October 01, 2010

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The role of riot police

The role of riot police in the U.S. is to control the general public when there’s a demonstration, protest or other activity that threatens to become violent or destructive to property. Although they are instructed to use the least amount of force necessary for crowd control, they are authorized to use lethal force if necessary to protect themselves or to maintain the safety of others.

Various law enforcement agencies can be used for this kind of civilian crowd control, including municipal police and the sheriff’s department, depending on the locality of the demonstration. In other circumstances, the National Guard is called in to perform the role of riot police.

A recent example of the use of riot police was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the National Guard was called in to control looting and potential violence in New Orleans. Although there weren’t any riots, the role of the National Guard was to maintain order in a situation that had a strong possibility of becoming out of control due to the intensity of the natural disaster and the resulting chaos. Also, many of the local police had been forced to leave town due to the storm, which increased the possibility of the need for riot police.

In the U.S. the use of riot police is different than in other countries where brute force is used to squelch any type of political dissent or social unrest. An example of this kind of brute force would be China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, where riot police fired on innocent civilians who were protesting government policies. Although the exact number of people killed in the massacre is unknown due to government secrecy, several hundred are thought to have died. This is an example of riot police getting out of control.

Although most of the time the use of riot police in the U.S. remains non-violent, sometimes things get out of hand. An example of this would be the famous Kent State killings in 1970 where National Guard forces fired on non-violent demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students and wounding nine others. After this event, the use of the National Guard as riot police was used only in the most extreme circumstances where the potential for civilian violence was deemed highly probable.

Officers involved in riot control wear protective gear such as face visors, helmets and body armor. They’re also equipped with gas masks to protect against inhaling tear gas and pepper spray if that’s used to control the crowd. When necessary, shields are used to protect against thrown objects and gunfire. Oftentimes, riot police are mounted on horseback to enable them to have better mobility and a higher vantage point from which to view the crowd.

Because riot police are mandated to keep order while using the least amount of force, they usually carry non-lethal weapons such as batons, electric tasers, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullet ammunition that can subdue a civilian without causing serious injury or death.

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