Thursday, September 3, 2009

Preparing for a riot: Area agencies receive crowd-control training

8/28/2009 11:45:00 AM
Managing Editor

Like "Star Wars" stormtroopers, police officers and sheriff's deputies wielding batons and face-shielded helmets on order march tightly bunched together up the steps to the bleachers at Round Rock ISD Athletic Complex Thursday.

With boots, protective vests and shin guards, the group might be viewed by some as an intimidating force, akin to an experienced varsity football squad entering the stadium.

But seconds later it is the group in the stands that becomes the intimidator. Wearing only casual clothes, the group - largely consisting of males - whoops, yells, hops and gestures obscenely at the officers. Instead of batons, they carry whatever they can get a hold of - mostly plastic water bottles and even an empty cardboard box - but they seem emboldened by the riot squad's mere attention to them.

Minutes later, though, the confrontation ends with a few arrests and injuries, though of the faux kind. Water bottles had bounced off face shields, spraying everywhere, and in retaliation, imitation pepper spray was administered. Some pushing also followed, but only occasionally as the group of sports fans retreated backwards.

The event was real but only a training exercise for members of the Round Rock Police Department, Williamson County Sheriff's Office and 23 other public safety agencies in a 10-county Central Texas region.

Organized by the Capital Area Council of Governments's Homeland Security training division, the event is believed to have been the largest such regional training exercise of its kind in Central Texas.

Other scenarios are planned, but Thursday's exercise focused on a sporting event that got out of control, said Lt. Mike Gleason of the Williamson County Sheriff's Office.

"... and when the order is given to disperse, there's always one or two that want to stay around and see what they can get away with," Gleason explained. "We just wanted to see if we in any part of the region would be able to control something like that. Not any one agency is going to be prepared to handle this all by themselves."

The riot squad acting in Thursday's scenario consisted not of a specialized team formed for such action, but of officers from different departments put together on the fly to simulate real-world scenarios. CAPCOG member agencies had been previously instructed to purchase certain gear - largely so team members would be similarly armed and protected - but other than that, officers came in knowing little about the scenario they would be acting on.

"The officers that are coming in responding to the crowd don't know what is going to happen," said Austin Police Cpl. Scott Perry, "They don't know that four people will need to be arrested. So we are trying to make it as real as possible.

"The message we're trying to send is can anyone in a 10-county region, when your pager goes off, show up to an incident blind, and can you work together? Can you talk together, can you work for a supervisor you never met?"

And while Thursday's action at times appeared chaotic, officers came in with one purpose: get the rioters to leave.

"We just want them to go," said Perry, noting situations often call for the removal of a lead agitator or agitators to assist in defusing the situation.

And while officers outnumbered rioters Thursday - 50 officers to about 40 rioters - the scenario was similar to situations that might be encountered during run-ins with large-scale crowds, such as those at college football games, said Perry.

"We've actually dealt with situations where we've had a riotious crowd before," Perry said. "What we've known from other cities is there may be 500 people up there, but only a couple hundred causing the ruckus. That's probably about the same amount we would encounter if we came to a football game, soccer match or whatever the event may be."

CAPCOG plans to address other situations - natural disasters and civil unrest - in training in the future. Future drills are meant to test the region's ability to respond to incidents such as hurricanes, wild fires, flooding and mass evacuations.

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