How Riot Control Works

Photo courtesy Selpro Limited

On April 29, 1992, a jury announced a not-guilty verdict for four white police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King, a black man, in Los Angeles, CA. Within hours, protests and demonstrations turned violent, and by 8 p.m. that night, full-scale riots had broken out and were spreading throughout Los Angeles.

­Fires, looting, shootings and beatings raged though the city until May 2, when the presence of the U.S. National Guard, Marines and other federal troops combined with public pleas from politicians, store-owners and even Rodney King himself quelled the violence. In the end, 54 people were killed, and more than 2,300 were injured. More than 7,000 fires, along with window smashing, looting and attacks on vehicles resulted in an estimated $1 billion in damage. Los Angeles city courts were backed up for months dealing with the more than 12,000 arrests that resulted from the riots.

Today's police forces are better equipped and better trained to deal with crowds that get out of control. In this article, we'll learn what causes riots, how police units approach crowd control problems and what equipment they use to clear the streets safely.

What Makes a Riot?

To understand how police control riots, first we need to understand how a riot gets started in the first place. A riot is a crowd that takes violent, illegal actions, reacting out of fear or anger. The crowd takes on a mob mentality -- the people making up the "mob" do things they normally would not do because the crowd makes them anonymous; this anonymity, combined with the actions of the rest of the crowd, makes them feel like they can smash, burn or beat whatever and whomever they want.

There are different kinds of riots, but almost all riots can be described in general terms as being like a fire. For a fire to start, two things are needed: fuel and a spark.

The fuel for a riot builds up over time. In many riots, the fuel can be years or even decades of racial prejudice, unfair treatment of the poor or antagonism between a company and a union. If people have no effective way of dealing with these problems or changing their situation, an undercurrent of anger and frustration grows stronger and stronger.

Once the fuel has built up, almost any spark can set it off. An incident that angers one group can turn them against another group. In many cases, an actual incident isn't even required -- just a rumor can spread through a group and turn deep-seeded anger into a violent outburst.

Some riots are centered on sports teams either losing or winning major games or championships. In this case, the fuel doesn't build up for a long time -- it's mostly the result of alcohol. The drunkenness of the crowd contributes heavily to these riots, s­parked by the excitement or disappointment of a team's performance.

Riot Control Tactics

Riot-control tactics are designed to disperse the crowd and minimize injuries. Learn about riot-control tactics and how riot-control training is conducted.
Riot-control tactics are designed to disperse the crowd and minimize injuries. Learn about riot-control tactics and how riot-control training is conducted.

The tactics used to control riots in the past were simple -- they were based on the fact that the police were almost always better-armed than the rioters. The tactics they used basically consisted of forming a line and charging into the crowd. Today, the police are still well-armed, but tactics have advanced significantly in hopes of preventing injuries.

When a riot is in full swing, police will deploy in a square formation with a command team at the center. The command team is protected on all four sides by echelons of troops deployed in groups of 10 or 12 officers. There is also an arrest team at the center of the square.

This tactical unit is very mobile and able to adapt on the fly to changes in the situation. If a threat suddenly appears behind or to one side of the unit, then the echelon facing that direction is designated the front of the unit. The entire team can then change the direction it's facing without a lot of maneuvering. Also, the echelons can cover each other when the team moves to take advanced positions. If the unit is under attack, the whole team does not move together: One echelon moves while the others provide covering fire or an actual physical screen (with riot shields). Then another echelon moves up into position.

The echelon is not meant to be an impenetrable wall of cop. In fact, the riot squad often leaves an escape route to let rioters run past the squad. The officers can adopt a passive position, in which they spread out and leave several yards between each officer. The crowd can then easily filter through them. If a particularly violent group moves toward the officers or they spot specific suspects they want to arrest, they can quickly close the gaps and form a tight line.

As the unit moves forward into a crowd, it will prod and push at anyone who doesn't respond to requests to move away by the time the front echelon reaches them. If they still refuse to move, the unit continues moving forward, but the front echelon opens up and passes around the protestors. Once the protestors are inside the square, the unit stops, the front echelon reforms and the arrest team processes the rioters. When they're done, the unit can continue moving.

In the next section, we'll see what equipment crowd-control units use to do their job.

Riot-control Technology

Typical crowd-control protective gear
Typical crowd-control protective gear
Photo courtesy Department of Defense

When a crowd-control unit gets ready for action, the first thing it does is put on protective gear. The full outfit is known as hard tac and consists of:

  • Helmet with face shield
  • Body armor
  • Large body shield

Both the body shield and face shield are made of Lexan®. Lexan® can be bullet-proof if it is thick enough, but for this application, it isn't meant to stop bullets -- it only protects against thrown objects and shrapnel from incendiary devices.

Photo courtesy Selpro Limited

The most basic offensive weapon a riot-control officer has is a baton. These are usually between 24 and 42 inches (60-107 cm) long and are made of any hardwood. Most crowd-control units use these instead of rifles because the mere presence of rifles tends to escalate any kind of disturbance, and if the crowd manages to wrest a rifle away from an officer, the results could be tragic.

Police have a variety of non-lethal rounds they can fire at crowds, although these are generally considered to be "less-lethal" rounds because anything fired from a gun has the potential to be deadly. However, they are trained to use these weapons in ways that minimize the risk of death or serious injury.

These rounds are fired from a 40-mm gun -- either a single-shot launcher or a multi-launcher that can have five or six rounds loaded at once. The guns are similar to military grenade launchers.

40-mm single-launcher, used instead of the multi-launcher when greater precision is needed
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski
40-mm multi-launcher
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski
Chamber of 40-mm multi-launcher
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Riot Control Rounds

40-mm rounds
40-mm rounds
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Some of the rounds available to riot-control officers include:

Blunt-force rounds - These rounds cause pain when they strike, but they don't penetrate the skin. They are often fired at the ground so the round skips off the pavement and strikes the rioters in the legs.

  • Wood Baton - 40-mm wooden cylinders (long-range and accurate)
  • Rubber Baton - 40-mm rubber cylinders (long-range and accurate)
  • Foam Baton - 40-mm foam cylinders (shorter-range because they are so light; they are fired at single aggressors who are getting close enough to the officer to directly threaten him or her) Each baton round is filled with small discs, like little hockey pucks, made of the appropriate material. When officers skip the rounds off the ground in front of rioters, the discs separate from the round and tend to hit multiple targets. Or, if they hit someone directly, the round breaks apart into the separate discs on impact, dissipating a lot of the kinetic energy. It hurts, but it has less chance of doing damage than if it were a solid chunk of the material. The object is to cause enough pain to get the rioter to comply with the officers.
  • Bean Bag Round - Square-shaped bean bags (long-range, but they tend to be inaccurate; bean-bag rounds geared toward accuracy are teardrop-shaped with tails, not square)
  • Sponge Round - Bullet-shaped round with a sponge tip (all-purpose, with middle-grade range and accuracy)
Sponge rounds can also be loaded with O.C. gas (pepper spray) or marker dye.
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Stinger rounds - A Stinger round is loaded with small, rubber pellets that disperse on impact. Pepperball rounds - A paintball gun is slightly modified to fire pepper-spray pellets instead of paintballs. When these strike someone, the severe burning sensation in the eyes and nose will incapacitate most people without doing permanent harm. When children or elderly people might be present in a crowd, the police can instead use water pellets. It still stings to get hit with water pellets, and sometimes people are afraid they have actually been hit with pepper spray, so the crowd disperses.

Pepperball gun
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski
These shells are loaded into the pepperball gun. The top shell contains pellets loaded with pepper spray, while the bottom shell contains water pellets.
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski
Water shell with the end retracted
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Aerosol grenades - These are metal canisters that are activated and thrown like regular grenades. They spray O.C. or C.S. gas (see below) over a wide area. Officers rarely throw these directly into a crowd, as this just causes panic. Usually, they use the gas as a sort of barricade to direct the crowd's movements in a certain direction. If a particular group of rioters were extremely violent (for example, if they were gathered around and beating a single victim), then a gas grenade might be thrown into the group to get them to run away.

Aerosol grenade
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Ferret rounds - Ferret rounds are made to penetrate windows or wooden barricades, where they can then deposit a load of gas. These are used to flush people out of barricades and other standoff situations.

Dye rounds - Sponge rounds, ferret rounds and pepperball rounds can all be filled with marker dye. These are used to mark certain people in a crowd so that other officers can identify them or so that they can be caught later in case they flee the scene. In a riot, the leaders are often tagged with marker-dye rounds so the arrest team can pick them up later.

Gas rounds - These rounds are loaded with a gas that causes severe irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and even causes contact skin burns in some cases.

  • O.C. gas - Oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray
  • C.S. gas - Chlorobenzylidene malonitrile, a form of tear gas

Officers don't like to use gas rounds, because they know they're going to experience some of the effects of the gas themselves. Still, they wear gas masks and goggles to protect themselves in case the need arises.

A crowd-control gas mask is based on the standard military-issue gas mask.
Photo courtesy Cheektowaga Police Department Photographer: Edward Grabianowski

Another tool that crowd-control forces may rely on is the use of animals. Horses and dogs can be very effective at intimidating rioters. Plus, these animals are relatively unaffected by C.S. gas, which makes them ideal for riot situations.

Crowd-control Philosophy: Prevention

U.S. Air Force members undergo riot-control training prior to a scheduled protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
U.S. Air Force members undergo riot-control training prior to a scheduled protest at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Photo courtesy Department of Defense

Today's riot control units aren't usually called riot squads -- they are crowd-management units. Instead of trying to "beat" the rioters in battle, the police just try to calm them down and get them to go home. The use of force, even non-lethal force, is a last resort.

The first step in crowd management is making sure a riot doesn't happen in the first place. Although sometimes riots erupt unexpectedly, they are frequently tied to planned protests and organized strikes. When the police think there is the potential that such a situation could get out of control, they contact the organizers and leaders of the protest or strike ahead of time. They set up ground rules that the protestors are to follow, and they designate a specific area for the event to happen in. The police assign specially trained officers to monitor the event. The point is that the police will simply provide a presence and work to ensure that everyone stays safe. Only if the ground rules are broken will any police action be needed at all.

Even if the officers themselves disagree with the opinions of the protestors, they are trained to maintain an unbiased attitude. "That's part of America," said Sgt. Bauer of the Cheektowaga Police Department. "You're allowed to have a voice." The officers try not to look at the protestors as enemies. Instead, they recognize that they are part of the community that the police are entrusted to protect and serve. "You can't go in like stormtroopers," said Sgt. Bauer.

While officers are trained to stay polite with the people in the crowd, they are careful to not give off an air of subservience. The police have to be seen as being in charge and in control at all times, even while they stay passive and allow the crowd to operate within the ground rules set out ahead of time.

Sometimes, though, these preventative measures don't work, and a riot breaks out despite police efforts to keep everyone calm.

Crowd-control Philosophy: Conflict

If a crowd gets unruly and starts taking violent action, then the police will switch to a more aggressive attitude. Their actions here reflect the fact that almost all riots are incited and lead by a few individuals who feel strongly or have something to gain from a violent confrontation. The majority of the people present either show up because something exciting is going on or are bystanders who got carried into the mob mentality. Faced with the possibility of arrest or confrontation with police, most of them simply want to escape and go home.

The first step is simple intimidation. Riot officers stand in strict formations and act with military precision. Once they form echelons -- lines of officers that effectively work as barriers -- the officers tap their batons on their shields or stomp their feet in unison. The result can be quite frightening to unarmed civilians -- it looks and sounds as if this group of armed and armored officers is getting ready to come crashing down with clubs swinging. In truth, this display is meant to scare off as many of the rioters as possible without the officers ever getting near them.

Police do not try to arrest every rioter. Their first targets are those who are leading the riot, because often the crowd will disperse without their leaders firing them up and encouraging them. All people who are spotted breaking a law are also targeted for arrest, especially if they injure or kill another person.

When it gets to the point where officers are actually in conflict with the rioters, the goal is still to disperse the crowd. A combination of advancing lines of officers and the use of noxious gas is used to direct the crowd in a certain direction or keep them away from a certain area. The crowd is never pinned down -- rioters are always given an escape route, since the whole point is to get them to run away.

For more information on riot control, crowd management and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Archer, Jules. Rage in the Streets: Mob Violence in America. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.
  • Baker, MSG Anthony E., USAR, (Ret.), & Bonn, LTC Keith E., U.S. Army (Ret.). Guide to Military Operations Other Than War. Stackpole Books, 2000.
  • Coakley, Robert W. The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, 1789-1878. Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1988.
  • Hazen, Don (editor).Inside the L.A. Riots. Institute for Alternative Journalism, 1992.
  • Heaps, Willard A. Riots USA, 1765-1970. The Seabury Press, 1970.
  • Applegate, Colonel Rex. Crowd and Riot Control, including: Close Combat Techniques for Military and Police. The Stackpole Company, 1964.