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Handbook for Assessing Police Action in Riots – A Summary

Swapna Sundar, Advocate and rights activist from Chennai, has studied Police Manuals and Regulations detailing the rules which the Police have to follow during times of mass gatherings when police firing may have to be ordered. She had studied the Report of the Justice Sampath Commission set up to study police firing on Dalit activists between 10-13th September, 2011 in a place called Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district of South Tamil Nadu. She has written a Hand book detailing the procedures which is available for free download at We requested her to write up this summary which many readers may find useful.


The assessment of police action in a riot requires systematic legal and technical analysis of the use of police force, deployment of riot-control equipment and weapons and the coordination role of the civil administration. The analysis has to be informed by computer aided studies, documents, statistics, contemporary records and after-the-fact reconstructions based on testimonies and depositions. The report must be uncompromisingly forthright and independent. The fact-finding committee/commission having carefully determined its scope must remain narrowly focussed on the terms of reference ensuring due consideration to every aspect of police action that could have contributed to the exacerbation of the situation, or led to use of excessive force against unarmed protestors. Findings must be derived from a scientific and technical analysis of the documentation and evidence at hand, and must lead to recommendations that are implementable.

In assessing police actions, commissions of enquiry spend more time collecting evidence in the form of depositions and testimonies than they do on undertaking computerised analysis and data collection. Commissions, whether supported by social organisations or judicially commissioned, do not consider deployment of force as a technical subject, worthy of scientific enquiry. In their findings, commissions rarely, if ever, comment on the breakdown of chains of command, desertion from posts, insubordination, unlawful use of riot-control weapons including lathis, and violation (often blatant) of firearm regulations.

This Handbook for assessing police action in riots aims to help

a. Fact finding teams focus their resources on specific aspects of riot-control and police violence that often escape notice owing to lack of technical or scientific knowledge.

b. Peaceful and constitutional protestors expressing legitimate grievances in constitutionally mandated ‘freedom of speech’ modes. This summary is intended to supplement the Handbook itself and must not be treated as an independent work. A link to the Handbook (released under CC licences) is provided here:

Although the Handbook takes off by highlighting the errors in the Sampath Commission Report, which studied the Paramakudi Firing incident (2011 - in Tamil Nadu), it can be used to assess police action in any riot or crowd-control situation. The table below provides a quick reckoner of the focal issues.

Guidelines for objective fact-finding into police riot-control/crowd- control action

The following guidelines may be used to ensure objectivity in fact-finding into police riot-control/crowd- control action. The guidelines are recommendatory and may be substantiated and validated by experience.


Study and record the requirements set out in the District Riot Scheme

If such a scheme is provided, then it may be used in conjunction with the guidelines herein provided


Use of authorised media and other sources

If such sources are not available personal

interviews, surveys and questionnaire may be substantiated by more than one private source


Note and record police and civil administration venue arrangements prior to  start of protest

Standards may be established in accordance with the guidelines herein provided


Note and record police deployment

Standards may be established in accordance with

the guidelines herein provided


Define and classify the assembly at the start

of the incident

Permitted non-violent protest, Riot, crowd,

communal violence, unlawful assembly


Identify the nature of the assembly over a period of time

The nature of the assembly may change over time. Crucial time points may be noted and the

assembly reclassified at each point


Identify and record police deployment over a period of time

Police action may react to change in the nature of the assembly as a reaction, or may be responsible for change in the nature of the assembly. Note and record the links between police action and the nature of the assembly


Identify and classify the weapons being deployed

Classification may be on the basis of whether the weapons are lethal or non-lethal; appropriate or inappropriate; whether the use of the weapons has been appropriate or inappropriate


Identify notable instigators and classify them in accordance with their activities

Depositions may disclose notable instigators, and violent actors. They may be separated from the legitimate non-violent protestors


Track and classify the activity of the instigators

It is important to note whether the instigator and violent actor is leading a larger contingent of violent actors.


Note and record the action of the police against the instigators

Depositions may disclose whether the police are efficiently isolating, arresting and removing instigators from the assembly.


Identify the policemen in command of different contingents.

Note and record the Commanders’ actions and orders. Depositions may disclose whether police officials have deserted their posts, are evading their responsibility, failing to exert their authority or have been indecisive during specific points in time during the incident(s).


Identify the policemen who are working outside the team structure

Note and record the activities of the policemen. Depositions may disclose whether policemen are indulging in riotous conduct, or out of revenge or



Identify specific violations of standing orders, conduct rules, legislations and regulations

Depositions may disclose violations such as inappropriate use of lathis or weapons


Note and record police announcements and alerts

Depositions may disclose whether announcements were made and if so, whether they were effective. Standards may be established for announcements in accordance with these guidelines.


Record use and deployment of weapons and weapon sequence

Depositions may disclose the sequence and appropriateness of the use of weapons. Standards may be established in accordance with these guidelines.


Record deaths, injuries and relate them to specific acts of the police

Depositions and medical records may disclose data required to relate injuries to specific acts. These may be substantiated by forensic data with reference to weapons, bullets, lathis and other

non-lethal weapons


Identify individual police personnel responsible

Police personnel responsible may include Commanding officers in the field and senior personnel off the field


Identify individual civil administration personnel responsible

Civil administration personnel may include those off the field


Consolidate the report without bias

Ensure that pro-victim bias is always identified as such; and neutral and objective analysis is separated from the victim’s point of view.

Quite often Commissions, whether people’s commissions or judicially appointed, fail to take particular note of equipment being deployed, their condition at deployment, the efficiency of deployment and the regulations governing their deployment. The failure to study and elicit findings on these essential aspects of police action results in a weak report, and one which, furthermore, fails to hold the specific police personnel accountable. Consider the use of firearms, for instance. In the Paramakudi report, the Commission merely recounted, in an unmediated way, the weapons that were testified to have been in operation - 9 mm Glock 17 model (RW 65), 9mm Belgian make pistol (RW 68), pistol (RW 43 as stated by RW 36), Fabric Naton 9 mm (RW 77) – without validating through the perusal of firearm issue orders, issue records, or ammunition usage. In fact, as per law, given a firing order, only armed police contingents carrying INSAS 5 or other regulation rifles may be used in firing at protestors. Again, forensic evidence must be sought to identify which wound was inflicted by which weapon, to fix accountability on specific police personnel. While these practices are common in criminal trials, they are rarely used in reporting findings on police action during times of riots.

The Handbook also provides, in Chapter 4, a guide to pre-empt violent police action through vigilant and well-prepared protest plans.


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Related Bulletin : Sep 2017