Civil Disturbance


Any incident that disrupts a community where intervention is required to maintain public safety is a civil disturbance. Examples are demonstrations, riots, strikes, public nuisances, and criminal activities.


Washington State witnessed race riots in the 1960s, protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s, abortion clinic demonstrations in the 1980s, and civil disturbances and allegations of police brutality in the 1990s.

In Seattle a small-scale riot occurred after the 1992 Rodney King verdict. On the night the jury rendered its decision, small groups of people roamed Seattle's downtown streets smashing windows, lighting dumpster fires, and overturning cars. The following day some Seattle residents went to Capital Hill where they set fires and attacked the West Precinct Police Headquarters.

On May 3, 1998, the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activated in response to a civil disturbance at the Washington State University in Pullman. The disturbance developed when students' end-of-the-year celebrations got out of hand. The disturbances consisted of large crowds of students lining the streets, throwing rocks, debris, beer bottles, and starting fires. Local and state law enforcement officials were assembled to restore order. Several officials were injured. Washington National Guard (NG) units were placed on standby status.

The Washington State EOC activated on August 26, 1998, in response to the Makah Indian Nation proposed whale-hunting activities at Neah Bay. The state provided resources from the NG, Washington State Patrol (WSP), Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Emergency Management Division (EMD), at Clallam County Sheriff's request to control disturbances between protestors and residents.

The Washington State EOC increased response effort, on November 30, 1999, as a result of civil disturbance and violence during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference. The city of Seattle declared an emergency and the Governor signed a proclamation of emergency allowing commitment of state resources to support affected local jurisdictions. WSP, Department of Transportation, NG, DNR, EMD, and an Incident Management Team provided support.

Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Assessment

In the United States, protesters and anarchists tend to practice civil disturbance at large, scheduled peaceful gatherings such as union marches or world and global meetings. They believe all types of governments and global organizations are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished. Their activities involve disruption of activities, resistance, and rejection of all forms of control and authority. Modern anarchists are well-organized, using command centers, tactical communications, and the Internet for planning and operations. Control of anarchists requires police forces trained and experienced in the Incident Command System and riot control. Effects of anarchism include injury to participants and spectators and property damage.

The last decade has seen increased rioting and looting, in the United States following sporting events. Seattle, home of major sport teams, has the potential to have similar disturbances.

Generally, the cities of Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Bellevue with populations of more than 100,000 are vulnerable to civil disturbances. Smaller college towns like Bellingham, Olympia, and Pullman also are subject to civil disturbances. Olympia, the center of state government, faces an increased potential for civil disturbance. Communities with concentrations of ethnic groups and disparate economic status are susceptible to civil disorder. The presence of professional sports teams can be a catalyst for disruptive behavior. Historically, these elements are the most likely to fuel and sustain a disturbance.

Violent prison or jail uprisings are rare in Washington State, but are a hazard that communities with these facilities should identify and assess. The state has 13 institutions and 18 work release locations. These locations have a population capacity of nearly 15,000 but only a capacity to handle 10,659. Additionally, most counties and cites have permanent or temporary facilities for housing prisoners. Studies show that overcrowding is one of the major causes of uprisings. Overcrowding requires implementation of tighter internal controls, which are unpopular with the prison population. The Constitutional rights of prisoners are difficult to accommodate with inadequate facilities making it difficult to maintain essential services, personal safety, and preservation of property while maintaining incarceration.


The potential for civil disturbance exists in the state. There are major population centers with populations in excess of 100,000 and smaller communities with government offices and colleges. Cities with unions, capabilities of hosting world venues, and ethnic groups are likely areas for civil disturbance. Major sports teams are located in Seattle, the largest city in the state. Civil disturbances in Washington State are probable.

The Washington State Department of Corrections and local corrections offices usually handle prisoner unrest. In the event of emergency, communities may need to be on alert to protect its citizens.


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