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Behavioral Aspects of Crowd and Riot Control

Bruce Rodgers

Having described the types of behaviors and techniques associated with riot behavior, both group and individual, it is now important to discuss those techniques that law enforcement must employ if it is to successfully contain and control this behavior. Like the individual and group activities that are a part of riot behavior, riot control involves actions both by the individual police officer and the police as a whole.


Individual police officers and the police as a group must not lose self-control when dealing with riots. Professional, businesslike detachment, along with impartiality and the sharp execution of orders, will enhance the police image and contribute to orderly restoration of law and order. Only force that is necessary to control a situation should be used, since excessive force in a sensitive situation will destroy previous gains and seriously affect future accomplishments.


Police officers, especially those in command positions, must be alert so they can detect rapid changes in the course of a disturbance. Just as soldiers prepare for the sounds and sights of battle through desensitizing techniques, such as infiltration courses and mock enemy villages, police personnel should be prepared for the sounds and sights of riots and other civil disturbances.

At the Arizona Law Enforcement Training Academy, two techniques have been useful in training officers and recruits to maintain their alertness. The first is a two-hour class on “maintaining your cool,” in which the emotionality of certain words and their ability to provoke highly charged emotional reactions are presented. Recruits are told to look at the person on their right and think of the most insulting thing to call or say to that person. Then both are asked to stand, and the first recruit is asked to say it to the other’s face using the nastiest tone possible. Then the second person is asked to respond in the nastiest way possible to that insult. This exercise dramatically points out the emotional power of words and makes recruits more alert to their own reactions to name-calling and verbal baiting. Developing an alertness to their own reactions will help officers maintain their cool during riots when they are called names or are insulted.

The second technique is an attempt to simulate the sights and sounds of battle. During this exercise, one recruit class is required to handle a disturbance staged by another recruit class. Depending on the actions of the “police,” the disturbance becomes either aggravated or quieted down. After the exercise, a critique is held to discuss the actions of the “crowd” and “police” to determine which actions led to which results. A valuable part of the exercise is that recruits can see how both sides tend to get carried away by their emotions. Alerting officers to this aspect of riot behavior is important in increasing riot-control effectiveness.

Working as a Team

Police officers are trained to work individually and to deal with individuals. They think in terms of the individual rather than the group. But when dealing with crowd/mob control, officers have to work as a team member. They cannot deal with this group as individuals but must deal with it as part of a group themselves — the controlling group.

The controlling group must be well organized and act with precision if it is to be effective. This change of attitude or approach is sometimes difficult for individual police officers to accept. Police officers need training to become proficient at crowd control (Covey 1987).

Community Support

Acquiring and maintaining community support is an important factor in riot control. To maintain community support, police must act competently and professionally. They must protect and defend everyone in their jurisdiction, not just a select few.

The Use of Humor

Crowd control duty elicits tension in controlling personnel. This is especially true if officers expect the crowd to be hostile and/or violent. In response to this anticipation, officers tend to look grim and stern. This sets up a self-fulfilling prophesy: You expect trouble, you’ll get trouble. Rather, officers should relax, be friendly, and initiate conversation with individuals in the crowd if possible. Officers should remember that a smile is contagious and will not completely destroy their authority. Humor is often overlooked as an effective police tactic in crowd control. It can be used to help control sit-ins, marches, and other mobile demonstrations; in handling confrontations between mobs and control forces that have not yet reached a stage of violence; in dispersing groups to minimize animosity; in reducing hostility when it is necessary to make selected or mass arrests at a demonstration; or in the general prevention of hostility secondary to an issue that has led to a demonstration (Coates 1972).

Where possible, police should direct humor against themselves to reduce some of the hostility demonstrators feel toward them. Humor should be verbal rather than visual. If the humor is effective, it tends to be contagious, with one laugh facilitating the next. Although initial attempts to use a light touch on a crowd may not be well received, repeated attempts may have a cumulative effect. However, heavy-handed humor should be avoided; in most situations, ethnic humor is definitely out of place.

Due to the positive benefits of humor in riot control, police departments might identify for crowd control duty those officers who demonstrate an ability to handle crowds with wit and humor.

Police Policy

Most law enforcement authorities have policies that guide the handling of crowds or mobs. These policies should be reexamined frequently to evaluate their effectiveness. For example, a common police practice during riots is to order all officers on twenty-four-hour alert and increase on-duty time to twelve hours or longer. However, the effectiveness of this practice is questionable. A tired officer is a poor officer, especially when faced with the stress of civil disorder. How long can a police officer stay on the street, facing a hostile and potentially violent crowd, without losing control? A police sergeant commented, “When my men are fresh, they toss off the insults and jeering with good humor. After an hour or two, their patience begins to wear thin. Give them another couple of hours and they’re probably ready to bust heads.”

Some other common practices seem equally ill advised. For example, in anticipation of trouble with student demonstrators, twenty or more deputies were brought to the scene in a school bus. They were confined on the bus in the hot sun for three to four hours, awaiting a possible call to action. Fortunately the call never came, and the deputies were driven back to the sheriff’s office. One can speculate what frame of mind these officers were in after an hour on a hot bus. Had the call to action come, they might have used more force than necessary to control the demonstration.

Law enforcement authorities should plan policies that reduce the physical and emotional stress of riot duty. A place for officers to rest in comfort while on call should be set up immediately, with beverages and sandwiches available. If possible, this should be provided by a local civic organization. This will show officers that they have community support.

A sense of group identity supports effective action. It is advisable for law enforcement authorities to arrange for officers who are coming off street duty during civil disturbances to spend time with other officers. This will enable them to share experiences, fostering an esprit de corps.

As mentioned, since most officers are trained to work individually, more training must be provided to help them work as a team during civil disorders. Attainment of this goal requires constant practice. Police should plan regular team meetings, even if a riot is not imminent.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.

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