Riot control is an odd mixture of high-tech tools (digitized command and control centers) and old-school tools. The basic tactical elements are ancient—shields to block thrown projectiles, bulky body armor, use of mounted officers on horses, and police tactical formations with Greek and Roman pedigrees. Yet as the London riots demonstrate, P2P information technology is aggravating an existing drain on operational command and control, placing a premium on police ability to better manage operational information
The spectrum of rioting ranges from opportunistic looting by drunk and bored hoodlums to concentrated political violence mobilized and channeled by political instigators. It’s the difference, in other words, between inebriated Lakers fans reacting to a loss (or win) by destroying the area around the Staples Center and Mark Antony whipping the crowds of Rome into a rage after the assassination of Julius Caesar. There are, however, some commonalities across the spectrum. First, crowd power is not entirely a “leaderless” behavior. The actions of a few rioters–if unchecked–demonstrate to others that action is viable. Quick and proportionate suppression at the outset can thus stop the riot’s momentum. Riots increase in intensity as uncommitted actors make quick cost-beneft analyses that suggest that the costs of participation are marginal.
How does technology change the nature of crowd power? One interpretation of the recent London riots was that BlackBerry, Twitter, and other P2P technologies empowered rioters and made it easier for them to organize–but this is only part of the story. Jack McDonald, a PhD student at King’s College London, argues that state-building–the process of states cementing central power–was historically aided by the information dominance of powerful central government organs:
Nascent bureaucracies allowed states to process information better than their competitors, and they had better access to a wider range of information than the populations whom they sought to control. It is notable that the types of actor or political grouping that tended to resist state control the longest were those with similar capabilities such as aristocrats and other networks …[T]he various political forces involved in state building all tended to have better access to, and better ability to process and utilise, information than the “mobs” that they ruled.
Social media and P2P capabilities do not entirely reverse state information dominance, but they do allow small groups to carry out small-scale yet high-impact violence. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s netwar literature describe the dynamics of dispersed groups coming together to attack a single point–swarming–on the tactical level, and netwar as a whole describes the process of operational convergence and how it overwhelms less nimble opponents. As McDonald notes, the process of a few thousand throwing a city of millions upside down closely resembles the effect of terrorism.
The problem is mass urban disturbances and the strain they place on police command and control capabilities, not P2P technologies themselves. During the Los Angeles riots–when the most advanced P2P technologies were pagers–police command and control (C2) broke down due to mistrust and lack of communication between police and political leadership as well as operational failures in planning, interagency training, and coordination. Dealing with multiple tactical incidents across a large and dispersed urban space (dealing with mass in time rather than space) calls on operational design skills that are often sparse in more tactically oriented police departments. Additionally, urban spaces are not linear, and include the insides of buildings as well as the underground and spaces between them. While building a more perfect C2 system and the operational concepts to match are more a matter of organizational structure and operational design than technology, having a means of visualizing the entire operational environment would greatly help build police C2.
One example of a C2 technology that I’ve had the opportunity to see demonstrated is fourDscape. FourDscape is a Common Operating Picture (COP) software that goes beyond a typical situational awareness map to incorporate user-generated data from cameras and sensors and project it into a 4D browser interface. While fourDscape allows users to track the traditional three dimensions of space, it also incorporates time-an undervalued aspect of operations–into the situational awareness map. Linking tactical response to the overall macro picture is also made possible through fourDscape’s ability to overlay specific camera feeds, receive tactical updates, and carry out videoconference. The commander thus has the ability to switch between micro and macro levels of the operation, examine both 3D and 4D dimensions of space and time, and manage sensor data in large urban events.
One of the biggest problems with C2 technology, as the late Carl Builder pointed out in a RAND analysis, is that too often commanders become prisoners of their own sensors. Rather than driving the operation with his or her own operational concepts, the commander becomes another decision node in the sensor system and does not actively shape the flow of information. Where fourDscape shines is that the freedom for a commander to go beyond the situation map and the sensor grid to use the diversity of information and fourDscape’s modular and scalable interface to actively shape the information necessary for operational command.
Military developments abroad suggest that integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) with the ability to target granular levels of detail is the future of urban operations–and much of this technology has civilian application. But technology will be a handmaiden to strong organizational C2, robust training, and leadership rather than a replacement for it. And even in a high-tech world, low-tech and time tested solutions such as mass arrests and riot shields will remain the bread and butter of crowd control for decades to come.