According to CNN, the Portland Police Bureau "declared a riot" on July 4th, 2020 after protesters shot commercial grade fireworks at both the state and federal courthouses. Some local media indicated that at least twice that day a riot was declared. What is the significance of declaring a riot, and is there some public record kept of when/how often it occurs?

In researching this, I found Oregon's legal definition of Riot at ORS 166.015, but says nothing about declaring a riot...

Riot. (1) A person commits the crime of riot if while participating with five or more other persons the person engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly creates a grave risk of causing public alarm. (2) Riot is a Class C felony. [1971 c.743 §218]

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    The primary purpose of declaring a riot is presumably to invoke the law that you quote. For the historical precedent in British law see Wikipedia on the Riot Act.
    – Brian Z
    Jul 27, 2020 at 19:31
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    I think this is more a question of "What is the law" and as such would work better on Legal stackexchange.
    – James K
    Jul 27, 2020 at 20:05
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    @JamesK: this is a question about how (US) police make that decision, not lawyers. It's clearly not a legal question. The same assemblage in different US cities or states might well be allowed in some and declared an unlawful assembly or riot in others, and clearly different police forces use very different standards and respond to different political pressures. Examples were the NYPD using force to break up the Occupy Wall Street/ Zuccotti Park movement in 11/2011, and the infamous 19th-century Chicago police against labor
    – smci
    Jul 28, 2020 at 8:30
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    If we applied then-NYC-Mayor Bloomberg's 2011 rationale for authorizing police force on non-violent demonstrators: "There is no ambiguity in the law here – the First Amendment protects speech – it does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space" to SF, then we would conclude that SF has been in a state of constant riot for 30 years.
    – smci
    Jul 28, 2020 at 8:51

4 Answers 4


Declaring a riot is like declaring a natural disaster, or any other declaration: it authorizes non-standard actions, temporarily changes the allocation of funding and resources, and generally tells relevant agencies and authorities that they should step up to a new level of activity to deal with an emerging situation. I don't know the specific details for Portland — and I expect the details would vary from municipality to municipality — but I assume such a declaration would release extra funding for police overtime or hazard pay, allow the implementation of suppressive crowd control procedures, and give police extra charges that could be brought against rioters. Declaring a riot is a signal from the political leader to citizens and civil authorities that things have gotten out of hand, and extraordinary measures will be taken to set them right.

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    "Declaring a riot is a signal from the political leader" Yet it is almost always phrased "police declare a riot" - I have never seen it any other way. This is not the same as the mayor declaring a riot (except perhaps in the relatively unique circumstance of Portland's mayor also being police commish) Jul 27, 2020 at 20:53
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    Well, if it's not the mayor, then it will be the Chief of Police, who is a political leader in his own right. The same idea still holds. Jul 27, 2020 at 21:43
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    (1) Not all police chiefs are men. (2) I suppose I would quibble over whether a chief of police is a political leader, they aren't always elected and in any case are commissioned, not civilian leadership. (3) In searching recent news, I can't find who "declares a riot" - are you saying it always comes from the highest levels? In many cases, it seems to imply officers on the ground are empowered to do so. Jul 27, 2020 at 22:22
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    According to this, in the Seattle PD, "Incident Commanders" (whatever that means) can declare riots. So at least in some cities, it's the police on the scene who make the declaration and grant themselves extra powers, not any elected (or even appointed) official who can, at least in theory, be held accountable.
    – divibisan
    Jul 27, 2020 at 22:31
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    @div Ah, thank you, that is the sort of thing I was asking about and i think that's required for this answer to be complete Jul 27, 2020 at 23:29

On further research, it seems likely that in the US, "declare a riot" is an informal language referring to what might better be described as a public safety order to disperse (see example below.) Another term sometimes used in legal contexts is a lawful discretionary order, though the later term is somewhat broader.

Courts in the US have generally recognized the power of police (and other public safety officers) to issue such orders under the broad discretionary authority granted them. The exercise of discretion in issuing such orders can be challenged after-the-fact, in court, and such challenges are generally judged on a case-by-case basis. While failure to comply with any lawful order (including an order to disperse) is generally a misdemeanor, resisting force used to enforce it can lead to felony charges such as resisting arrest and assault on an officer.

The phrases "declaring a riot" and "reading the riot act" seem to be tied to a (now obsolete) UK statute known as the Riot Act of 1715, which was effect until 1967. Because this was a statute, rather than Common Law, it never applied in the United States. The riot act was a particularly severe statute as it made failure to comply with the order a felony punishable by death (according to Wikipedia.) Reading of the exact text specified in the Riot Act served as required warning of the consequences of non-compliance.

Some US states or locals have statutes similar in intent, but not severity, to the Riot Act, but few if any require a specific text as the Riot Act did. Seattle WA (for example) has published local policy requiring a specific processes be used for crowd management, including a script for an announcement:

“I am (rank and name) of the Seattle Police Department. I am now issuing a public safety order to disperse and I command all those assembled at (specific location) to immediately disperse, which means leave this area. If you do not do so, you may be arrested or subject to other police action. Other police action could include the use of chemical agents or less-lethal munitions, which may inflict significant pain or result in serious injury. If you remain in the area just described, regardless of your purpose, you will be in violation of city and state law. The following routes of dispersal are available: (routes). You have (reasonable amount of time) minutes to disperse.”

Note: The Seattle PD consented to a court-supervised program to make its use-of-force processes more transparent. The above example probably represents good practice, but seems not to be a legal requirement, except perhaps for departments under similar court supervision.


I'm late to the party here but I just learned that a state law effective since June 30 of this year specifies that police in Oregon must officially declare a riot in order to legally deploy tear gas. So while the accepted answer is a good one, this law in particular probably helps to explain why there seemed to have been so much media coverage of formal riot declarations beginning shortly after that date. In addition to these media reports, any riot declaration is probably documented in the relevant police reports.


In the U.S. what's initially referred to as a riot can be:

  1. Actual: the actions of an unruly and violent or panicked crowd, gang, or mob -- a kind of disorganized petty crime, with a scalable participation-based emergent property of more serious unplanned mischief and regrettable mishaps. Such riots are relatively rare in the US.
  2. Slanderous: practically any protest, however benign or peaceful, where those petitioned against simultaneously employ a few agents provocateur to break windows, and more importantly have the sympathies of hundreds of unobservant and ponderous journalists to conflate such spectacles with protest. (The agents are less necessary to the process, as journalists can simply conflate the day's usual accidents and petty crimes with protest.)

Following these initial references, the above are made more real by the state's own official armed and uniformed participants who are seldom less unruly, violent, and panic prone.

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