What Are Civil Disturbance Operations?

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Civil disturbances are common events that are frequently reported through the media. After defining civil unrest, we will discuss information about the kinds of civil disturbance operations that state and federal agencies engage in, to manage incidents in the community.

The Baltimore Riots

The 2015 Baltimore riots followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. An African American male, Gray was no stranger to law enforcement when they chased him on foot after he ran from them. Gray was detained and arrested and transported to the detention center. During his time in police custody, Gray somehow suffered a spinal cord injury, although the cause of this injury still remains speculative. However, as a result of the injury, Gray died approximately one week after his arrest while in police custody. Details surrounding his death seemed to indicate that members of law enforcement contributed to Gray's cause of death.

Immediately following Gray's funeral, riots exploded in the city of Baltimore. Despite the pleas of Gray's family to stop the violence, the riots continued for a week. Businesses were looted, cars set on fire, and law enforcement officers were attacked. In the end, more than a dozen officers were injured, six of them seriously.

If you watched the riot coverage on television, you likely noted that the National Guard and law enforcement had a difficult time regaining control. The response by law enforcement following the riots was harshly criticized. Some key decisions that were made during the unrest, such as halting all bus service, left some individuals stuck in the midst of things and created further problems. Lack of communication, cooperation, and a chaotic environment were all cited as obstacles that prevented effective response operations.

What is a Civil Disturbance?

Law Enforcement Officers in Riot Gear

The Baltimore riots are a prime example of what constitutes a civil disturbance or civil unrest. The riots that took place and caused mass destruction that were a result of peaceful protests that turned violent. Civil disturbances, like riots, interfere with the normal functioning of a community and require the actions of law enforcement, emergency services, and/or the military to restore peace.

Civil Disturbance Operations

The tactics that law enforcement and military personnel use when dealing with unrest in the community are collectively referred to as civil disturbance operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, also referred to as FEMA, has recommended guidelines for civil disturbance operations. FEMA is a government agency that provides assistance and relief in emergency situations and in the aftermath of disasters. Their recommended guidelines for civil disturbance operations include:

  • Inter-agency cooperation - state and federal agencies should be prepared and ready to work together in civil disturbance operations. This includes emergency services, law enforcement, and the national guard.
  • Communication - all agencies involved need to follow communication protocol so that everyone responding to the situation is properly informed. Communication should also involve notifying members of the community on the present state of events.
  • Being prepared - agencies should undergo extensive training for civil disturbance coordinated responses. Training should involve prioritization of incident response as well as training on operating technological devices essential in response efforts such as cell phones, data terminals, and computer equipment.
  • Planned response - the implemented response to civil disturbance should be strategic and planned. All the agencies involved should know and be prepared for the roles they play in responding to civil unrest with the ultimate goal of protecting citizens from harm.
  • Community preparedness - it is good practice in preparing for civil unrest for the community itself to be prepared. Citizens should be informed as to how to keep themselves safe during incidents of civil unrest. For example, information about how to build and access safe rooms should be pro-actively provided in areas that are at increased risk for civil disturbances.
  • Securing state and government facilities - during civil disturbances, state and federal facilities often become targets for rioters. Lock-down procedures should be in place so that these infrastructures are secured and can continue to operate without interruption.

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