Small Wars Journal

You Can’t Shoot Rioters*

You Can’t Shoot Rioters*

Jill Russell

When you are a military historian and you are contemplating engagement strategies and tactics, this fundamental difference between the general standards of public order policing and combat is good to keep at the forefront of one’s thinking. While public order policing may share many similarities with combat, it is the restraint of the former with respect to force that distinguishes the two. This feature also defines a critical and difficult feature of public order policing. As well, it is an issue which most interests me, both in my analytical approach to the London Riots and my conceptualization of the relationships between urban mayhem, future security, COIN, and what I generally see as the merging territory of concern between policing and defence. [1]

Putting aside lethal force, global public order standards allow a multitude of lesser options. But do not let their less than lethal status confuse, none of these are nice, not at all. Water cannons. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Armoured vehicles. And yet, as bad as things were in London during those bleak days of August 2011, the police use of force remained remarkably restrained. Confronted with unbridled passion and anger, the targets of pelting violence, the Met’s officers (and those of other jurisdictions and branches who deployed to assist) on the streets and in command struggled to adhere to a standard of least force. This does not mean that there were not individual actions which exceeded this standard. Rather, as a whole, as an institution, the commitment to pushing back against the easy recourse to force was a clear priority. While many in the immediate aftermath brayed about the lack of “robustness” – and I have to sympathise with the police position that although such criticisms have delightful political romance they have no practical meaning – in the police response, I cannot help but find much to consider optimistically in the restraint exercised. [2]  Perhaps some was incidental to personnel mobilisation issues, restraint being a factor of insufficient numbers, but that only explains the smaller part of the story. Although this meant chaos and much damage and concern in the short term, in the longer run the value of this factor will be highlighted. And before you argue with this perspective please do read the end note to this below. [3]

Alas, the title is snappy, but it is not entirely accurate and hence the asterisk. There are important and meaningful exceptions even in an environment in which the use of force is constrained. For example, where disorder merges with extreme criminal behaviour, the use of potentially lethal force is acceptable when damage and violence to property and against the authorities spill over to threaten the physical security of members of the public. [4] And as the troubles in Egypt have accelerated from bad to worse to whatever comes after that in the past months, I paused to rethink this as the title for a piece on the use of force in public order policing. However, as I considered the context it became clear that this seeming Egyptian exception does not undermine the point because of the strategic and political ramifications of those events. [5] Sometimes you can shoot rioters. But you really do not ever want to have to do that, because it means you have arrived at a bad place.

Although the exceptions seem to be overtaking the title, the extreme nature of these situations in fact sustains the primary point that the use of force must be handled carefully in the bulk of public order policing. The complications of this issue, particularly for British policing, are many and important. Taking account of the manner in which they affect the landscape of public order, both in advance, during, and in retrospect, is critical to an understanding of the events of August 2011.

Returning to the extreme cases, I have used them intentionally. At the extremes one finds clarity – as Chesty Puller noted of his regiment’s status at Chosin, “we’re surrounded, that simplifies things." [6] [Un]Fortunately, these extremes do not define the bulk of public order policing. Most of it operates within the space where force is unnecessary or inappropriate, where it creates more problems than it might be hoped to solve. Force is also problematic given the legal commitment to individual political and human rights, wherein the first obligation of the police is to commit to the facilitation of protest. And even as the extreme looms it should be quite clear that to err on the side against approaching use of force limits is best. The rioters, after all, really are your babies. [7] Thus, most decisions regarding any use of force must take place within a vast zone of ambiguities, relying on the discretion of officers, either in command or individually, who must keep a host of legal, customary, and professional requirements and standards to mind. And it must be remembered that there is no public consensus on what constitutes “appropriate” force in public order circumstances. To what must be the great frustration for the police, as they try to divine the correct path, “appropriate force” too often resembles the approach to art – people know what they like when they see it. Finally, much more than is obvious constitutes force in public order policing – and the evidence seems to be mounting behind the negative influence of police use of force on crowd behaviour. Clearly this is not easy or simple stuff.

On top of these complexities, the use of force presents unique issues for British policing. The essential challenge is that the unarmed stance of the bulk of officers has created the greater need and propensity to use physical methods at the lower end of policing, many for officer safety reasons (e.g. "distraction techniques"). Add to this the “toe to toe” philosophy of the police in public order which puts them within the potentially rising tide of anger. [8] Further complicating things, there is the current reality here that no images of the use of force, or violence generally, and the police redound to their benefit in the public eye. They lead to criticisms that the police must be either thuggish or timid, storm troopers or incompetents. At the foundation of all of this there is the office of constable and the individual officer's obligations to the law to consider.

Together all of these factors combine to create the conditions for a very thin margin for success and almost contradictory, often shifting standards for what constitutes proper conduct in public order policing. 

Thus, every tactic and approach the police can use in public order situations has a use of force consideration. In every grade of public order event, from a kumbaya pro-peace rally to full on riot, every choice, plan, resource, and tactic must be “fit for purpose.” This charmingly economical term packs tremendous punch in the meaning it conveys - seriously, think about it a moment – good, right? I intend to use it liberally in future writing. Returning to the point, this means that for every planned or spontaneous decision or action in any situation the force component must be well-suited to the standards, laws and objectives, both strategic and tactical. [9]

Finally, with respect to force and public order the police must now accept a new understanding of their influence upon events. Recent findings in crowd psychology have expanded the lexicon of force in public order policing so that it is wider than overt acts. It is now recognised, for example, that how the police appear communicates force – or lack thereof. [10] And where mere demeanour and equipage [11] can be taken as a form of force, then any uses of force will of necessity have a larger meaning. The importance of force in public order policing is also evolving to comprehend a new understanding of the role of police behaviour upon the tone of an event and the crowd. A light touch – or rather, the lightest possible touch permissible under circumstances – seems to have a positive effect. [12]

I am in the vanguard of none to put forward the strategic and tactical stance of least force across a broad spectrum of conflict. Good. Do consider that most of future conflict – both domestic turmoil and war – will occur in urban settings or among civilian populations, and so least force capabilities will be valuable. Collateral damage, in rubble or lives, will become too costly to continue at currently tolerated levels. The costs in resources and strategic consequences are already manifesting themselves and will only get worse. And so it is the component of lesser force that is part of what has attracted me to examine this piece of history and the larger subject matter of public order policing. There is a very intriguing model in the British approach to public order policing, difficulties and complications notwithstanding. [13]

Larger considerations notwithstanding, London, England, and beyond are all better for the fact that no rioter or officer was killed in those 4 days in August.


1. Other issues, such as training and equipment, exert a great influence upon public order policing. Although they are not the subject of this discussion, I am aware of their role, especially when one considers the matters of national coordination and inter-force reciprocal assistance.

2. Police Oracle article, Chief Constable Ian Learmonth, national lead on public order, discusses the issues surrounding the use of more extreme tactics in the aftermath of the London Riots. He seems to suggest that greater leeway is being established. However, even as forces are trained in the use of these tactics, and “top cover” is being provided, whether they will ever be resorted to remains a significant question. “The Changing Face of Public Order,” 22/08/2013.

3. I choose not to make this a direct part of the discussion in this essay because it is a bit harsher than the rest. To sustain my conclusion above I reckon in part that least force was exercised given that no police fatalities resulted. This should be recognised as to the benefit of the rioters, sparing them the burden of a lifetime’s guilt over taking the life of an officer cut off from his or her comrades by the overzealous applications of offensive tactics. The very unfortunate consequence of the level of anger necessary to go over to riot is that it leads to a nearly uncheckable group mentality which too often can become lethal. And yet, no matter the anger and righteous justification, to cause another’s death is a wound that can never fully heal.

4. I prefer to think I would recognise this fact in the moment, but I was grateful from the writer’s perspective to have this distinction brought to my attention. It remains a brutal truth to accept and even further to ask of people, which is the need to take a life to save a life.

5. I do not intend to speak to the justification for the actions taken by authorities there, but I would argue that the specific nature of that drama highlights the strategic and political potential of urban disorder in some instances. Those masses are not merely expressing discontent but are in rebellion against the [barely] standing rule - again. While it is easy to counsel not to stray from the above injunction when dealing with public expression even as that might cause some degree of social or commercial disruption, whether a regime or a society must stand by and allow its own collapse or violent overthrow is another matter. However, at that point you must decide whether civil war is worth what you hope to achieve. Of course, it bears remembering that how expression is handled on a regular basis will likely exert a significant influence upon whether the dilemmas posed by serious political disorder will become an issue.

6.  It is a terrible tactical situation, but there are very few questions about what must be done.

7. I have written earlier that the appropriate mentality for COIN is one which frames the insurgents and population as “babies” in your charge. As in, you do not and cannot win in parenting if the baby dies.

8. Home Affairs Committee, (2008/2009), Policing of the G20 Protests, “toe to toe” reference, p. 23.

9.  What constitutes public order policing? What are the standards? What laws control? What societal expectations govern? Very comprehensively the ACPO (et al.) 2010 Manual of Guidance on Keeping the Peace lays out the current doctrine and standards in public order policing, to include relevant discussions of use of force in each area of concern [e.g., command, planning, tactics, resources...]. It’s a gripping read, an excellent follow on to the 2004 edition.

10.  Adapting to Protest, p. 9, for example, discusses the force implications when the police deploy “with officers in NATO helmets...”; “Hermes Insurgent” makes mention that the police officers on the Strand were in low profile black uniforms. As it turns out this is a proactive choice. Ha! See ACPO manual, p. 36, “Setting the policing style and dress code. For example, Code 1 dress and shield deployment may be a justifiable level of protection, but may also send a message to the crowd that should be reserved for higher levels of threat.” This, in fact, was part of the decision-making and planning for Tottenham on 6 August 2011. See 4 Days in August, pp. 28, 29, 36 and 27; on page 40, discussing the moment when the event shifted from protest to disorder, the report notes that at 2045 the PSU which had been assigned to the station to provide support for the demonstration first deployed with their full public order gear.

11. Kit – shields, batons, helmets, trucks (armoured and more armoured). The first several facilitate close quarter interaction (the toe to toe model) and the last allows go forward options into the maelstrom. All involve as well issues of officer safety. Remember as well that different batons have different uses and capabilities – MPS extensible baton suitable for downward slashing movements, others better to provide space by poking. (Holy hell I need a better way to describe that. Please, if you have read this far and have a better suggestion do let me know.)

12. See, e.g., Stephen Reicher, Clifford Stott, Patrick Cronin, and Otto Adang, “An integrated approach to crowd psychology and public order policing,” Policing, Vol 27, No. 4, 2004. Has anyone done research on whether (and if so which) there are any circumstances were police ‘passivity’ has sparked anger and disorder?

13. Yes, some of it ends up a bit left hand, right hand, but that could certainly be remedied without harm to the model. In the worst case scenario that it cannot ever be perfectly remedied, better that flaw than many others.