In the News

News | April 21, 2009

Crowd and Riot: Controlling the Crowd Before It Controls You

By Spc. Darriel Swatts 69th Public Affairs Detachment

CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – A young man, no more than 21 years old, sits on a packed bus knowing that he is about to participate in a riot. He doesn't know how the day is going to turn out; all he knows is his role in the upcoming chaos. The bus stops and his leader shouts one last bit of instruction to the 85 eager passengers, "Go out there and see if you can get one of their shields or try to get one of them. Let's show them what we're made of." The crowd of young men rushes off to meet their fate against the waiting riot controllers.

This was the experience of the Soldiers from Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Sabre, as they took part in a multi-national riot-control training exercise with French and Portuguese troops at Camp Vrelo, which is in the Multi-National Task Force-Central sector of Kosovo. The Cavalry Soldiers, who exchanged their combat equipment and uniforms for civilian clothes and essential body armor, acted as rioters and allowed the foreign soldiers to practice their riot-control techniques.

The reason why the Azusa, Calif.,-based unit participated in this early March event was to give them an idea of what it is like being the rioters. It helps them think what an angry mob might do and be better prepared in the event they come face to face with those individuals bent on making a scene.

"This training gave my guys an opportunity to see and experience what it is like on the opposing force," said 1st Sgt. John Wheeler, Alpha Troop's first sergeant. "It allows us to anticipate what the crowd may or may not do. Ultimately, the purpose of learning how to control a riot is being able to restore peace," said Wheeler.

The day started off with a peaceful demonstration during the first scenario. Alpha troop Soldiers were pitted against the Portuguese, built to be a first responding riot-control team, where they tried to calm the demonstrators with words. When negotiations failed, they switched out with the French team, who were brought in to suppress the crowd as tensions rose. French soldiers, who were visiting from the Multi-National Task Force-North sector, began lobbing tear gas (CS) canisters to disperse the unruly crowd. Knowing how to employ CS is a critical part of crowd control and so is evacuating the injured. Both were tested early as part of the exercise to make sure all possible outcomes were performed to standard. The evaluators grading the training gave a nod of approval as the first scenario came to an end.

"When the French came in to assist the Portuguese, that's when they began to CS everybody," said Spc. Joshua Navarro. "They made it impossible to do anything because they kept gassing us."

During the second phase the "Cav" soldiers were told to hold nothing back and go full strength against the riot-controllers. The troops gathered sticks, half-full water bottles, and whatever else they could get their hands on to use in the upcoming riot. The adrenaline-filled Sabre troops rushed out to confront the French again. Once again a wall of CS gas went up and newly added razor wire was laid down to block them from getting too close. Mother Nature was on their side this time as wind swept the gas harmlessly aside and the wire was moved and the tide turned in favor of the rioters. The French started to get overwhelmed so a vehicle was brought in to push the mob back. Different techniques were put to use as part of the exercise to gauge what worked and what had limited success.

"With the CS everywhere we had to disperse and regroup in order to continue with the riot," said Pfc. Joshua Gregory, recalling the amount of canisters thrown at them as they tried to disrupt any attempt at gaining control over the mayhem.

The Soldiers from Camp Bondsteel were successful in grabbing shields throughout the day and pulling some of the Portuguese riot-control team members from the line. The foreign troops were also successful as order was eventually restored with the Portuguese, replacing the French, rolling in two armored personnel carriers called Bravia Chaimites.

"The training was supposed to be as realistic as possible, without allowing anybody to get hurt," Wheeler said. Despite the amounts of projectiles flying through the air and clashes of bodies against riot shields, no one was injured.

"It was a fun way to interact with our allies and it was a good way to get to know them," said Spc. Carl Nall.

Safety observers and evaluators brought the day's training event to a close The chance for each country's soldier to train and test each other in riot control is an opportunity to understand and trust in the capabilities of the person who could be standing next to you staring at an angry crowd from beyond a helmet mask and through a shield. If that day comes, working together will restore peace.