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Patience is the key: Use of force issues in a riot


Mexican riot police take position outside Neza Bordo’s jail in the outskirts of Mexico City during a riot in 2007. (AP photo)

There are only a handful of issues that keep corrections administrators awake at night: Death of an employee, death of a prisoner, hostage situations, escapes, and - the one that could lead to all four of the above - a riot.

These are our worst case scenarios. They are the reason why we prepare.

In this article, I am going to discuss the use of force during a riot or disturbance.

This is a subject of critical importance. For despite the fact that the inclination to use force during a riot is perhaps higher than at any other time, to do so can often be analogous to throwing gasoline on a lit match – things can burn out of control, fast.

In regard to use of force and control in a riotous environment, we must study three layers of escalating responsibility: 1.) communication, 2) discipline, and 3) physical force.

I will now approach these layers one by one.

1.) Riot communications
First, we must address what communication issues we are dealing with.

Notwithstanding the obvious issues with radios and internal communications, let’s take a closer look at actual communication with prisoners during a riot as it pertains to use of force.

When communicating with rioters, it is critical that officers maintain the utmost of professionalism.

Sure, this is always true. But in the riot environment, we must take this principle to an even higher level - not responding to any verbal attacks or goading by rioters.

If possible, one individual should handle all communication with the rioting inmates. This helps to minimize confusion.

If you are charged with giving orders, be short and be specific.

A technique I teach to staff for emergency communication is to only use positive commands.

What this means is always tell a subject what you want them to do - for example, “put your hands up” or “turn and face away from me” – as opposed to telling them what you don’t want them to do.

The only negative command I use is when I have positioned a prisoner for restraints I may say “do not move”.

This helps to avoid confusion, and doesn’t allow the officer to mistakenly tell a prisoner to do something that could ultimately cause more problems.

Above all, remember to remain professional in your communications and give short direct orders with easy to follow instructions.

2.) Discipline is critical
To avoid getting into a verbal confrontation with an angry mob, a critical aspect of professionalism during a riot is personal discipline.

Officers must be disciplined to stay in their area of responsibility and remain vigilant in controlling the task at hand. Furthermore, they must be focused enough to persevere this sense of discipline in a very hostile environment saturated with chemical agents and full of sensory input, for potentially long periods of time without losing control of their professional stature.

This takes strength and patience. Thus, it should be incorporated into your training and development from the academy and beyond.

Undisciplined staff, in any riotous environment behind the walls, will lead to injuries, law suits and possibly even death. We must show the utmost patience and restraint at all times.

3.) Actual use of force
One thing to remember is that in a normal prison riot, on average, no more then 30% of the population will be rioting. That leaves 70% who are not physically involved. And the bottom line is, we want to keep it that way.

Thus, the rules that guide use of physical force in a riot are different from those in normal use of force incidents.

I constantly teach staff that our use of force policy doesn’t change, however the application of force most certainly does. In other words, the policy is always black and white, while actual use of force situations are always very gray. This cloudiness, one could argue, is more accentuated during a disturbance.

When deciding whether you need to use force or not, our first determination is staff safety, then safety of others, followed by the facility, etc. This doesn’t change.

If I must use force – if there is truly no other option - I need to use extreme caution in choosing my method.

I may use a lower profile strike, or technique, then normal, just to keep attention of the masses off of the incident.

In other words, I don’t want the prisoners not involved to see my use of force as “excessive”, creating a sympathetic response and bringing more combatants to the confrontation.

When using force remain low profile, control the prisoner quickly, get them restrained and gone to the triage area, out of sight.

Never fail to act to protect yourself, or your partners on the line, but at the same time, be very restrained, judicious and professional in your application of physical force.

This is a very important aspect in the securing of a facility, returning the facility to normal operations and – often overlooked - in the attitudes of officers in the days and weeks after a riot.

Time is on your side
In conclusion, always remember, while time is of the essence, in a riot time is also on our side.

Studies indicate that the longer a critical incident goes on without using force, the less likely you are to have to use force to control it.

Take time to set up a positive show of force and establish communications with the “leaders” of the incident.

As a general rule, the uprising will likely be resolved without physical force in time, if staff can just use caution, communication and patience.

However since we know that prisoners rarely conform to norms, we must be prepared to act quickly and decisively with discipline and professionalism to take back control of our facility.

Preparing our staff during training sessions, and preparing each individual officer’s mental and physical preparation for a riot, is paramount in the effective and safe resolution of the event, followed by a seamless transition back to normal operations thereafter.

Until next time, Stay Safe!

Perry Mendenall has over 19 years of Law Enforcement experience. He has served as an Auxiliary Officer for Campus Police, a Military Police Officer, Special Deputy Sheriff and currently as a Reserve Police Officer, in addition to over 15 years with the Michigan Department of Corrections. Perry has worked as a Corrections Officer, Sergeant, Training Lieutenant and currently holds the position of Ordnance Unit Specialist in charge of all Firearms, Chemical Agent, and Disturbance Control training for the MDOC. Perry spent over 5 years as a Tactical Team Leader for the Department’s Emergency Response Team, where he conducted or supervised numerous high risk cell extractions of assaultive and non-compliant prisoners.

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