Crowd 'Control' II - Ducking bottles and concrete while fending off an angry mob
Last week's column centered on the events on South University during "March Madness" in years gone by when the University of Michigan Men's Basketball team made it into the Final Four in 1992 and won the National Championship in 1989.
Alcohol-fueled crowds of revelers took to the streets to celebrate, but at some point someone in the crowd decided to break something and it set off a chain reaction.
"Mob mentality" replaces common sense in those who think they are anonymous in the crowd and won’t get caught acting badly because they can blend into the sea of people. There is less anonymity in crowds today as police and security forces have learned the virtues of video cameras.
In years past, we found that most of those who got caught committing crimes at these "celebrations" were not University of Michigan students, who have much to lose if arrested. Most of those revelers who trash the town are just people who came downtown for the spectacle and to be a part of something big. At some point, a few decide destroying public and private property is more fun than creating a joyful celebration.
File photo | AP
Spilled beer, littered cups and dropped beer bottles can turn quickly to fights, broken windows, overturned trash cans, dented cars, torn awnings, uprooted street signs and parking meters, overturned cars and burning sofas.
This bedlam has also concealed thieves who leave the “celebration in the streets” to break into cars and loot unlocked unattended off-campus student housing — because the cops are too busy just then. I have witnessed all of these events working “crowd control” assignments.
Different police chiefs had different plans for controlling the crowds. Certain strategies worked, some did not. In 1992 we decided to deploy tear gas to clear South University. We did, and it worked, but we failed to leave “rear guards” to block the sidestreets we had already passed. The result was that the mob backfilled behind us, and we had to clear the street once again in the other direction.
It was that same year, as I recall, that we “tactically withdrew” through the East Engineering arch and across the Diag while there were still quite a few people left in the street. The line officers saw this as a “retreat,” and morale was low as we trudged back to the station.
The most amazing lesson I learned came in 1989 when I finally made it to my assigned squad after wandering through the crowd past them several times. They saw me and tried to pull me in to the group, but could not part the sea of people to get to me.
Almost immediately after I got to the group, there was a report of a fight in the old South Forest carport. The sergeant sent me and three other officers to handle the fight. I’ll call those fine officers “Stryker,” “Pit Bull” and “The Energizer Bunny.”
We moved quickly through the crowd staying together. Someone made the mistake of spitting on “Stryker’s” back. “Pit Bull” saw the culprit and gave him a shove that landed the spitter on his keester.
During large-scale police operations there is no time for arrests for “minor” incidents. On any calmer evening, “the spitter” would have been “hooked and booked” — arrested that is.
We continued on, around the corner by Rick’s Cafe and east toward the old carport. After we rounded the corner we noticed the crowd was now pursuing us. They were angry their spitting pal had been toppled.
It is rather disconcerting having a whole alley of several hundred people angrily on your heels. We turned to face them. We stood four abreast helmet shields down and batons at port arms. It looked like there were hundreds in the angry mob, but a funny thing happened. They stopped and suddenly there was about a 30-foot gap between them and us.
I suggested that we slowly back toward the mouth of the carport, which would narrow the area we had to cover so the crowd did not surround us. The roof of the carport would also shield us from incoming projectiles. Most projectiles are lofted from the back of the crowd, as opposed to thrown straight at the officer, because the assailant does not want to be seen by the cops.
As if on cue, the bottles started raining in on us until we made it to the mouth of the carport. Our next move would be to the stairwell if the crowd advanced on us — which they never did.
One green beer bottle was thrown straight at us and would have passed between “The Energizer Bunny” and me, but he fancying himself a softball player. He reached out and batted the bottle with his nightstick.
The bottle shattered showering us all with green glass shards. I deadpanned, “Okaaay you’re not gonna do that again are you?”
We all kind of chuckled and “The Energizer Bunny” grinned and said, “ Ahh ... no.”
After the crowd ran out of beer bottles, some found chunks of cement from a nearby construction project. Those got launched for several minutes, but we stood firm and no officer got hit. Finally the crowd got bored and left as fast as they had formed. We checked the rest of the carport and, of course, there was no fight.
That just four well-trained, properly equipped, determined individuals could make a stand and hold off a bottle- and rock-throwing mob seemed incredible to me. There is a tremendous bond that forms between officers when they face “interesting” situations together, like that angry mob.
We rejoined our squad and the squads formed into large ranks. We cleared the streets and held them until the crowd went home. Only one officer was seriously injured that night when a rock was baseballed at his head and broke the lens on his gas mask as we started to clear South University. We all took a few bumps 'n' scrapes, but we made it through the night and kept property damage to a minimum.
It is sad that both Michigan and Michigan State got knocked out of the NCAA Basketball tournament this year, but maybe it is an ironic blessing in disguise. No officers got injured, no property was damaged and no financially strapped Michigan municipality got hung with a huge overtime bill to quell a “celebration.”
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com. He also serves as the Crime Stoppers coordinator for Washtenaw County.