Police officers throughout Central Texas skirmished against one another Thursday in a simulated riot at the Round Rock Independent School District Athletic Complex football stadium.
The field training, a first-of-its-kind event hosted by the Austin Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s office, was a joint effort with participation from agencies across 10 counties of Central Texas. The event was designed with past events in mind, including the 2001 Mardi Gras riots in Austin and this summer’s wildfires in Bastrop.
In each run of the scenario, 40 officers were pitted against a riotous mob of up to 60 people, comprised of other officers and cadets who were given instructions to wreak as much havoc as possible.
“We are testing their limits, their formations, how much they can stand that’s tolerable by policy — departmental policy and our [Special Response Team] policy,” said APD Officer Todd Myers, who acted as a riot agitator. “‘You train like you fight’ is [our] mentality.”
What may have begun as a post-sporting event celebration quickly digressed into mayhem in the bleachers. In order to bring calm to the crowd, officers, who normally work in different jurisdictions, had to coordinate a joint effort.
“No one really cares what the color of the uniform is when you need help,” said Lt. Mike Gleason of the Williamson County Sheriff’s office. “When catastrophic events or large events that overwhelm any size of agency — large or small — [occur], we get together all these people to come through.”
He said for the past three months the different agencies across the 10-county region have been training for catastrophic events, including floods, hurricanes, wildfires and large riots.
The purpose of Thursday’s training was to see what would occur when a regional call is made for reinforcements, who are given sparse details before entering a situation, and must report to supervisors and teammates who are all unfamiliar to them, Gleason said.
“Testing our ability to communicate with one another and to bring all these agencies together at one time in a crisis situation is hard enough to do in itself,” said Det. John Foster of the Williamson County Sheriff’s office. “It’s basically knocking down county lines and city limits.”
Officers entered the stadium in formation to quell the unrest and were met with thrown bottles, water coolers and insults. More than 200 officers rotated during the training scenario, which not only challenged them with aggressive rioters, but with “injured” innocent bystanders who were victim to an evolving threat. EMS personnel, who work in tandem with Austin’s SWAT and Special Response Team, aided individuals and evacuated them from the area using stretchers called litters designed for crises.
“There may be 5,000 people up there, but only 200 of them are out there causing the ruckus — the other 4,800 are trying to leave,” said APD Cpl. Scott Perry.
He said within the scenario, riot handlers would agitate the situation in specific ways, such as charging a line of officers with shields and attempting to take a riot stick.
Officers in riot gear progressed with patience, used minimal force and did not break their formation. But the rioters at times amassed enough spirit to resist the oncoming enforcement, which led to officers being pushed back and using simulated pepper spray.
“For this particular stadium the best method to get the crowd to go back is the straight line, to push the crowd back. Then once they get to a designated point, where they need them to veer to the left or to the right, you go into a thing that’s called the wedge left, wedge right or echelon [formation],” Myers said.
Some rioters required handling by up to four officers to be cuffed but most were pushed back by the officers, whose formation lined the bleachers from top to bottom.
“The arrests are usually done to take the lead agitator. When you remove the lead agitator everybody else wants to leave,” Gleason said. “Those are why people are taken into custody, but everything else is just to force them into what’s called a choke point where they are funneled out and dispersed.”
Gleason and Perry said Thursday’s scenario of a riot at a sporting event was the easiest scenario to recreate. They said that in the future there may be scenarios that address mass evacuations, plane crashes and natural disasters.
“[Thursday’s] scenario is not indicative of something that we are expecting or anticipating,” Perry said. “This isn’t always just to deal with a crowd that is being unruly. It could be used for public safety just to keep people out of an area to evacuate persons that are in danger.”