What goes on in the mind of a riot policeman: Be cool

Being in a riot is like getting caught in a battlefield.

Some people get hurt, while others die.

This is why riot and crowd control experts say it is remarkable that last Sunday's riot in Little India did not result in major casualties.

Mr Jerry Harper, an American consultant and riot policeman trainer, calls the way local police handled the situation "excellent".

"That speaks volumes about the police's professionalism, despite their lack of prior experience with these tumultuous situations," says the 72-year-old, who was an undersheriff in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

But Mr Simon Yong, who served in the Singapore Police Force as an officer in charge of conducting anti-terrorist and anti-riot training in the 1980s, says that he was surprised that the Gurkha contingent was called in to deal with the situation.

"If the officers from the Special Operations Command unit arrived early in the situation, I estimate that about one troop of men would have been enough as each officer is trained to handle many at a time."

Still, the 63-year-old, who retired in 1996, says: "There may have been challenges which I was not aware of, having not been on the ground with them."

Anti-riot experts give The New Paper on Sunday a peek into what goes on in the mind of a riot policeman in the thick of action:


"The first thing a good commander needs to do before even arriving at the scene is to gather as much information about the situation as possible via communication with the officers on the ground," says Mr Yong. "During my time, I would send a Land Rover, which required very few personnel, ahead to recce for the nearest and safest route to approach the hot spot, so that we don't get stuck in traffic or other sorts of congestion." Police officers are typically supposed to leave their posts within three minutes of getting the call for help.


Although Mr Yong has never been in a full-blown riot, he has been in charge of maintaining order in tense situations, such as at venues where hundreds gather to hear much-anticipated election results. "In those situations, anything which happens to their party or candidate can set off aggression," he says. Once, he had to handle a situation where devotees gathered at their place of worship to demonstrate against it being torn down. Mr Yong says in riot situations, the team leader would stand on the vehicle upon arriving at the scene, before ringing a large brass bell and giving a command for the men to disembark and get into formation. "Often, the sheer physical presence and shouts from the troops in unison would scare the rioters. "There is an element of surprise and shock, which is part of crowd psychology, that may be very effective in these situations," he says.


The main challenge faced by police officers in a chaotic situation like a riot is to remain focused and calm, says Mr Harper. "The attention of leading officers, depending on their experience, is often diverted by the rioters or demonstrators. This may keep them from reinforcing the orders or following the plan," he says, adding that a failure to control emotions could be disastrous. Officers who have been told to stand in line or formation may feel frustrated, or take the violence personally, he explains. "If he can't take it, or feels too frustrated, he may run out as an individual or small group and hit out against the rioters in a manner that is inappropriate, escalating the tension and violence within seconds." In these situations, supervisors or leading officers often have to grab the officers and pull them back in line. "I've even sent officers back to the station because they could not keep their emotions in check," he says with a chuckle.


A police force not used to civil disturbances may find themselves ill-equipped to deal with such situations as the skills required to handle them are different. "In an officer's day-to-day work, he operates in singles or pairs. "But in riots or demonstrations, they need to strike out in squads or platoons, and have the ability to move in vehicles and trucks," says Mr Harper. "Mobility is critical for police in controlling disturbances yet most often we see police in static, World War I vintage line formations being frustrated by fast-moving groups of demonstrators or rioters."


A riot policeman's worst nightmare is probably being separated from his unit inside the mob, says Mr Adam Leggat, director at The Densus Group, a US-based consultancy that works with law enforcement agencies and militaries to assess their force management strategies. "Many officers have been seriously injured or even killed in incidents where that has happened," says Mr Leggat. Still, there is a fear which trumps the fear for your life in a dangerous situation: The fear of failing in the eyes of fellow officers, says Mr Harper. "Fear of the mobs' actions, together with the noise, the fire, the rocks and bottles, is suppressed successfully as they hide their anxieties from others in their unit." For commanders of the team, an acute fear would be misjudging the situation, choosing the wrong tactical option and making the situation worse, says Mr Leggat.


Riot situations are so varied and unpredictable that experts say it is difficult to prescribe when police officers should fight back. Says Mr Leggat: "The police response to violence during a crowd management situation must be proportionate to the level of violence being used against them. "But it is difficult to define what this means unless you are in the actual situation." The decision to use force has to be based on the officer's perception of the threat at the time, not on what is seen by someone else. Officers have to be able to justify why they did what they did in the aftermath of the riot, and to show that their actions were legal based on their perception of the threat at the time, explains Mr Leggat.


While most police squads are reluctant to use force as a first response to rioters, it is a mistake for them to simply stand and passively take rocks and bottles, or even firebombs, without responding aggressively, points out Mr Harper. "That encourages more lawbreaking, more injuries and more property destruction than if they moved decisively to retake control of the streets. "Leadership and proper training before such occurrences are far more important than whether the police are equipped with water cannons, tear gas or other non- or less lethal weapons," he says. Says Mr Leggat: "Police officers have the same human rights as everyone and they cannot legally be ordered to allow someone to attack them without protecting themselves. Mr Yong adds: "The objective in such situations is always to make arrests of the most active members of the mob, and subsequently crowd dispersal without getting people hurt."



Riot shield

Made of high-grade polycarbonate (a synthetic resin), some riot shields have unique interlocking mechanisms.

These protect anti-riot squads by interlinking the shield's bevelled edges with other shields to form a protective and ridged barrier.

Each shield can weigh between 7kg and 8kg.

Upper and lower body protective gear

Gear such as this incorporates lightweight, cellular EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam padding to protect against projectiles such as rocks and bottles. Its "outer skin" is made of fire-retardant material, and features a hard-shell exterior and plastic inserts at critical spots like the shoulders and forearms. Tough thermoplastic caps also protect knees and elbows. Some protective kits also include hard-shell components which cover areas like the groin, thighs and shins.

Riot baton

They are made from a range of materials such as polycarbonate, wood, aluminium and acetate plastic.

Riot helmet

These helmets usually have a polycarbonate alloy or composite fibreglass outer shell, and are fitted with shock-absorbent foam padding to withstand external impact. Many helmets also come with an impact-resistant polycarbonate face shield.

Police boots

These have slip- or oil-resistant rubber soles and steel shanks for support. The exterior is typically made from a mix of leather and nylon. A toe box also protects against impact.

How anti-riot squads train

Anti-riot squads get special training to deal with mobs.

One aspect of training is how to properly use their shields, which is a prominent part of their gear.

Apart from being used to deflect projectiles like rocks, bottles and to some extent, firebombs, they also make a statement, says riot policeman trainer Jerry Harper, who is from the US.

"The shields send an important message that 'we are here and our mere presence, equipped with these shields, means we take this situation very seriously'," he says.

But the shields can be liabilities in some cases, such as when they are taken by rioters and used to hit officers.

"The shields tend to make some leaders and supervisors think only defensively when there are times the formation needs to set out in a sudden movement and arrest the rock and bottle, and the firebomb throwers," explains Mr Harper.

Shields can also inhibit officers making arrests by tying up one or both of their hands.

It is usually better to have some officers with shields and some without to improve tactical mobility and flexibility.

Anti-riot squads are often shown videos of riot situations so that they can analyse strategies and go through possible courses of action.

The officers also train by re-creating the riot environment in simulation exercises, in which they take turns playing the role of rioters and policemen.

In an age where rioters are often fluid and evasive, commanders have to improvise and improve on variations of traditional formations, such as the line, the wedge and other tactical formations, says Mr Harper.

In training sessions, police units will focus on practising the manoeuvres that they will use during a riot.

"For example, a skirmish line of officers will almost always draw the more ambitious, daring rioters to throw rocks and bottles and shout epithets and challenges," he explains.

"While the rock throwers are focused on the skirmish line, a separate group from the field force should be flanking or enveloping the rioters by using side streets, alleys or even the backs of stores."

Get The New Paper for more stories.