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Police Learn '60s Riot Experience has Relevance in '80s

September 24, 1986|DANA PARSONS

During what seemed like the Riot of the Week period of the late '60s and early '70s, police departments around the country learned some painful lessons.

They learned not to fire tear gas at rioters when the wind was blowing in the officers' faces. They learned to be wary when tossing timed-release gas canisters--sometimes the rioters simply lobbed them back.

And they learned to let the left hand know what the right hand was doing.

Once, when a Los Angeles visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson drew the usual hundreds of protesters, police formed ranks and ordered the crowd to disperse along a predesignated access route. Things went as planned until police discovered that another group of officers was unwittingly blocking the route.

Over the years, the number of mass protests declined, and the attention that law enforcement agencies paid to riot control--both in police training academies and within police departments--also declined.

But with the Labor Day weekend riot at a Huntington Beach surf contest and other holiday riot situations in Palm Springs and Newport Beach, police have had to dust off riot-control techniques.

Officials from those three cities will meet in Huntington Beach Thursday to tell a special meeting of a state Senate committee that more funds for police training and interdepartment coordination could help avoid future such disturbances.

Once-a-Year Updates

An informal survey of training officers and other police officials shows that after leaving the academy, most Orange County police personnel don't get much more riot-control training. While in-service refresher courses on riot control vary among Orange County agencies, some officers who can remember spending full days on riot control training years ago now say they get once-a-year updates. And those come in the form of 30-minute briefings during roll call.

California police academies now give no more than four to eight hours of classes in riot control, a negligible percentage of the hundreds of hours of overall training the recruits get. The reason is simple: until those three recent incidents, riots had occurred so infrequently that departments thought they would be wasting time by frequent review of crowd control procedures. While high technology has made some improvements in techniques, most departments basically handle riot situations now the way they did in the Vietnam era. The basic tactics of all riot control, police and others say, haven't changed much since biblical times.

"The time-honored aspects of crowd control--the generic military formations of echelon right, echelon left and the wedge--are still pretty much state of the art," Huntington Beach Sgt. Val Birkett said. "Primarily, because they work. I was watching 'King of Kings' on television, the Romans against the Jews, and they were using the same formations we are. It was just a little more theatrical."

Things have changed so little that most police interviewed said the most noticeable difference is the side-handled baton, introduced several years ago to replace the conventional billy stick.

Since 1974, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Dave Welts has taught a class on crowd and riot control at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier.

Welts says instruction basically consists of learning various crowd-control formations, psychology of crowd violence, how to use batons effectively, and, perhaps most importantly, the necessity of remaining in the ranks if trouble breaks out.

Facing a Crowd

"The biggest emotional thing is to be faced by thousands of people, some of whom are throwing bottles and rocks, and to have to stand your ground and then maybe to move on them," Welts said. "It takes a pretty steeled mind to do that and not want to break and run. Or if someone is spitting on you, to want to reach out and take somebody. . . . It takes a very strong person, but if you teach them, a person can learn to control that."

Scenes of officers breaking ranks and attacking protesters were common during the riots of 15 and 20 years ago. While they still occur today, they are less frequent, police and other experts say, because of greater police sophistication.

John Lofland, a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis, studied many instances of police-protester confrontations during the late '60s and early '70s.

"The investigations of the '60s--the Kerner (Commission) report and others--showed that in black ghettos . . . police were the primary stimulants of rioting. It was just indisputable that it was the bungling overaggressiveness of police on any number of scenes that were the precipitants of the riots. Police read that stuff, and many departments appear to have taken them seriously."

The result, Lofland said, is that police departments "have gotten very good" at handling riot situations and "developed standard operating procedures to avoid confrontations. That has helped to cool the scene."

Police Improve

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