Feature: Some thoughts on effective but non-lethal crowd control

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The first sight of a riotous mob can be very intimidating for the inexperienced and ill-prepared policeman filled as his mind is with the law and its implications for him, never mind if he does not meet the expectations of his masters and the other policemen around him. What to do indeed!

Governments have been confronted with riotous crowds since time immemorial. Napoleon infamously simply deployed cannons during the Paris royalist riots of 1795 while British authorities sent in the cavalry at St Peter’s Field, Manchester in August 1819, resulting in the “Peterloo Massacre”, and a century later, the infantry, resulting in the Amritsar Massacre in April 1919. I would hasten to add that there are many such examples across the world, Soweto in 1976, China, where the People’s Liberation Army dealt with protestors on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and many more.

Every police authority has a view on how crowds should be controlled. This is not to ignore the use of the military as a supplement, a famous example being the deployment of the British Army to Northern Ireland in 1968 when protests there escalated beyond the ability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to cope. In all cases the degree of force that may be applied is dependent on the law of the land interpreted in terms of the political climate of the day which must sanction the degree of force allowable to deal with the problem. When the government, as was the case for example with the Shah of Iran, is out of step with the popular mood, then the use of force can backfire spectacularly and in that case caused wholesale defections of the security forces to join the protesters and ultimately the fall of the government.

The degree of force is the critical factor in the public mind as beyond a certain ill-defined point there will be a public counter-reaction. This article will attempt to discuss that policing dilemma with respect to public order policing (POP) in the context of the modern South Africa.

Possibly the most effective means of public order policing is the early arrival of a police officer on the scene of a protest who is able, by means of his/her personality and understanding of the psychology of crowds, to prevent even the most emotional of gatherings from turning violent, giving another interpretation to Sun Tzu’s well-known dictum that “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” The same is true for public order policing. Ten minutes of careful listening and understanding could prevent days of violence and millions of Rand’s worth of subsequent damage. The role of the first responder i.e. police official, at a potential unrest scene has been much underestimated in police training generally, and specifically in terms of crime prevention.

It is here where a contradiction arises. All democratic states recognise the right of citizens to gather and protest or celebrate peacefully in a safe environment. To secure the latter is one reason that police are present in most countries at major public gatherings. Keeping contending protests apart or screening property and non-participants are another reason, as is detering, preventing and investigating crime. Crowds traditionally attract criminals and incidence of theft and robbery are not uncommon. In the case of emotional protests, acts of violence and vandalism are not uncommon. Public violence is a leap up from the occasional mugging or pickpocketing. The latter can generally be policing with the consent of the crowd, policing the former may further inflame the situation, pouring petrol on the flames.

Once a crime is committed, it is the duty, by law, of a police official to investigate; to gather and protect evidence, to detain suspects and to bring these before the courts (in collaboration with the prosecuting authorities) so justice may be done. Easy enough with a few miscreants, but another matter all together with a hostile crowd!

The command and control aspects of policing any mass gathering must also be carefully planned and rehearsed beforehand. Confusion and uncertainty, once policing is required, will delay proper and effective police deployments and of course most likely allow lawbreakers to escape justice. The concept of appointing commanders, at varying levels from the province down to street level, who have the authority to give guidance and instructions to the ground commander is vital to ensure that the police commander at the scene of a disturbance has the authority to issue commands and do what is necessary knowing he or she has the authority to do so. The requirement for such rehearsals will pre-suppose that the elements that will be deployed to deal with such a situation have trained together and will actually be grouped together at a suitable station ready to spring into action when so required.

The training requirements of such a POP force must be intensive, carried out frequently in realistic training areas following carefully scripted but true to life scenarios, using live but non-lethal POP ammunition including tear gas, pepper spray, water cannon and rubber bullets. The more the POP training, the more confident the members will become and thus more efficient, disciplined and less likely to break ranks or carry out illegal acts.

Facing down a full scale riot is a very frightening experience, as mentioned earlier. Trust and knowledge is essential, specifically in their commanders, whom as a result of detailed and frequent training they have grown to respect. They need to trust implicitly that their POP unit/section commanders will do what is right and legally correct under all circumstances, the more so as the flip-side of the doctrine of minimum force is the possible imprisonment of law enforcers who exceed the bounds.

One of the most critical aspects of any POP unit is that its weapons, tactics and doctrine are correctly matched and fully integrated. Exercises must be conducted to confirm this vital principle. This integration means that where doctrine requires POP members, as part of a snatch team, or shield line, to close with the line of rioters, they have the appropriate protective equipment and weapons. This will include arms tha can be used at very short ranges, without necessarily causing serious injury or death to a suspect who resists arrest, or is a threat to law enforcers.

This also means that while it is useful to train some POP units to a higher tactical standard than others, all must have a common minimum tactical training level and be capable of dealing with all threats. The very real threat exists that should a unit only be able to deal with basic low level marches and minor infractions of the law, they may suddenly be required to deal with a crowd situation which by the very nature of the beast can escalate rapidly into a very dangerous situation which only a well trained POP commander could handle in a calm and efficient manner.

Although command-and-control have been addressed previously the vexed question of the Incident Control Centre (ICC) is of such importance that it needs to be dealt with separately. The principle accepted through out the world is that should an incident occur, no matter how small, an ICC must be established to ensure that the vital link between the tactical commander busy with the incident, the higher headquarters and the press who will arrive rapidly at the scene. Clearly the ICC has a greater responsibility than acting as a conduit of commands and information. The ICC amongst many other tasks must actually become the focus point for the management of the area, in terms of not only the incident/riot control, but also the garnering of information/intelligence and evidence for the subsequent court case that must flow out of the incident. The flow of arrestees will be facilitated by the ICC to the identified reception centres (RC) where effective processing can only happen based on the correct legal paperwork required to place the suspect at the scene of his/her crime.

Without this process being in place, the courts will have little recourse other than to release the suspects without charge to the great frustration of the hard working POP unit members who could be tempted to rather punish the rioter themselves than deliver him up to an uncertain justice system. The rioter, of course, will take heart from the fact that taking a violent part in a protest is a relatively safe activity in so much as that even if he or she was caught, the chance of punishment is slim. A better recipe for greater trouble at a later stage is hard to conceive.



In conclusion, public order policing is not only a much under-rated subject, also a very complex one too. Winston Churchill said of Royal Navy Grand Fleet commander Admiral John Jellicoe during the First World War that he was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Public order police face the same predicament: there are no glorious victories in correct crowd control, but even the most junior member of a POP unit can cause no end of political and financial repercussions for a government with very little real effort on his or her part.
** Colonel David Peddle retired from the South African National Defence Force in 2009 after a full career. His last post was Senior Staff Officer Internal Operations at the Joint Operations Division. In this capacity he was chairman of the National Vehicle Crime Task Team, the chairman of the Maritime Committee of the national Border Control Operational Coordinating Committee and Member for Security on the boards of the Great Limpopo, Maluti/Drakensberg and Lebombo Transfrontier Parks. Colonel Peddle holds a Diploma in Security Management from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently completing a Masters Degree in Security Management at the same institution. He is a graduate of the Executive National Security Programme of the South African National Defence College, the South African Army’s Command and Staff Course and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He was commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders. While in the British Army. Colonel Peddle served in Northern Ireland. While in the South African Army, Colonel Peddle was also for many years involved with developing, teaching and implementing crowd control doctrine. Colonel Peddle is currently consulting with defenceWeb and is developing a programme for a two-day conference on crowd control as an aspect of public order policing, to be held 3-4 October 2011 at Gallagher Estate in Midrand.