Responding to major disturbances

The faster you respond to a major disturbance, the more likely you are to keep it from escalating.

This may seem self-evident, but there are too many incident commanders who subscribe to the false notion that "time is on our side." Time when you are dealing with an adversary, time is on the side of the force that uses it more efficiently, because time is always competitive. Each side is competing for those precious moments.

Napoleon was quoted as saying, "I may lose a battle, but I will never lose a minute." He understood the value of time.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has endured nearly eight hundred jail disturbances of all types and sizes in the last decade. Our philosophy has been to respond to these events with quick, tactical, forceful action.

Just how quick, tactical and forceful our action is depends on the level of training at each facility, the size of its response team, or teams, and the frequency which it has been enduring disturbances of late. But the quick, tactical, forceful action philosophy has been taught for over fifteen years.

To execute a quick response you need to train. You also need to understand your tactics, your tools and your adversary. I will address each in inverse order below.

The adversary

This may surprise you, but there are only two types of disturbances: they are either spontaneous or planned. Even some disturbances that break out after growing tensions often manifest the characteristics of spontaneous disturbances. These disturbances are typically inmate versus inmate.

They usually start with an innocuous flashpoint, like one sitting down at the wrong table or picking up the wrong phone.

Groups then divide by gang or race with a handful of serious aggressors and perhaps a few minor skirmishes here or there. But most inmates are posturing and the vast majority of them are waiting for our intervention. To avoid being regulated later by members of their peer groups, each inmate needs to look like he is doing something. Seeing inmates shadow boxing or just yelling and screaming at the opposition is common.

Planned events are more dangerous and, fortunately, rare. These events involve hits on other inmates or directed aggression against staff. They can end quickly, even before we intervene, or blow up into something huge. These events almost always involve leadership, include weapons and require significant force to end if the inmates’ goals are not met prior to staff intervention.

The tools

An injured prisoner waits for an ambulance after an inmates riot at La Mesa State Prison in Tijuana, Mexico, Sept. 16. 2008. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

Hopefully, you have a full range of less lethal and, if necessary, lethal weapons available to you. But the most effective tool you have at your disposal is an organized show of force. The force multiplier of numerous staff members, ideally dressed in riot gear, yelling orders and threatening force is most often satisfactory to end most spontaneous disturbances.

I have done an analysis of almost one hundred and fifty of the eight hundred LASD disturbances since 1998. The mere presence of deputies in large numbers yelling verbal commands ended 22 of the 146 disturbances I studied. Seventy-two disturbances were ended with verbal commands and some combination of chemical agents.

Noise flash diversionary devices (NFDDs) and/or impact munitions were only required in fifty-two (52) of these disturbances. In only three of these incidents were Electronic Control Devices, specifically TASERs, added to the equation along with impact weapons. This is not to say that these are not all effective tools and should not be deployed when making a response. But there employment is not likely to be necessary in most spontaneous disturbances.

It should be noted that the incidents I studied were all from LASD operations log entries. For the most part, only the most serious disturbances require that this type of log entry is written.

The tactics

If you ask someone what tactic they used to end a particular disturbance, usually they will respond by telling you which tool or tools were employed. A tool is not a tactic. The military uses numerous tactics. In law enforcement, and especially in corrections, we are likely to use only three.

The first, and probably the most common in jails and prisons, is the hammer and anvil. The military often refers to this as a block and sweep. Essentially, you establish a holding force or terrain feature to block your adversary’s means of escape. In a correctional setting the walls of the facility itself usually accomplishes this. In patrol the blocking force is usually the officers manning the perimeter of a containment. The attacking force — the hammer — then drives the opposing force into the terrain feature or blocking force — the anvil.

A second effective tactic is a variation on the first. An envelopment looks like a hammer and anvil, but it involves some trickery. The opposing force expects a frontal assault and is prepared for one because you give them the impression that you will be coming this way through an appropriate show of force. You may even toss in a couple of NFDDs from the front additionally adding to this ruse. You then send your primary assault force in through a side or back door. This tactic better exploits surprise but requires timing.

The assault force needs to enter quickly after the diversionary device is introduced to effectively take advantage of it while the secondary force appears sufficiently menacing to sell their false intentions.

The last technique is called the pincer. It is the trickiest to implement because it requires precise timing. With a pincer there are two attacking forces moving simultaneously. Communication is critical, especially if you are carrying lethal weapons because you may put yourself in a crossfire situation. Given the terrain features in most jails and prisons the use of this tactic is not very common, but I have seen it used when entry is made simultaneously into a dorm from two different entrances.

There is one last thing to consider. It is not a tactic, but it almost always happens behind the scene at the end of any large tactical event. The natural focus of the incident commander is on the incident itself and the intervention that brings it to a conclusion, but it is also critical to have a plan in place for how to deal with the inmates after the altercation is over.

Ensure that supervisors are present as inmates are escorted to the triage area. Other supervisors need to be present during this process. Our troops get amped up and often their exuberance can lead to unintended situations that would be prevented if supervisors are present to slow them down as they attempt to rush involved inmates away from the scene and then return to remove more.

The aftermath

As squad leaders and incident commanders it is important that you are able to articulate your tactics and then explain how you intend to use our tools within our overall tactical plan. This is what we will have to defend and what we will be criticized on after all the dust settles.

If you think about it, you have probably always used a hammer and anvil, envelopment or pincer, you probably just never called them by these names. Knowing the specific names of these tactics and what tools work best for you will make your response to major disturbances more efficient and successful. It will also make any time you might happen to spend on a witness stand satisfying should you ever be compelled to testify in court if things go sideways.

The more articulate you are about the tactics you employed and why you used the tools that you did, the better armed you will be against a plaintiff counsel’s so-called "experts" and the more foolish you will make them look when they challenge why you did what you did.

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