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What Is a Police Riot?

"Police riot" is a controversial term that typically regards accusations of police brutality.
Police may be required to act with appropriate force during a riot.
Police officers may become involved in street riots.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
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A police riot is a violent confrontation between civilians and members of a police or military force. This term is controversial, and tends to be used primarily by activists concerned about police brutality and rights to free speech and protest. Some notable historical events some people may consider police riots include the protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention in the United States in 1968, the Soweto Uprising in South Africa in 1976, and the 2010 Thai political demonstrations.

A variety of events can trigger a police riot, and often, narratives from people on the ground conflict, making it hard to determine why events erupt into violence. In some cases, crushes or crowds of protesters may alarm law enforcement, leading police to use force to try and control the situation. Protesters may fight back, creating a dangerous situation. In repressive nations, police forces may use lethal force during protests, causing deaths and serious injuries. In some cases, evidence suggests that agent provocateurs planted by law enforcement incite violence, triggering a violent response and a police riot.

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Police riots are usually characterized by crowding, making it difficult for civilians to comply with orders from police, including dispersal orders. Some policing tactics may encourage the creation of cordons around protest areas, trapping people inside a confined space. Even if protesters want to leave, the police do not give way, as they do not want to end up between two protest lines. Police officers may use measures like water cannons and rubber bullets to control crowds in a police riot, turning to more aggressive measures like tear gas and lethal bullets if they lose control of the situation.

Unrest often surrounds events labeled as police riots. Members of the civilian population may express frustration and anger with the political process, and could specifically resent law enforcement or the military. When people are already in a state of agitation because of recent political events, even peaceful rallies and protests can become a tinderbox, where it takes only a little bit of pressure to create an unsafe situation and a riot.

Governments typically avoid the term “police riot” because it is suggestive of government culpability, implying that the events are the fault of the police, rather than protesters. Protesters and civil rights activists may turn to this term to describe situations where they feel police officers acted with inappropriate force or tried to incite violence to advance a political agenda like forcing officials to establish a curfew to curb protest activity.

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