An Activists Guide to Police Tactics

March 3, 2011

“The people whose jobs were destroyed were in no way responsible for the excesses of the financial sector and the crisis that followed…I’m surprised the real anger hasn’t been greater than it has.”

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King March 1st 2011

“Students, activists, agitators, stoners, scratters, scrotes. You will be hit with sticks and sent home to mummy. The rule of law will prevail, order will be restored, Winston will not be shamed, my ancestors will not have died to have allowed you to bring shame on England. You will get up early, get out of your bed, seek work and contribute to the greater good.”

Post on Inspector Gadget Police blog December 2010

“Following the student protests in London on 10 November 2010, where greater numbers gathered than had been anticipated by police, and the incursion of the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson stated that ‘the game has changed’3. The character of protest is evolving in terms of: the numbers involved; spread across the country; associated sporadic violence; disruption caused; short notice or no-notice events, and swift changes in protest tactics. After a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing – one which is faster moving and more unpredictable. Foreseeing the character of events will prove more difficult and, in some cases, their nature and mood will only become apparent on the day.”

HMIC feb 2011 Adapting to Protest and Nurturing the British Model of Policing

Public Order tactics used by the British Police have their origin in colonial rule. From that starting point they were refined through the experience of Northern Ireland and the riots of the 1980’s to form today’s set of Quasi-military tactics where lines of police attempt to control, contain or disperse crowds of protesters. The rise of a spontaneous, decentralised protest movement and increased anger directed at the police set against a deepening economic crisis has led to calls for a tougher approach to public ‘disorder’. The demonstration against the coalition governments economic policy on March 26th will be the biggest showdown London has seen since the poll tax riot of 1989 and will be a defining moment in how the state polices mass dissent. The following is a user’s guide to understanding police tactics and capabilities culled mostly from police sources, specifically “ACPO Manual of Guidance on KEEPING THE PEACE” 2010 as well as various police blogs and forums:


Uniforms, Shields and Body Armour

In A riot situation cops will be seen in a variety of outfits (including standard uniform and un-uniformed plain clothes police) and are individually identifiable by shoulder ID Numbers (often removed). The MET are equipped with long and short acrylic glass riot shields (Shields will often be used as a weapon to club opponents), visored ‘NATO’ helmets, shin and elbow body armour, and fireproof black coveralls with reflective hi-vis vests. The weight of full riot gear can be a distinct disadvantage:

“As I put on the heavy layers of kit, I realised they alone were enough to make me weak at the knees. To start we had a 500m run in full kit while carrying a 1.6m (5ft 6in), 7.7kg (17lb) shield. Then we were shown how to link shields to form a block, how to turn together when attacked from behind, and how to avoid police horses as they canter through police lines.”

TimesOnline report “August 26, 2009  “Surviving a day’s riot training with the Met’s Territorial Support Group”

‘NATO’ Helmet

“Someone behind bellowed the order: “Forward!” Reluctantly I raised my shield and headed towards the threat. The body armour, balaclava and helmet limit visibility and hearing what is going on around you is almost impossible. It is difficult to imagine how the officers are able to cope during a real protest that gets out of control..Others spoke of the “fear and panic” they feel as they stand toe-to-toe with thousands of angry protesters. “It can be absolutely terrifying,” said one. “But it’s our job and we know it has to be done.””

“Petrol bombs, bricks and taunts… the terror facing riot police” Peter Dominiczak. Evening Standard 31 Jan 2011

The NATO  is a plastic visored helmet  issued standard to riot trained police. The helmet protects the face bit also severely limits hearing and visibility. Paintbombs are particularly effective.


“In law enforcement there’s no room for second guessing. You’ve got to have that same confidence in your equipment. That’s why more agencies choose PR-24® Control batons, the most field-tested batons ever made.”


The most primitive and ubiquitous of police armaments, batons are used for striking, blocking and intimidating the opponent. The Metropolitan Police are issued with US built ASP and Monadnock PR24 fixed and expandable batons.

“‘There is surprisingly little training given in baton techniques. It can be a lethal weapon, particularly if used as a club directed at the head, but it can also be used as an invaluable aid for restraining prisoners.’”

ACPO Manual of Guidance on KEEPING THE PEACE” 2010

CS Agents

A very British product; developed secretly at Porton Down in the 50’s, CS gas was used extensively during the Northern Ireland conflict and for the first time on the mainland during the Toxteth riots of July 1981. It was  used without warning this year on UKUncut protestors. CS gas can be delivered at short-range (4m) as a liquid jet from a hand-held canister (CS/PAVA Incapacitant Spray dispensers) or at long range as a particulate grenade from a gas gun (these grenades can be picked up and thrown back at the police – be careful – they’re hot!). CS smoke is a powerful lachrymator. It produces a stinging in the eyes, a painful burning sensation of the nasal passages causing severe coughing, pains in the chest and skin irritation. These effects are immediate and last for two to five minutes after removal to an uncontaminated area.

Counter the effects of CS gas:

Baton Rounds (Bean Bags, Sock Rounds, Fin Stabilised Rubber Projectiles, Multi-Ball Rounds, Baton Rounds, Impact Rounds .)

Again used extensively in Northern Ireland baton rounds have yet to be used on the British Mainland. Baton rounds are used to pick out specific trouble makers and intimidate the crowd – though in practice are used randomly on demonstrators and the guidelines are ignored:

“Baton gunners are brought up to the front line of long shields, where they go down on one knee, load their weapons and then bring them up to eye- level for the firing position. They take aim, and on the order to fire, they shoot plastic bullets at the crowd. After the order to stop, they retreat into the main body of police, regroup well away from the front line and await further instructions. Members of the crowd could be seriously injured or even killed; the police themselves could become dependent on their new weaponry and reluctant to settle for anything less; and the crowd might respond to the use of police weapons with firearms of their own. In blunt terms, plastic bullets could set off a shooting war on the streets of Britain”

from “Why the police riot? – exposing the ACPO Public Order Manual”

“Baton rounds can cause serious and even fatal injuries. They are to be used only as a last resort when conventional methods of policing have been tried and failed, or must from the nature of the circumstances obtaining be unlikely to succeed if tried, and where the Chief Officer judges such action to be necessary because of the risk of loss of life or serious injury or widespread destruction of property. Baton rounds are not to be fired at a range of less than twenty metres, unless there is a serious and immediate risk to life which cannot otherwise be countered. Rounds should be fired at selected individuals and not indiscriminately at the crowd. They are to be aimed directly at the lower part of the body, and never at the head or neck.”

(i) Can be used with discrimination.
(ii) Will distance crowd from police preventing or reducing further injuries.
(iii) Will lead to dispersal of some rioters.
(iv) Ringleaders within front ranks of a crowd can be incapacitated.
(v) Confirms police determination to take offensive action by use of baton rounds.
(vi) Maintains confidence of police cordons of the intention to use necessary force.
(i) If a baton round strikes a vulnerable part of the body serious or fatal injuries may result.
(ii) Innocent parties may be injured.
(iii) Cannot be safely used at short range.
(iv) Use of baton rounds establishes a dependency on the weapons and creates, both a reluctance on the part of the user to revert to normal methods and a tendency to use increasing levels of weaponry.
(v) Baton round dischargers are single shot weapons, with a necessity to stop and reload after each shot with inherent difficulties involved.
(vi) Crowd experience may bring about armed response to use of this weapon with associated cycle of escalation.”

Water Cannon

“why cant we just buy those water cannons ( or borrow them ) load it with some tear gas, and have some fun.. then lets see if they riot + if they bring real looking guns ( ” water pistols ” ) , whats to stop C019 not tazing or shooting someone?”

Police comment on ( police blog)

The Somati RCV9000 water cannon  in action in Northern Ireland 2009

After the successful student protests of Dec 9 (and the attack on the royal motorcade in particular) there are speculations that the Metropolitan police are preparing for the use of water cannon with contrary reports from the Government and the Police; “We are liaising with colleagues in Northern Ireland and seeking up-to-date advice and knowledge about water cannon.” (Scotland Yard spokesperson 13 Dec 2010) and “Ministers will not stand in the way if senior officers wanted to use it…in the wake of last week’s attack on the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, future demonstrations needed to be policed robustly.” (Theresa May Home Secretary 13 Dec 2010) and then; “There are no current plans to use water cannon. We don’t have the operational capability to do so.” (Scotland Yard Spokesperson Dec 13 2010) and “Small groups of very violent people have embedded themselves in large groups of very peaceful people and to try to use water cannon in that situation would be very difficult and would upset an awful lot of people.” (Sir Hugh Orde Chief Constable and President of the Association of Chief Police Officers).

The use of water cannon have several tactical disadvantages in a riot situation including lack of maneuverability, quick exhaustion of water supply, and vulnerability to attack as well as the negative media response and escalation of resistance resulting from their use.

The water cannon that would be used (rumored to be stored in a lock-up in Wapping,London) are the Belgian manufactured Somati RCV9000 which are able to travel at speeds of 70 mph, carry nine tonnes of water with a spray range of 30m and have bomb-proof, insulated and air- conditioned cabs:

“The firing system can also be altered and different modes used that allow for preservation of water. Police cannoneers can fire a short pulse of water at targeted demonstrators, which is usually a single burst of between five and 15 NON-LETHAL WEAPON: The cannon used in Germany and Belgium are built to withstand all manner of attacks but are considered a non-lethal form of riot control litres of directed water. For more widespread dispersal of crowds, the cannons can also be set on an automatic pulse that fires between 40 and 70 pulses per minute or a continuous stream of water that fires 900 litres per minute. Most vehicles have an additional tank to hold either a dye or irritant additive, which can be mixed with the water system. A maximum reach of around 90 m is achievable, however this is dependent upon the nozzle and pressures used. Most units reach a maximum range of around 65 m.”

Police Review 2009

“The force of the water jet decreases with increasing distance from the vehicle. As such the effective range of the water cannon is limited. At short distances there may be a risk of serious injury, however at longer ranges the water pressure may not be sufficient to deter protesters. A maximum reach of around 90 metres is achievable, however this is dependent upon the nozzle and pressures used. Most units reach the maximum range of around 65 metres. Accuracy requires practice as operators often have a limited view and have to rely on directions from the driver to direct the water stream to the target, however a number of vehicles now incorporate cameras to make aiming easier. With practice the crew should be able to effectively target individuals in a crowd, although the dispersion of the water stream prevents the water cannon from being a fully discriminative weapon.”

“Less Lethal Technologies” Review of Commercially Available and Near-Market Products for the Association of Chief Police Officers M Symons G Smith G Dean S Croft C O’Brien Publication No. 49/08


Tasers are a non-lethal neuro-disrupting electro shock weapon designed to physically incapacitate the target. Basically the gun fires a number of dart-electrodes  connected to conductive wire to a range of 10 metres. The darts hook in the targets clothing and deliver a powerful electronic charge causing muscular contraction and pain. Since 2007  The Territorial Support Group are trained and equipped with tasers (10,000 units)

“There will be those opposed to the idea; those who say it is one step closer to arming the police; those who worry about the effects of Taser and those who worry it may be used against particular sections of the community. Arming the police? Nonsense. Taser is not a lethal firearm, and its effects wear off very quickly – far more quickly than those of CS spray or the bruises left by a baton strike. The effects of Taser to date? Not one death or serious injury in over 400 deployments in London alone. Is it used disproportionately? Well, it’s true that the proportion of people from ethnic minority backgrounds who have been subject to Taser is higher than their percentage of London’s population as a whole.”

Metropolitan Police Federation 2011

Metropolitan Police Federation Website
Taser International


General choreography

Police Public Order tactics are designed to either disperse a rioting crowd or to contain the trouble in order to limit the area of damage and wait until the riot subsides . Post G20 the police usually go straight to ‘Containment’ (‘Kettling’). The aim being to immobilise and diffuse a demonstration, gather evidence (through ‘FIT’ Forward Intelligence Teams) and gradually filter out the troublemakers from the harmless demonstrators through an ever tightening filtered cordon. Breaking up of blocks of determined resistance is achieved with baton charges, horse charges and sometimes chemical sprays, dogs and vehicles:

All quotes are from the “ACPO Manual of Guidance on KEEPING THE PEACE” 2010

Shield Cordon (Fixed Containment)

“Officers each carrying a long shield are uniformly spread across the road in line abreast either in ‘loose’ formation – a gap between each shield, or in ‘tight’ formation – the shields linked together.

  • Provide a controlled method of filter for non-hostile members of the crowd wishing to leave the area.
  • Confine a hostile crowd to a geographical area advantageous to police strategy.
  • Distract the attention of the crowd from unprotected officers – in other words to act literally as ‘Aunt Sally’s’ and draw fire.
  • Act as a decoy and draw the crowd whilst other police units are strategically positioned.
  • Afford protection to police officers who are operating using search lights, conducting searches.”

Advancing lines:

It is usually obvious that police lines are preparing to advance as  the ‘Forward’ order has to be made audible to the visor-ed riot cops. The actual advance will be accompanied by shield beating and shouting aimed at breaking the morale of the target:

“Use of a battle cry or other sound to unify police personnel deployed at scene of disorder – despite training, confidence and levels of suitable equipment, police officers deployed against hostile crowds during public disorder are likely to experience emotions ranging from anxiety and fear to outright anger. The use of chanting, shouting or the rhythmic beating on protective shields can act as a morale booster prior to deployment and also serves to release stress in police officers.”

Advancing the police line in order to gain ground and effect dispersal or arrest

“… Once the police commander has had time to consolidate his resources and to decided his strategy he may consider that it is necessary to advance the police line in stages to:
(a) Positions where it is tactically beneficial to him;
(b) Force a crowd back to facilitate the operation of other emergency services, i.e. fire brigade and ambulance;
(c)    Secure and protect key buildings;
(d) Recover injured personnel;
(e) Give protection to arresting officers;
(f)    Effect crowd dispersal.”

advancing cordon

Is a controlled slow regular advance to retrieve isolated cops and remove barriers used by the protesters:

“The shields units as described at 10(a) are uniformly spaced in formation across the width of the road. Gaps are left between each unit, to facilitate return of stranded officers, etc., see 10(a). The units advance on the command in a controlled manner until they have achieved their objective and secured the ground. The back-up men in the unit and following reserves of short shield or non-shield carrying officers run forward when the opportunity arises and make arrests.”

long shielded wedge

A wedge is an organised short advance into the a blocks of protesters intended to break up resistance, push protesters back and enable the police to form a new advanced line as well as clear access for snatch squads. NB the advance will always be limited to avoid overstretching the lines and becoming cut off and surrounded:

“A wedge is formed from 12 shield officers, with 2 shield officers at the head, standing close but not linking shields. The other shield officers of the unit stand to the rear and slightly to the left and right respectively. The sergeants position themselves at the end of either arm of the wedge. The Inspector takes up his command position in the wedge and is joined by the link men. They obtain their protection from the wedge. The wedge advances at speed through a shield cordon and into the crowd for an agreed distance (never more than 10 yards). At the agreed point the wedge thereby establishes a new secure line. Then, operating a split cordon movement, the 5-men shield sub-section pushes the crowd into side streets. In the event of the crowd running away from this advance, the link men and other reserves with or without short shields run through the line of long shields and make arrests. It is important however that the arrest squads do not advance more than about 20-30 yards to achieve their objectives.”

free running line

“All officers are equipped with long shields and sufficient numbers are issued to fill the width of the road. The officers are spread uniformly so as to facilitate independent movement. Officers work in teams of 10 under the supervision of a sergeant who is positioned at the rear of the shield group. The line of shield officers advances on the crowd at a jogging pace. Within the capacity of the officers, the dressing being taken from a central point in the line, the supervising officer at the rear can dictate the speed of advance. The shields are held so that the bottom is tilted away from the carrier. The cordon is given a fixed objective, e.g. a road junction, but it should never be more than distance of 30-40 yards at a time. Arrest squads of short shield and/or non-shield carrying officers follow-up and make arrests under the protection of the long shields.”

four-man/Two man arrest squads operating outside cover of long shield cordons

Once an ‘offender’  has been identified (often with FIT team photographic evidence) a snatch squad will be sent into the body of the demonstration to make an arrest:

“Personnel are grouped into teams of 4, comprising 2 officers, with short shields in front and 2 back-up men. The teams take initial protection behind the cordons of long shields and on command will run forward towards an identifiable offender in an effort to arrest him. The two short-shield men protect the non-shield men whilst they make this arrest and take their prisoner back to the police lines. The team should not run forward more than 30 yards. They must stop after that distance and return behind the long-shield cordon cover area even if they have not made an arrest.”

Baton Charge

At a given signal police will group into a formation in readiness for a charge with drawn batons (“The decision to strike is for the individual officer and must be justified by them in each instance”). Once they have advanced 30 meters or so the charge will halt and wait for the rest of the police lines to catch up and reinforce the new line position:

“All officers are issued with a short shield and short baton. The unit forms with 2 single files comprising 10 men each under the command of a sergeant, behind the long-shield cordon. When it is relatively safe to do so the files march forward either through or around the flanks of the long-shield cordons. On the command they form a cordon 2 deep across the road ensuring that the rear line have a clear view and path ahead of them. The cordon march forward on the crowd and if missiles are thrown, charge with batons drawn in an effort to disperse. Objectives must be given and the charge should not be for more than about 30 yards. Meantime the long-shield cordon should advance to gain ground and provide protection for retreating short-shield officers.”

Mounted Police

Mounted Police charge student demonstration London Dec 9th 2010

Mounted Police are usually brought in when the situation is getting beyond the control of the foot police. The tactic is to disperse the crowd, re-establish control and regain ground with an advance of  police lines. ACPO state that “Warning messages should be given and recorded of impending use” and “Deployment of horses in close proximity to barriers may not be appropriate on safety grounds.” however this is almost always ignored:

“Mounted branch officers may be employed in the public disorder context to achieve one or some of the following objectives:
(a) Confronting a hostile crowd with a display of strength to discourage riotous behaviour; this may be merely ‘within view’ or at ‘close quarters’ with the crowd;
(b) Applying pressure at close quarters to hold or ease back a solidly packed crowd, preserving the police line or gaining ground;
(c) Protecting buildings from a hostile crowd;
(d) Opening gaps in crowd or separating sections of the crowd by the measured weight of horses;
(e) Dispersing a crowd using impetus to create fear and a scatter effect;
(f) Dispersing a crowd using impetus and weight to physically push back a crowd;
(g) ‘Sweeping’ streets and parklands of mobile groups and individuals;
(h) Combining with other officers on foot (they employ varied tactics) to achieve any of the above objectives.”


Police dogs at the G20 demonstration London 2009

Are usually held in reserve behind police lines ready to be brought in when necessary. In practice they are hardly used except as an extreme measure:

(i) the use of dogs conserves manpower, which may then be deployed elsewhere.

(i) the use of dogs may appear provocative and invite hostility.
(ii) the use of dogs may attract adverse publicity.
(iii) the use of dogs in immigrant communities could draw undesirable parallels with some foreign police forces.
(iv) handlers and dogs could be vulnerable to attack from petrol bombs or other missiles.
(v) the advance of dogs and handlers may panic a crowd, and cause injuries.
(vi) danger of indiscriminate biting to public and police alike.”


ACPO Public order Manual sanctions the use of vehicles as a method of crowd dispersal (i.e. driving police vans into crowds). In reality this only deployed in extremis e.g. during the Poll Tax riot of 1989. If you see this happen you know the Police are losing control:

(i) A method of dispersal which does not require a substantial commitment of manpower. (ii) Can be used to relieve pressure on foot officers, and will boost their morale.

(i) this is a dangerous manoeuvre which may result in serious or fatal injuries.
(ii) adverse criticism is inevitable.
(iii) there will be civil liability for any injury caused.
(iv) drivers may be affected by concern over their criminal liability for any injury caused.
(v) vehicles may be encircled and attacked.
(vi) unless the manoeuvre is supported by foot officers, the crowd may only move aside rather than
disperse ahead of the vehicles

This is one of the most potentially dangerous manoeuvres considered in this section.”




3 Responses to “An Activists Guide to Police Tactics”

  1. Daniel Pierce said

    Protesters should arm themselves with every item on this list before showing up to a protest. If the police have it, we should have it. We have better numbers, but the police are better outfitted. Dress for success.

  2. Reblogged this on Art by Ellison and commented:
    Must see!

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