Three significant riots in the past few days, one in Latvia, one in Bulgaria and one in Lithuania, show that the art of rioting is not dead. Riots are not common activity in any of the capital cities, and yet two occurred on Wednesday (local time), with a further riot, the Lithuanian one, on Thursday. Key phrases common in much of the reporting are allegations of police brutality and the rioters being able to out-maneuver the police, or simply evade capture. Absolutely common to all was the underlying cause – the economic crisis.

This topic, policing response to public order issues, is not a new one for me to comment on. Normally I would focus on the need to proactively police order rather than reactively police disorder; on the need to use ground to situate the protests and enable the best possible containment of potential problems; on engaging with the leadership of the participating groups to ensure matters remain de-escalated; on the need to have an effective escalation and de-escalation policy that supports the policing intent but that doesn’t unnecessarily escalate matters; and last, but certainly not least, on the need for effective media education and handling.

Instead, this post will comment on public order and crowd control as they fit into a wider policing and political risk management strategy, by examining the role of intent-based management and how risk management supports that intent.

Intent-based management is the enunciation of the leader’s intention. The leader may be the President, an Agency Director, CEO, business owner, Flight Director, etc. The intent may be wide ranging – to restore the US economy to 6% GDP growth by 2010, or to return Apollo 13 to Earth. The statement of intent, of what we are trying to achieve – at all levels – enables those who work beneath to establish their role in making results happen, but also to place their decisions in the context of the bigger picture. The clearer the intent, the clearer and more decisive the decisions that support that intent will be.

Risk management — be the subject financial, IT, logistical operations, building industry, nuclear facility management, the Space Shuttle, defense procurement or policing — is often described as being best achieved by enunciating the threats and building anticipation and mitigation measures to address those threats. This approach is espoused by many, but misses the point of a key element of risk management doctrine, the lesson of isomorphism.

This lesson, actually originally put forward by biologists in the 1920s, talks about how one thing can be very similar to other things, even though they are created through different processes…. In other words, although you try to anticipate every way something can happen, you will not be able to predict every cause of something going wrong.

For instance, the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT) had great disaster management plans against earthquakes, even though an earthquake was unlikely. The plan discussed the World Trade Centre being rendered inoperable, and had plans for that eventuality. Their plan did not mention terrorist attacks, but the effect was the same. When thinking risk management, we must discuss the effects that threaten our intent, not simply the causes that we can foresee.

One of the primary roles of the police is to protect the population from crime, and to maintain order. Within a democracy that role should be achieved within the context of facilitating free speech within an orderly context. Order can be compromised by a wide range of situations, some more likely than others. Was it likely that a BART police officer would shoot an unarmed man in the back, which would cause a riot? Not particularly.

Was it likely that the economic crisis would cause rioting in Latvia? It was more likely than it was six months ago, but a year ago, probably very, very unlikely.

Was it likely that there would be riots during the RNC in St Paul, or the WTO in Seattle? Yes, certainly more likely than the other examples.

The point is that riots erupt from a range of causes, some of which can be predicted, many of which cannot. However, that a riot will happen because of some precipitating cause, or a number of coinciding causes, is indeed a risk. That riot can have serious effects on the political stability and economic well being of a city or country; just look at the effects of the riots in Greece after the death of a youth prompted spontaneous and prolonged rioting across the country for days.

There is always, in every society, a risk of rioting. Riots generally grow out of a protest, driven by that 5% of a crowd that are focused and prepared for violence. That 5% may be organic to the crowd and the protest movement, or some form of anarchist group that is seeking to use the protest for its own ends – as was happening in Oakland last week. The risk of rioting is usually considered low to remote, particularly in the US, and hence resourced accordingly. Those resources include both training time and money.

However, rioting should be measured not simply in terms of the risk of occurrence, but of the potential effect of rioting as well; the significant compromise of law and order. Perceived in this way, it becomes a much more significant threat, much more deserving of the attention of law enforcement.

The threats associated with riotous behavior are not simply the destruction of property, but the wider disintegration of law and order through bad handling of the initial incidents, the risk of injury to police officers and non-combatant crowd members, the threat of litigation (particularly in the US), the political compromise of the elected leadership and/or law enforcement management, negative press, etc. These threats exist in incidents that range from very small groups through protests numbering tens of thousands.

Delivering the skill sets at all levels to deal with these threats have benefits across the command and tactical range of situations that have to be dealt with, creating a wider range of response options for officers and their commanders, not simply during vanilla crowd control incidents, but in other situations where the escalation to a highly confrontational situation is low on the threat horizon, but may eventuate nonetheless.

The risk of riots seems small, but their effects are serious and wide ranging. As long as the risks related to disaffected crowds are perceived of as low importance and likelihood, and are allocated insufficient resources and out of date, confrontational tactics, police forces, their managers and political leaders being seen as brutal, inept, confrontational, or simply incompetent remains.

Being prepared for riots enables law enforcement to address a range of incidents, embracing the very best of risk management thinking, by delivering effects oriented solutions to effects based problems. As the financial crisis continues to take its toll on communities, police chiefs should be considering all the ways in which good order may be compromised in their jurisdictions and how these might be addressed, regardless of the cause.