What steps should be taken by police in response to a riot or demonstration?
The responses to different levels of public civil disobedience and to peaceful demonstrations are, not surprisingly, quite different. While there is no guarantee that a peaceful demonstration will remain peaceful, crowd control from the law enforcement officers’ perspective has to always involve a high level of restraint. Officers know to be mindful of the risks of precipitating a violent confrontation through excessive levels of intrusiveness. If a group or organization applies for a permit to conduct a demonstration, and does not have a history of violent activities, then the police response will be restrained and focused on ensuring that legitimate activity on the part of the non-demonstrating public can continue as normally as possible.
Peaceful demonstrations, especially ones that are annual or routine affairs – for example, the annual pro- and anti-abortion rights demonstrations in Washington, D.C. – require a large police presence to ensure that individuals or groups prone to physically assaulting demonstrators with whom they disagree are not a problem, and to ensure that the demonstrators remain mindful of their civic responsibilities. For the most part, the police response to such demonstrations is designed to highlight the visibility of law enforcement without interfering with the demonstration.
If a planned demonstration holds the potential of turning violent, such as occurs whenever racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan apply for a permit to demonstrate, the police response is considerably more martial in terms of the equipment and procedures in place to deter violence or to respond forcefully but prudently should violence occur.
In the case of a riot, the police response is far more robust. Police departments in major metropolitan areas train their personnel in crowd control and in the proper ways to respond to a riot. Whereas police officers assigned to a demonstration that is expected to be peaceful may only have their routine equipment on their persons – plus extra sets of disposable nylon handcuffs – police responding to a riot are far more heavily armed and protected. In addition to the nonlethal means they routinely carry, for example, tasers, along with their sidearm, riot control equipment would be issued and could include body armor, helmets with visors to protect against projectiles thrown at them, shotguns with extra shells and, possibly, special “bullets” designed to be used with shotguns, and tear gas canisters to help disperse the rioting crowd. Also, for better or worse, more and more police departments are equipped with military-type assault vehicles to protect officers while helping them to impose their will on the rioters.
Should a riot spontaneously, or even somewhat expectedly, break out and spread to the point of immobilizing an entire city, such as occurred in Los Angeles in 1992, then the governor of the state in question has the option of mobilizing National Guard units to help quell the violence, prevent looting, and restore order. In the case of the Los Angeles riots, then-president George H.W. Bush ordered the U.S. Marines stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton to deploy to the city to help National Guard units already mobilized to stop the rioting and looting.