there may be consequences to those who further foment a crowd. Officers, however, can be quickly overwhelmed. Management of violent or increasingly agitated crowds involves strategies to break the crowd into smaller groups and diverting them, remove primary agitators, and stop advancement into areas vulnerable to damage, looting, or occupation. These can be high-value commercial areas or government offices with symbolic value. This takes coordination and staffing at strategic locations, made complex by changing conditions.

As additional help can hopefully create a line of some depth to resist hostile advancing crowds. Despite media narratives of spontaneous riots, and peaceful protests turning violent because of police presence, many unruly crowds are planned and involve trained agitators and often paid operatives. Weapons sneaked into the crowd or hidden in advance in the area can include bricks, bottles of frozen water, containers of bleach or urine, pepper spray.

The reason that police officers wear helmets, facemasks, gasmasks, shin guards, and carry shields is the same reason firefighters wear helmets and bunker gear – to protect them from dangerous elements they expect in their workplace. Obtaining and stockpiling this equipment is expensive and, as many agencies have discovered over the past year, the equipment can degrade. Out-of-date munitions, brittle shields, and crumbling padding on shin guards were discovered as gear was brought out of storage. Training on many of these items was rusty as well.

Another important component of responding to violent outbreaks the armored vehicle. Among the critics who decry protective gear for officers because it looks too military, the armored vehicles are a prime target. These rescue and response vehicles are irreplaceable for moving assets into areas under attack. They are particularly essential for rescuing persons inside an area actively under attack.

Many agencies use military surplus armored vehicles because of the low cost of acquisition. These are an alternative to the much better commercially available response vehicles. The vehicles that are custom-made for law enforcement are very expensive. Most are obtained by grant funding. Both the federal grants and military surplus vehicles are targeted for removal by the current administration. The Capitol Police and other responding agencies were criticized for their poor planning and failure to use the very assets that anti-police antagonists want to be removed from police use.

Barricades are used to limit crowd movements. In reality, unless they are immovable objects like permanent fencing with razor wire, or concrete barriers, the portable gates, and wooden or plastic sawhorse barriers are only psychological boundaries to persons willing to respect them. The capitol attack is an example of how easily overcome are these barriers, even when staffed by officers.

As repugnant as the concrete and razor wire are in a free country, the real necessity lies in the hearts of the citizenry to decide whether to respect due process or mob rule. No one likes the image of a phalanx of armed government agents in robotic-looking gear on the streets of America. If we are to be a nation of laws and mutual respect, we can leave all of that gear behind. If we are going to refuse to allow mobs to rule, then defending the innocent from their terror will require the expense, training, and maintenance of the tools for doing so. It also requires the fortitude of leaders to support that defense, rather than merely castigating failures and deflecting blame from themselves.