Crowd control tactics: The difference between kettling and encirclement

Encirclement is an American police tactic that might be viewed by the untrained eye as kettling


Officers trained in crowd control are probably familiar with the American defensive tactic of encirclement. There is also a European offensive tactic called kettling. It is imperative officer know how the two differ.

What is kettling?

The term “kettling” comes from the German term “kessle,” which means a cauldron or kettle. It arose out of military engagements where a smaller military force was surrounded by an overwhelming opposing force intent of annihilating the smaller force. The combat that arose out of such desperate engagements turned the interior of the encirclement into a boiling kettle of death. The Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of the Little Bighorn are two well-known continental wartime engagements where kettling occurred.

Activist who gave his name as Jersey walks with others under police escort after a "We The People" rally Saturday Nov. 17, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Activist who gave his name as Jersey walks with others under police escort after a "We The People" rally Saturday Nov. 17, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Kettling as a crowd control tactic

As a crowd control tactic, kettling is not meant to annihilate but to totally contain a potentially violent crowd of demonstrators.

Germany, Great Britain and other countries in Europe employ this tactic using massive numbers of officers to advance on large crowds from four sides at once, often trapping thousands in the “kettle.” Police use it to prevent violence. However, one G20 protestor complained that kettling is, “Keeping people inside an area until they are boiling with rage.”

While its use has been controversial and legally challenged, the European courts have upheld the legality of kettling.

Encirclement

Encirclement is an American police tactic that might be viewed by the untrained or hyper-critical eye as kettling.

Encirclement is the act of moving a team of officers out to encircle a small section in or near a crowd for the purpose of:

  1. Rescuing a citizen or officer who is imperiled within the crowd.
  2. Providing protection of individuals from a crowd.
  3. Facilitating targeted arrests of crowd leaders/members for cause.
  4. Separating opposing antagonistic crowds.
  5. Capturing looters, arsonists and riot instigators.
  6. Breaking up dangerous disturbances within the crowd.

Encirclement is different from kettling in that it is a specific tactical response to circumstances created by a specific individual or group of individuals within a crowd.

To affect an encirclement, officers form a column behind the police line. A plan is made to conduct the rescue, defense, or arrest. On the team leader’s command, the column shoots out like a bolt from a crossbow and encircles the problem. Officers previously assigned will conduct the arrests within the perimeter of the encirclement and, when ready, the team will move as one behind the line, or the line will move forward to take a position between the encirclement and the crowd.

When arrests are to be made it is imperative that they be made quickly, efficiently and only in manageable numbers.

Encirclements are also used to facilitate the arrest/removal of passive resisters or allow for officers to dismantle or remove protestor devices such as sleeping dragons, tripods, caltrops, barricades and bonfires.

The major difference between encirclement and kettling is that encirclement is the limited targeting for separation of a process taking place, or individuals in a crowd for arrest, rescue, or protection, while allowing the larger crowd to remain assembled or disperse if they choose. Kettling on the other hand traps an entire crowd.

Kettling in the USA

The pitfalls of using kettling in the United States are:

  1. After the event, it will be argued that the total restriction of movement constituted an unlawful arrest, and/or detention of all within the “kettle” without probable cause.
  2. Total containment of a crowd without a dispersal option will lead inevitably to the containment of some uninvolved innocents.
  3. It positions your line of officers too close to crowd members.
  4. The numbers contained in these actions are often unmanageably large, creating a nightmare for officers assigned to detain, transport, process, house and properly document the arrests made. Poorly managed mass arrests often lead to mass dismissals followed by class action lawsuits.
  5. Complaints will follow because kettled crowds often can’t get access to food, drinks or bathroom facilities for hours.
  6. Trapping a large and passionate crowd increases tensions, which will be used as the excuse for any violence that might follow.

An avenue of escape

In choosing your tactics remember that in this country great emphasis is placed on the right to legally assemble. Your tactics should accommodate lawful and peaceful assemblies.

However, you need to prepare for those who deliberately engage in unlawful behavior intent on sowing the seeds of chaos by:

  1. Taking highly trained, well-equipped officers/commanders to the event.
  2. Immediately arresting trouble-making instigators when they are few in number rather than wait until they inspire hundreds to join in.
  3. Allowing for an avenue of escape leading away from the event, not only for the crowd, but yourselves as well.
  4. Not overloading your arrest teams.
  5. Documenting every arrest clearly linking a suspect to a provable offense while identifying the arresting officer.
  6. Making a clear audible announcement such as, “I am (name and rank) of the (department). This is an unlawful assembly and you are ordered to disperse immediately or face arrest,” before making a physical move to disperse. Document the time, date, location and content of the orders.
  7. Allowing the crowd reasonable time and opportunity, as well as a path, to disperse after the order to disperse.

One city did not follow these guidelines and hundreds of arrested suspects had their charges dismissed. Later these demonstrators split up a $6.2 million out-of-court settlement.

Parting advice

When involved in crowd control, avoid deliberately trapping (kettling) any crowd. Also try to keep a proper perspective by remembering you are not managing one crowd of a thousand individuals, but a thousand individuals in one crowd.

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