This year marked the 40th anniversary of the "Summer of '69." News media happily revived images of moon-walkers, music festivals … and some serious rioting. In that chunk of years, for the first time in a while, civilians and law enforcement alike learned over and over again what a crowd can do.
But a lot has changed since then, at least in terms of containing the exuberant masses. Capt. Dennis Kato, commander of the Metropolitan division of the Los Angeles Police Department, says "Crowd and riot control is evolving as we speak." Today, agencies that train for and practice crowd control are not only updating their arsenal in surprising ways, but they are constantly tweaking their tactics to "fit the mood of the mob."
Kato's team has recently geared up for the Proposition 8 demonstrations, which drew large numbers to LA's City Civic Center in November of last year. Immigration rallies have also picked up more heat, mostly in California, but certainly in a number of cities throughout the states. In scenarios like this, Kato knows having carefully crafted products and strong tactics not only help sidestep the occasional legal tangle, but help keep officers safe, too.
"We always have [crowd and riot gear] in our arsenal," says Kato. "We have numerous events that start as crowd control issues that could easily turn into crowd control [missions]." The Metropolitan division is a specialized division of LAPD that includes K-9, mounted units and SWAT. Metro's primary responsibility is to support the department by providing additional crime suppression resources throughout the city. They respond to everything from high-risk barricaded situations to stakeouts, security details and more.
The Metro unit is dependent on three types of less-lethal munitions to manage a crowd: The first is a super sock beanbag that's shot out of a 12-gauge shotgun. It has a direct impact, and is used only on aggressive-combative individuals. In addition, officers are equipped with a 40mm exact impact sponge projectile. This basically "shoots out what looks like a racquetball round," says Kato. "It's another direct impact weapon that's fired at combative people in the crowd." The third less-lethal weapon officers carry is a 37mm foam rubber multiple baton round. The rubber pellets are skip-fired off the ground to disperse crowds that are unresponsive to commands.
When faced with huge numbers, Metro officers are equipped with 36-inch batons (longer than those used on the patrol force), which are meant to offer more space and allow them to cover more ground during riotous situations. They've also recently gone to 40mm foam baton rounds that contain dye marker packs (similar to when a bank explodes dye money packs). These packs, after having exploded on a target, can easily help officers identify instigators later on.
Surprisingly, two products absent from LAPD's riot roster are shields and tear gas. The Metro unit does not use shields. "We tried using them, but we found that they actually invite people to throw things at you," says Kato. "We bought some, we tried them and we don't deploy them. It also restricts officers because one arm is now caught holding the shield."
And to his knowledge, Kato says they have not deployed tear gas in more than 22 years. Deploying gas in LAPD requires a commander's approval — or higher. "The sheriffs in the same jurisdiction deploy the gas readily — that's their first tool," says Kato. "It's an interesting concept, but it goes back to several lawsuits and agreements that have gone on because of past incidents."
What drives a crowd?
Vehicles also enter into the mix. The Metro unit, like any SWAT or tactical team, is always on the lookout for any type of vehicle that will, when used effectively, give them the tactical edge.