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Counter Riot Control

This is a look at key methods of both riot control and its exploits. This is not an encouragement to cause violence or civil unrest. Riots and this kind of violence is only applicable in situations of complete tyranny.

Societal unrest, driven by all political and social movements, has stayed at a mostly constant pace. What has increased over recent years is the casualties generated by protests and riots. This change could be caused by different factors, maybe we have become more violent over time, maybe we have become more polarized and see opposition as a greater threat, or maybe the statistics are being screwed by an increasingly militarized and forceful police mentality. What is clear is that the frequency of riots is not decreasing and the risks posed to those either intentionally or unintentionally involved are becoming greater.

The best solution is to not be involved, however, if you believe that a competent government is dependent on a vocal population that is capable of ‘terminating’ tyranny, then you will understand why this is not an option. In other words, protests and riots are the final step a civilian militia takes before a civil war. It then follows that understanding the fundamentals of both riot control and its weaknesses is an important investment into your preparedness.


In order to understand the complexity of riots we will look into the psychological principles behind protests and riot police, next we will cover the tactics employed to control protestors and finish by covering the exploits that can be employed against those tactics.

Psychology of Crowds

Two critical concepts that help elucidate the violent and unpredictable behaviors we see in riots are deindividuation and groupthink. Both of these psychological processes can be observed clearly in crowd settings, leading to behaviors that might be uncharacteristic of individuals when they're alone.

Deindividuation refers to a state where individuals, involved in large groups, experience a degree of anonymity. This anonymity reduces their sense of individual accountability, as they perceive their actions as being less likely to be singled out or scrutinized. This leads to a reduction in self-awareness, enabling behaviors that an individual might deem inappropriate or immoral under normal circumstances. In the context of a riot, deindividuation can explain the prevalence of looting, violence, and vandalism. Shielded by the collective identity of the crowd, an individual may feel empowered to act impulsively, bypassing the usual filters of moral judgment and potential consequences.

Groupthink, on the other hand, is a phenomenon where the desire for group cohesion leads to a subconscious willingness to agree with those around you and mirror their sentiments, including their poor judgment and irrational behavior. Within the confines of a crowd, especially one united by a shared cause or grievance, there is immense pressure to conform. Dissenting voices may be suppressed, and the group's decision-making can become heavily influenced by its most vocal or radical members. This amplification of extremist viewpoints can cause the crowd to take actions that are more aggressive or violent than originally intended. For instance, a peaceful protest may escalate into a full-blown riot due to groupthink, as participants feel the pressure to align with the crowd's dominant sentiment, even if it veers towards violence.

When these two processes converge, the results can be very dangerous. Deindividuation frees individuals from their personal responsibility, while groupthink suppresses critical and diverse thought. A crowd influenced by these factors can become unpredictable, with its actions reflecting the intentions of its most dominant members rather than a measured response to a situation. It's a potent reminder that the collective mindset of a group can be vastly different from that of its individual members, leading to outcomes that very few may have desired or anticipated.

Psychology of Riot Police

The dynamics of a riot or protest do not solely depend on the actions and mindset of the protestors. The psychology of riot police plays a significant role in dictating the direction of such events. Delving into this psychology provides insight into the motivations and behaviors of the police forces.

Central to the "Us vs. Them" dynamic within police units is a strong sense of in-group solidarity. This cohesion is not merely professional camaraderie; it is an intensified sense of unity, driven by the challenges of facing large, often hostile crowds. This unity runs the risk of alienating and dehumanizing the protestors. When officers start seeing protestors not as individuals exercising their rights but as a faceless, antagonistic mass, it becomes easier to justify the use of force, even when it is obviously excessive.

A significant component of riot police psychology is the uniform and tactics employed. The uniform serves multiple purposes. On a practical level, it offers protection. On a psychological level, it promotes uniformity, creating a faceless and united front, which makes distinguishing between individual officers difficult. This uniformity can be intimidating to protestors in addition to building confidence and bravado within the officers.

The Goals and Tactics of Riot Police

The primary objective of riot police during disturbances is crowd dispersal rather than entrapment or mass arrests. A controlled dispersal mitigates potential injuries, reduces ongoing confrontations, and dilutes the crowd's collective energy. Strategically, officers will allow specific pathways to remain accessible, permitting protestors a means to exit the area. This strategy of providing an escape, often aids in gradually diminishing the crowd's size, while minimizing the risk of escalation resulting from feelings of entrapment. Should you find yourself in a position where you have been completely blocked in, it may be essential that you begin organizing a breakthrough, as this entrapment signals that the controllers task has shifted from dispersal to neutralization.

Police have three primary tactics to disperse a crowd:

  1. Restrict the crowd’s freedom of movement.

  2. Target and remove aggravators from the crowd.

  3. Chemical Agents.

  4. Retake occupied area.

Police do not need to encircle a crowd to restrict their movement; typically, they only block the protests direction of advance or, in cases where the demonstrators intend to stay in a central location, they will form a blockade in the direction of a potential high value target (courthouse, police station, private buildings, etc). These blockades will fragment the crowd into three groups: those that leave once police arrive, those that carry on to the objective of the protest, and those that remain to confront the police. Due to the poor communication channels of protests, these fragments have a hard time reconvening or choosing a new direction.

The methods police use to form these blockades usually involve a line formation with officers in depth that are available to pull through and detain aggressive individuals, police generally employ a second line formation to the rear to provide rear security, assistance with taking detainees, and as a relief force to to take over the front line.

Doctrinal Platoon Line Formation - Army Crowd Control ATP 3-39.33

In most situations, the squad and team leaders seen in the doctrinal example will be arresting officers or gas officers. It is also typical for these formations to be paired with vehicles for additional support, these vehicles will signal the intentions of the formation as they are the first to start and stop moving; if you see a halted vehicle load personnel and straighten up onto the road then it is a good sign that the formation is preparing to advance.

The next goal of the riot control officers is to remove the aggravating members from the crowd. They will do this by giving a command to the front rank of officers to open up so the arresting officers can reach and pull through the rioter. These commands are designed to be non-threatening so as to not scare the target away. “Move Shields”, “Clear to Access”, and “Open Up” are all innocuous ways of preparing to shoot, employ tear gas, arrest a rioter, or begin other offensive actions. Understanding or predicting the commands may give you an opportunity to outmaneuver the officers.

If a key aggravator is deeper within the crowd, officers may deem it necessary to penetrate the riot to arrest them. When this happens they will create a new formation to enter the crowd.

Squad Circle Formation - Army Crowd Control ATP 3-39.33

These formations behave exactly how you expect and are very dependent on the situation. They are limited in the number of people they can detain and will only be used to achieve a specific goal.

When it comes to 'Retaking' ground, riot controllers have two options. The first is a slow an unified push forward, the officers will pace their line formation step by step and push back any protestors remaining in the area. The second method is what can only be described as a 'rush', the full line of officers will break formation to run to a set point, typically one block, arresting any demonstrators who do not retreat. To best understand the fear that can be generated from this rush, we recommend you watch this video from the Hong Kong riots.

Finally, most police units will employ undercover officers into a crowd. These officers may serve multiple roles: to identify and report on target individuals, to report on intentions or sentiments of the crowd, or (when necessary) to make arrests. Below is an image of an officer who has made every mistake he possibly could. There are six signs that he is an officer, feel free to test your observation skills.

If you got them all, good job. Otherwise: Handcuffs imprinted on the rear pant pocket, an exposed audio cable with no headphones, a thin blue line wrist-band, imprinting of a stab proof vest, regulation patrol boots, and a white arm-band (a frequent identifier used by police).

Counter Riot Control

Counter riot control starts with clear communication, group chats for directing and grouping protesters are vital but it doesn't stop there. The message boards and group chats used during the Hong Kong (HK) riots can broadly be classified into two types. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) focussed, and dissemination focused. Most protesters don't have the time to parse through hundreds of messages per minute, draw connections between them, and then form actionable plans to deal with the information. During the HK riots, free for all message boards were established that received thousands of messages on police action, road closures, and live updates on the protests; these boards were then scoured and analyzed by those who were too far away, or unable to attend the riots. The OSINT information was repackaged into concise ten minute or hourly updates and pushed out onto the dissemination focused chats. In this manner, information was able to freely flow upwards to decision makers and then back down to those on the ground. It is safe to say that the HK protests were the best organized and controlled in history.

Moving to individual tactics, something that must be addressed is ‘counter shields’. Not all riot controllers carry shields, however, they are a great hindrance to protesters on the occasions that they are employed. Targeting shield bearers is a two man task, the first man's job is to disrupt the shield bearer while the second exploits the disruption. Training for most police dictates that if a rioter grabs the bottom of the shield then they will kneel and drop the shield to the ground, trapping the rioters fingers between the shield and the ground with the intent of causing enough pain for the rioter to pull away. This maneuver can be exploited rather easily, the man grabbing the shield should wear leather gloves and can also place a stack of ~50 post-it notes in the palm of the glove for extra protection, when the rioter grabs the shield the intent is to distract the shield bearer while the second man strikes over the top of the lowered shield. When the first man goes to release his hands, it is important that he pulls towards himself rather than upwards as he will have the leverage advantage over the shield bearer and will be able to generate a gap for him to release his hands. The second shield exploit is also a two man task, this time the first man should grab the top left of the shield and pull explosively downwards and right. As most shields are carried primarily with the left arm, this top left grip provides the attacker with the leverage advantage to pry the shield open and expose the bearer.

During the height of the Hong Kong protests, the innovative use of laser pointers and floodlights emerged as a common strategy. Protesters employed laser pointers, directing them towards surveillance cameras and facial recognition systems with the dual intent of potentially damaging sensor capabilities and obscuring them from digital surveillance. The lasers with additional floodlights became pivotal in both distracting and disorienting police officers, effectively impeding their line of sight and concentration during confrontations. Protesters would aim floodlights at the police, effectively blinding them, which not only hindered their ability to precisely target or identify individuals within the dense crowd but also afforded protestors a level of protective anonymity.

The most effective tactic against riot controllers is to simply outline fallback, secondary, or rendezvous locations as part of the initial plan for the protest. Remember that the primary goal for the riot controllers is to disperse the crowd, there are points where it is advantageous to let them achieve that specific goal, only for you to reorganize at another location. In this manner, you are letting them win the battle, but not the war. This is another tactic aided by clear communication channels as if your fall back position can be kept private until needed then you significantly reduce the police's ability to plan against it.

Counter Chemical

Riot Control Agents (RCAs) serve as methods to disrupt crowds during protests or riots by inducing physical discomfort and irritations. These chemical compounds, such as Pepper Spray, officially recognized as Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), deliberately irritate the eyes, throat, nose, and skin, thereby causing pain, temporary blindness, and breathing difficulties. Similarly, Tear Gas, typically deployed as gas grenades and commonly recognized as CS gas, causes eye irritation, respiratory issues, and skin irritation. The primary difference between Tear Gas and Pepper Spray is their employment. Pepper Spray is issued to officers in small canisters and is generally only used in a targeted manner against unruly or resisting protestors, whereas the nature of Tear Gas allows it to be used to clear whole areas and is particularly effective in dense cities where tall buildings prevent the gas from blowing away and dissipating.

As far as defending yourself from these chemicals goes, you have a few options. First is to wear glasses instead of contacts, RCAs will penetrate and remain between the contact and the eye making it impossible to wash out the irritant. Tear gas will also get through P100 particulate filters, however any CBRN, CO (black), or E (Yellow) filters will work provided they are paired with the appropriate mask. A full face respirator is the most effective option, older military surplus options (except for the GP5) will work just as well as newer AVON and MIRA masks. A common improvised option is to use a half-face mask in conjunction with sealed eye protection like swimming goggles.

If you have already been exposed to RCAs you still have some options available to you. Tear gas and pepper spray are not gasses, their active ingredients are actually powders, because of this, rinsing the face and eyes with cold water will return the crystals into a state that is easier to wash away; lukewarm to hot water will do nothing. If you expect to be around Tear Gas it is necessary that you pre-stage spray bottles with half water and half Maalox (or other antacid), this mixture has proven very effective at relieving the symptoms of CS gas, and even some anecdotal success with pepper spray.

Needing to employ counter riot control techniques implies that you are in a dire situation, however, these high stake and societally necessary riots have occurred throughout history. If the time comes again it is vital that you understand and apply these and many other techniques.

This is a look at key methods of both riot control and its exploits. This is not an encouragement to cause violence or civil unrest. Riots and this kind of violence is only applicable in situations of complete tyranny.


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