During the Watts Riots, youths race from looted stores carrying arm loads of clothes in the Watts area of Los Angeles Aug. 13, 1965. Photo AP
FEATURED IN TRAINING
- 10th-Anniversary Conference Shines Brighter than Ever
- Pro Tips for the Firing Line, Part II
- ASIS International to Host Transitioning Program & Luncheon for Law Enforcement & Military Professionals
- 5 Reasons Not to Miss ILEETA Conference 2013
- Less-Lethal Lessons
- Through the Darkness
- NRA's Law Enforcement Division: A Great Resource
It was Friday the 13th, 1965. I was a lieutenant of two weeks. My captain directed me to take half of my platoon to our Watts substation. They ve got some kind of flap going on and need some help, he said.
We loaded about 25 officers into six black-and-whites and proceeded down Central Ave. As we turned east onto 103rd Street, I saw an LAPD black and white upside down and fully engulfed in flames. I said to the sergeant driving, Some kind of flap? It was, in fact, the beginning of what has been called the Watts Riots.
Minutes later, I joined the field command post (FCP) headquartered in the Los Angeles Fire Department s station on 103rd Street. About two hours later, a seasoned sergeant approached me as I labored over a map, deploying squads of officers. Lieutenant, we ve got a problem and you need to take swift action, he said. He told me a crowd of people stood outside our position with Molotov cocktails. There were just eight of us remaining at the FCP. As I was considering our options, we heard an explosion followed by a flash of light. One of the cocktails had hit the fire station doors.
I formed a squad of six helmeted officers and gave the few remaining shotguns to the first four. The squad stood at the small door cut into the huge folding doors of the station. I told them, On three, open the door and march double-time at the crowd with shotguns at port arms. They don t know how many we have here. Hopefully they ll break and run, and the few remaining firefighters can put out the fire on the doors.
Someone asked what action they should take if members of the crowd began throwing more Molotov cocktails. I told them to cut them down with the shotguns.
Our situation was desperate. The building was already on fire. A gasoline bomb hitting the squad could kill us all. It was time to meet force with force.
I opened the door and the squad charged out toward the crowd. We had hardly cleared the door when the crowd broke and ran. They left a milk case full of Molotov cocktails that we retrieved. The sight of helmeted, disciplined and shotgun-wielding troops did the job.
Consider another scenario. I was a field supervisor (sergeant). One of our units requested my presence for a Code 2 (urgent). I met them two blocks from Fraternity Row near a local university. The senior officer explained that an annual ritual was in progress. On the first hot day of spring the frat boys engage in a massive water fight. However, this year another factor was added to the raucous behavior. A young couple unknowingly drove into the water war. A large bucket full of water was thrown into an open window of the vehicle. The distracted driver bumped into the curb. His pregnant wife was shook up and seemed to be going into labor. The husband escorted her to the clinic on campus and police were summoned. Something had to be done.
The senior officer, with several years of experience in the area, warned that if I chose to deploy police units into the water war, there would probably be an escalation of events and a good chance for a riot. What should we do? Is this also a time for a strong show of force? The officer advised me that humor sometimes works.
I summoned the three available units in the district. Then I selected the biggest officer to accompany me. His job was to summon help from this very small task force hidden nearby should we need to be bailed out.
We turned the corner and came into view of the crowd. Whistles and cat calls filled the air. I stepped out of the black-and-white and walked toward the yelling, bucket-carrying crowd. Someone was mixing mud with the water in his bucket. I held up my hand, palm forward. I come in peace. Before I am executed, take me to your leader, I shouted with a smile.
They wrapped a wet towel around the head of a massive, Viking-like fraternity member and sat him on an upended trash can. He is our leader, the crowd began to shout. I asked permission to speak some words before being doused. I just knew I was going to get wet. He quieted the crowd and then motioned for me to begin.
I shouted to the crowd, You know this is your street. They roared in approval. We in the police department know this is your street. Their approval now was deafening. But some of the citizens visiting here don t know this is your street. Now the crowd hissed and booed.
Then I told them about the incident with the young mother. I explained they unknowingly may have put a life in danger. They were visibly shocked by this news. I then appealed for them to return to their rooms and send a delegation with me to the dean s office to resolve the incident.
A somber mood suddenly prevailed. The crowd dispersed. Fortunately, the young mother was stabilized and later gave birth to a healthy baby. And I didn t even get wet.
The Appropriate Approach
All situations have their own unique factors. so there s no cookie-cutter strategy. Dealing with crowds can be very volatile and dangerous. There are, however, a few basic principles to consider:
1. Assess the crowd s motive. In the two incidents described, clearly one had criminal intent while the other did not.
2. Select the appropriate posture or emotion. A full spectrum of options is available from a strong command presence or show of force, all the way to the use of humor. Each situation is unique.
3. Consider crowd psychology. In some cases, a means to allow them to save face works best. This may prove appropriate with crowds that haven t yet crossed over to dangerous criminal behavior. Example: Taking the blame for not sufficiently informing people earlier of the boundaries of their behavior is a small price to pay for a peaceful dispersal, even if they should have known.
4. Target leadership. Identifying and reaching a crowd s leadership can bring about a peaceful solution. Often, responsible people can be caught up in a mob mentality, which can be broken with a sound and firm appeal to reason. However, in some cases, immediate action, not talk, is needed. Apprehending malicious leaders may prove necessary and can also result in a satisfactory conclusion.
5. Make a swift decision. A small fire can turn into an urban firestorm or a forest fire in minutes. You may have a window of just a few minutes to prevent this. Similarly, an unruly crowd can turn into a full-blown riot very quickly. Swift, decisive action, utilizing the appropriate response, can make the difference on point.