"Back before the '92 riots we tried a technique in which we used black and white vehicles with their lights and sirens on, and did what we would call a 'surge,' where we would speed up to the crowd, and stop, etc.," recalls Kato. "It gave a very intimidating appearance and we would use that in line — it would almost force crowds to back up. But then we struck somebody, and so that went away."
The unit no longer utilizes motorcycles, either. "We've tried them, but the motor officers get caught when the crowd surges on them." Kato says the bikes aren't nimble enough to turn around should officers need to make a quick retreat.
What does seem to work is a new vehicle, similar to a four-wheeler, which Metro has outfitted with a magnetic audio device (MAD) system. The speaker is used in conjunction with a visible sign mounted on the back.
"It's better than your normal speaker and can project sound for long distance very clearly. We can get commands out to the crowd, letting them know what we want and what we're trying to do," says Kato. He notes they are continually trying to verbalize with crowds rather than simply act and react. "We've found the majority of the people will listen and then move away, and then we're left with that small minority that does not. It makes it easier for us to deal with that smaller group if we can peel the layers away." Metro's four vehicles were recently flown to Colorado for their use during the Democratic National Convention.
But why not go bigger? Security ProUSA, a security products company that operates out of Los Angeles, Calif., offers a large riot control vehicle that features high-powered water cannons and smart, computerized controls. The canon, connected to a computerized system, controls the amount and the intensity of the water, depending if users wish to wash the crowd, warn the crowd or really hose the crowd down. The monster 6500 riot control vehicle has a Mercedes Benz chassis, but can be make to fit other models.
Though impressive, U.S. enforcement agencies in general feel the vehicles are not practical. First, they are expensive. But also, we just don't have the large, politically driven riots here that countries like Israel or Columbia see frequently — chaotic events at which rioters think nothing of launching Molotov cocktails.
Kato reports LA County did look into purchasing the European type vehicles at one time, but did not buy. He goes on to say their most effective "vehicle" in crowd and riot situations is not a vehicle at all, but LA's mounted unit:
"Horses seem to work best. That, or officers on foot, but the mounted unit is a huge tool. Crowds do not seem to want to take on a 1,200-pound animal."
The right approach
What good are exploding ink and half-ton horses in the middle of a feisty mob if officers do not know the best way, and the right time, to use them? Perhaps more important than the right tools are the right tactics.
"We're currently transitioning," says Kato. On May 1, 2007, in McArthur Park police dispersed a crowd during an immigration rally. However, as police broke up the crowd, news and camera people were getting caught. Some received baton blows and were struck by less-lethal munitions.
"Up until that time, this department's mindset was the dispersal of the crowd: Let's just get the crowd out of the area ... and all of our tools and tactics were geared toward that," recalls Kato.
"We've since changed. Now we arrest offenders and try to get our hands on the small minority of [agitators]. When you do that, the dispersal happens and also really takes the steam out of the crowd.
After MacArthur Park, Metro set out to teach the whole department its new mindset of localizing smaller groups and making "surgical" arrests that ease the strain for both police and rioters. Metro currently works with the sheriff's department, their largest sister agency, and trains smaller agencies in the LA region, as well.
"It seems we are constantly trying to tweak tactics because you get a different sense of a crowd," says Kato. "Some crowds have more people; so you don't really need to ramp it up and [use] the big tactical gear or turtle suits; it's very intimidating when you see that. I think when you do that, you actually ramp up the crowd to that same level.