The Rocky Mountain News has reported that the Denver Police has allocated half its budget for crowd control at the Democratic National Convention to equipment, the other half to pay. The ACLU is suing in order to achieve visibility of how the money is being spent, which is being fought on the grounds that it may compromise tactics and security. The purchase of 88 pepper-ball guns offers some insight about the mentality and underlying concepts that are likely to be applied – assuming that the equipment and tactics have been harmonised.
The pepper-ball guns are a stand-off weapon, intended to neutralise the crowd. I say intended because as a weapon they are not taken seriously by professional rioters. The pepper ball is not painful enough, and the irritant is easily defeated with a shemargh across the nose and mouth and swimming or biking goggles over the eyes – both standard equipment for determined rioters since the late 1970s.
The article by Sara Burnett makes no mention of budget allocated to training. Surely this cannot be right; the Denver Police Department has relatively little riot experience, and must have brought in outside expertise. Denver PD have certainly consulted with the “wise men,” a group of senior American law enforcement with significant experience in domestic public order matters.
Why is the matter of training so important? One of the primary issues, relative to public perception, is that the rioters will seek to create public relations traps to exploit the Denver PD’s lack of experience. In such an unusual and high stress situation, with the television cameras and YouTube-ready camera phones ubiquitous, the rioters will try to create public theater to manufacture sympathy by creating conditions (bizarrely) where lethal weapons will be used. The end result, as professional rioters and protestors well know, will be to condemn the police use of force as massively over-matching the threat.
For instance, will the Denver PD stand fast against Molotov cocktails, or will they use lethal response? The answer for many in the United States is that lethal fire should be the response. However, an equal number believe that it is not. In such a situation, controversy is guaranteed, no matter who is in the right. And the protestors, therefore, win the publicity battle.
Policing exists to support and protect the community; the word ‘serve’ exists in many sheriff and police departments mottos. Law enforcement is about doing what must be done, not what can be done; the rubber may very much meet the road in both Denver and Minneapolis on this issue if determined rioting takes place.
Responsible and effective public order activities will be evidenced by the proactive policing of order, rather than the reactive policing of disorder. What is increasingly looking like the inability on the part of Denver to engage with the protestors and include them in the planning process rather than alienating them does not bode well for proactive policing of order.
The ordering of pepper-ball guns by Denver worries me greatly; it suggests that more attention is being paid to shiny toys than in-depth training of the police experienced proefessionals in the tactics that will enable them to stand firm, to move forward and, in a decisive and discriminating manner, conduct operations that are proportionate, appropriate and effective.
Equally important to this effort, and an area often ignored by many law enforcement organizations until it is too late, is the need to manage press coverage. Any successful public order strategy must include tactics to counteract theater-antics of the rioters and to ensure that the media understand that the rioters are criminals rather than legitimate protestors. The legitimate protestors will be the ones making a point, enacting their legitimate rights to free speech, not intentionally provoking a fight with the police or trying to destroy property.
There is still time for Denver to make clear that everything is under control and that by the time the Convention assembles they will have a world-class public order capability; at the moment that is not the message they are projecting. Dangerously, that only increases the attraction of Denver as a scene to riot.