Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 21, 2011

Hurricane Lesson: Riot Watch

Filed under: Events,General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on June 21, 2011

Nick Catrantzos, who writes at http://all-secure.blogspot.com, contributed today’s post.  His writing has appeared several times before in Homeland Security Watch:


In the pantheon of devastating events, hurricanes rank high. One of the few handles a hurricane offers defenders for at least mitigating loss — if not taking charge — is that you can see it coming, hence the benefit of hurricane watch and hurricane warning. Indeed, official sites exist to explain the difference between the two (such as www.nhc.noaa.gov/HAW2/english/basics.shtml).

Why not apply similar lessons to riots, such as the sore loser Stanley Cup riot that Vancouver experienced June 15th?

Some fundamental differences compel attention, however. First, a hurricane is a natural disaster. A riot is an induced catastrophe. (Mayer Nudell first breathed life into this distinction for me in his classic Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management, available at www.amazon.com).

Consequently, there are fewer political impediments to declaring a hurricane warning — an announcement that a hurricane is imminent — than to declaring a riot warning. After all, to declare a riot warning is to admit to failures of planning and prevention — something that Vancouver’s (or any jurisdiction’s) leadership would hesitate to do for fear of inspiring lawsuits and removal from office.

But what about a riot watch? Wouldn’t this be more benign and easier for a police agency or merchant’s association to announce every time a public event is likely to produce crowds, the sine qua non for mobs and riots?

Assuming this to be the case, what is a merchant to do? Again, transferring a lesson from hurricanes to riots may avail.

Everyone has seen certain supplies run out as people prepare for hurricanes, including plywood and duct tape. If I were a merchant in downtown Vancouver, I would anticipate the destructive impact of a possible riot the same way a Floridian counterpart would try to minimize damage to the store in the face of an approaching hurricane. Seal off the shop. Affix plywood panels to cover the display windows, under the likely assumption that if any crowd is transiting the area in large numbers after being stoked on high emotions, liquor, or drugs, the best of glass-break sensors and intrusion alarms will never summon any response force that will be able to arrive in time to defend your property and source of livelihood.

Private security will not be able to reach your store and police will have other, life safety priorities taking precedence over protecting your inventory. So, if you do not see to your own defenses, looters and vandals will likely face no impediment to stealing and destroying your shop and any others in their path. Under the circumstances, making access to your business just a little more difficult than to the next shop may make all the difference between staying in business and going broke.

Here is where I would veer a bit off the hurricane preparations, though. Paint the plywood in the colors of the local sports team, whatever it might be, and then stencil across these plywood window protectors a message of support for the local team. In Vancouver’s case, the message would be, “Go Canucks!” Then, affix a small sign on your front door saying, “Closed for the game. Go Canucks, go.”

What does this do?

For rioters whose inspiration or pretense for mayhem retains even the thinnest connection to the sporting event that drew them to congregate in the first place, your sign is the equivalent of a metaphorical cross before a vampire. Attacking your shop so adorned takes on the symbolic appearance of attacking one’s own team — sacrilege to even a drunken sports fan.

Best of all, this serves your interests equally regardless of whether the home team wins or loses. Remember that riots increasingly break out among exuberant crowds even when they are celebrating home team victories as much as when they are lamenting home team defeats.

Do I have research-supported data guaranteeing this defense will work? Not at all. But compared to the high cost of insurance and potential exclusion of coverage for riot-related damage, a business owner may well feel there is more to gain than lose by trying it out.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2011 @ 7:01 am

Very interesting post so thanks to Nick and Chris! Recommendations of Nick seem sound to me.

Some background. I once upon a time lawyered for the Federal Riot Reinsurnce Program. It became law in 1968 after the Hughes Panel Report on Riots and Civil Disorders indicated that one of the things that was a precusor to riots and civil disorders in particular the disappearance of property insurance for small business in the central cities of the US. It also authorized so-called FAIR plans [Fair Access to Insurance Requirements] in any state in which the federal reinsurance was offered. Oddly one of the most successful FAIR plans was in California where insurance against the peril of fire even for the well heeled had also dryed up. The Reinsurance was offered retroactively. That statute still is on the books but authority to issue reinsurance contracts has long

In 1992 I was the Acting Associate General Counsel for General Law in FEMA for one year. A position all who knew me knew I hated but it was an interesting year. High lighted by a blue-ribbon panel on misuse of the personnel security system in FEMA. Available from me virtually thanks to Steve Aftergood of FAS and also available on his website.

As the senior attorney in FEMA as for much of the 20 years there my brain was often picked by all. The LA riots of the summer of 1992 following the Rodney King verdict led to riots and civil disorders. What to do? Well the National Guard was federalized to deal with the situation an action long regretted and not repeated since that event for a number of reasons. I found myself asked to address all senior officials of FEMA in a conference wherein I gave the history of FEMA’s involvement in riots and civil disorders. The fact that every scrap ever written on the subject in FEMA I had long furnished each new General Counsel of course did not absolve me of the briefing. Even though each new GC I had told they needed to be prepared at any moment for such an incident and/or event and to brief all the way to the WH! Of course like many others in FEMA none did so and all hoped for no such event on their watch. Patricia M. Gormley, the best GC I even served under who was appointed not a career official remembered by in briefing and asked me to conduct the briefing. I wonder even now if Brad Keiserman, Chief Counsel for FEMA or Ivan Fong GC of DHS has the slightest idea of the role of FEMA or DHS in riots and civil disorders.
So just so I can say I told you so I outline my briefing in 1992 here. Oddly it was not a long one.
Remember also I have posted on my Vacation Lane Blog some documents of historical interest perhaps including one in which General Counsel of the independent FEMA opined that the authority to declare an emergency without Gubernatorial request under the Stafford Act of situations for which the US government is uniquely responsible [here I would argue a NUDET or a FUSKSIMA etc etc but others would probbably differ] requires the AG to make the determination. I wonder if Eric Holder is aware of that responsibility.

Anyhow on to the briefing. First NO, repeat NO, riot or civil disorder has ever been declared a federal disaster under the Robert T. Stafford Act or its predecessors. Why? because AG’s going back to the Johnson Administration argued to do so would incentivize the rioters. This position has long since been understood in DOJ. And of course you could argue that riots and civil disorders are law enforcement emergencies. See 28 CFR Part 65 a newly developed concept enshrined in the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1984. So there you go that is still federal policy.

But wait was not there a declaration of a Presidential
disaster in the LA riots in 1992. Yes there was but for fires. Why erode the prior policy position because given an election year, and President George H.W. Bush want to appear Presidential and in particular in the key state of California, and given that DOJ has never established a dedicated fund for Law Enforcement Emergencies, shorenuf the declaration was issued.

And by the way Korean-American businesses used deadly force to resist looters and to my knowledge none were successfully prosecuted. So hey get your fully auto Ak-47s in case of long hot summer?

Now readers of this blog know more than the Secrtary DHS, the Adminstrator FEMA, the AG, and the President on this subject.
And by the way I personally wrote the AG after DHS was formed asking for a thorough analysis of this subject to be conducted and made public now that DHS existed. No answer received. That letter also furnished key Congressional Committees.

No hearings conducted.

And just for good measure since the Presidential debate season has opened how about asking each Presidential candidate how they feel about federal participation in controlling riots and civil disorders. Did I mention the disappearance of 100K law enforcement positions at the local level since 2008?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2011 @ 7:33 am

see “FEMA’s Role in Advance of a Terrorist Incident, FEMA General Counsel, November 21, 1996”! Under FEMA historical docs on home page of Vacation Lane Blog!

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