An open field at Jug Bay Park in Upper Marlboro became the stage for hundreds of Prince George’s County police officers dressed in full riot gear — a civil disturbance training exercise held twice per year — though this is the first year the training has incorporated police academy recruits posing as rioters and new policies to enhance how police handle disgruntled crowds.
Throughout Tuesday, officers marched in formations alongside U.S. Park Police horses, followed verbal commands and used shields to deflect tennis balls thrown by about 45 police academy recruits referred to as “agitators.”
Maj. Pete Eliadis, commander of the special operations division, said since Police Chief Mark Magaw and the current command staff took office in December 2010, there have been a number of policy changes and improvements made to the force in terms of how police respond to situations and how they are trained. Adding new improvements to the civil disturbance unit has been one of the department’s priorities, he said.
“These enhancements were made because we’re always looking to improve and just have the best practices,” he said. “The training has definitely become more formal in the last year. It’s more progressive.”
Previously, there would be one sergeant per 10 or 12 officers in the civil disturbance unit; now, there is one sergeant to every six, which Eliadis said was a decision to “increase the span of control.”
The county department is also now using a Long-Range Acoustical Device, or LRAD, a loudspeaker that can be heard from several hundred yards away. It is an upgrade from the standard megaphone, which Eliadis said can be difficult to hear in large crowds.
Another change to the training is that all officers must now complete a civil disturbance unit training session at least once every two years to stay up-to-date with the formations and knowledge of responding to riots.
Eliadis said he did not have specific statistics regarding how many riot-like disturbances the county police department has to respond to but said the University of Maryland, College Park, is the county’s primary location for such incidents.
In March 2010, between 500 and 1,000 people took to the streets of downtown College Park after the university’s men’s basketball team victory against Duke, and police have said the students were shouting and throwing bottles and chunks of ice at police officers who were responding to disperse the crowds. One county officer was recently found guily of repeatedly beating a University of Maryland student with a baton during the incident.
The officers’ protective helmets also now include reflective identification numbers to help distinguish one officer from another when reviewing an incident or trying to find a particular officer amid a crowd.
Capt. Tiatte Day, an assistant commander of the training and education division, said the decision to begin using academy class recruits as protestors was to give the officers a more realistic firsthand experience when exercising formations and detaining tactics.
“This helps a lot in the field so when we have deployments there’s a collective response,” she said. “This also allows the recruits to be exposed to this training and even just the familiarity with equipment will give them good experience.”
The county police department’s inspector general, Carlos Acosta, observed the training exercises Tuesday and said training for civil disturbances is a great way to make sure policies are followed, and officers are able to handle such situations.
“In any size department, you want to make sure what you’re teaching meets national standards and makes constitutional standards,” he said. “On top of being a good officer, this shows how to be a part of a team. It’s a way to make sure all the pistons are working.”