Los Angeles PD officers congregate after responding to an incident in which a group of adult men fired on a group of children and adults at a bus stop. When you are the incident commander, consider the risks of any actions before you commit your officers to taking them. Photo AP/Nick Ut
FEATURED IN BELOW 100
In my last two columns, I outlined some skills to consider when teaching officers to become effective incident commanders during crisis situations. In this final part of the series, I’d like to focus on a critical element of incident command: risk management.
By definition, a crisis involves risk. From the very beginning of an incident, commanders and other decision-makers should recognize that they’re in the risk-management business. One of the most critical aspects of this process is creating a list of issues that are most important to resolving the crisis, and then prioritizing those issues.
Training point: The most important issue is the safety of those involved. The incident commander must ask themselves how they will bring the incident to an end state, while at the same time minimizing risk to their personnel. Randy Watt, deputy chief for the Ogden (Utah) Police Department, put it this way: “We will risk our subordinates’ lives only when necessary and only in a calculated manner.” This places the responsibility of line officers’ lives squarely into the thought process of those in charge. It should be written in stone at every command post.
Put simply: We know there’s risk involved, or it wouldn’t be a crisis. But we must teach incident commanders to evaluate courses of action for the danger they present to those who follow the decision-makers’ orders. By extension, this will have an impact on civilians who are involved, and on the suspects as well.
Oakland Shooting BOI Report
An example of the importance of sound decision-making and risk management can be drawn from the Board of Inquiry (BOI) report issued in the aftermath of the March, 2009, Oakland Police Department tragedy (available at http://Connect.LawOfficer.com/forum/topics/oakland-report). Although it’s always difficult to discuss the loss of fine officers, a commitment to not letting it happen again calls out for us to understand the event and the decisions that led to it.
On March 21, 2009, a vicious criminal gunned down two Oakland motor officers during a traffic stop. He then barricaded himself in a nearby apartment, armed with an assault rifle. When the SWAT team forced entry, he killed two more officers and wounded a third before lethal force succeeded in ending his days.
In assessing the SWAT entry, the BOI report stated, “Absent exigent circumstances, there was no urgency to order an expedited entry into the apartment.” Further, it noted that “every alternative to the dynamic entry (e.g., evacuations, bullhorn/PA announcements, location information development, use of chemical agents and developing an appropriate Tactical Command Post) was ignored and dismissed with little or no discussion among team members or command personnel.” From this analysis, it’s clear that at least some of the leaders in charge were deficient in the way they managed risk. (This is a only a brief synopsis. I suggest you read the report, share it with everyone and swear to the Good Lord that you won’t let something similar happen on your watch.)
Savvy incident commanders assign the development of specific action-oriented plans to a member or members of the decision-making team. This is a better process than the incident commander shouldering the responsibility. Due to circumstances, this may be necessary at times. But it should be avoided when possible. For critical steps with inherent danger attached, the incident commander should instruct the planners to develop at least two possible options.
Consider this: An armed, barricaded suspect is alone in the structure. One course of action would be to make an immediate entry and attempt to take the suspect into custody. But there’s clearly a greater level of risk accompanying this effort than with a surround-and-call-out approach. Although an entry option might still be in our “tactical playbook,” such a step would have to be prompted by specific circumstances justifying the risk to the entry team. A better option: Contain the suspect, negotiate and use alternative tactics to defeat them before we send our cops through the door.
What we want to avoid is a plan being developed without the benefit of appropriate critical analysis and review. This can happen when a plan is developed on the fly, as well as when it’s created over some time. Absent a “tactical microscope” on the plan, the operation will probably go forward in flawed form. If no one speaks up to question these issues, the risk of failures and funerals goes up. Whether they don’t see the trip wires ahead or it’s an ego/rank thing or sheer reluctance, through their silence everyone involved accedes to a plan that is tactically unacceptable. As Gen. George S. Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
Time permitting, it may even be wise to order a “parallel planning” technique. In this case, two different officers (or teams of officers) develop a tactical plan independent of each other. The two plans are then presented to the incident commander for a decision. The latter may pick one or the other or even blend them together for a hybrid solution that minimizes risk while accomplishing the mission.
Gordon Graham has taught us that “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” Applied to law enforcement’s response during a critical incident, this concept implies that effective risk management at the command post also takes into account the opponent’s decisions. Example: We can predict a number of possible actions a barricaded suspect might take as the event unfolds. They might:
• Agree to a negotiated surrender;
• Prolong the event for an extended period of time;
• Fall asleep or pass out, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved;
• Exit without warning and surrender;
• Exit without warning and assault officers; or
• Commit suicide, including “suicide by cop.”
Identifying and planning how to respond to each of these predictable behaviors will provide the incident commander with a more calculated and safe game plan.
Risk management at the command post should also be applied to non-criminal events. Example: A huge wildfire is closing in on a foothill residential area. Although the incident commanders have priorities—such as evacuating the neighborhood, protecting property and keeping the streets clear for fire department assets—other actions (contingency plans) should be proactively considered at the command post. We’re expected to make reasonable—sometimes even heroic—efforts to save civilian life, but at the same time a commander may have to make some tough decisions.
If a tsunami of a wildfire is about to sweep through the area, halting the evacuation—or not starting it in the first place—may be a command option. Similarly, coordination with the fire command post in protecting their personnel could be equally critical.
The Long-Term View
Incident commanders should develop the ability to look at a situation at the moment as well as to see beyond the horizon—to what may take place hours or even days into the operation.
Specifically, command post discussions should address two long-term concerns. The first is the condition of the officers involved. If the incident has been rolling for an extended period with troops on the front line without relief, then the incident commander must monitor their needs. Moving fresh officers in to replace the original responders is another contingency plan that should be placed in the playbook as soon as practical.
This need leads to the second concern: requesting mutual aid. Whether you’re requesting personnel, equipment or logistical support, the request should be based on possible suspect behaviors and the resources that would be needed to mitigate them. Such a request should be made as early in the incident as possible. In addition, mutual aid will be much more effective if such requests are specific in nature. Yelling “We need help now!” into a phone is not as effective as telling the watch commander (or dispatcher) at the other end “We need a squad of officers with a supervisor from each agency” or “We need motor officers for traffic control.”
Earn Your Rank
This three-part series defines a baseline of competency for incident commanders. Remember: Rank doesn’t automatically confer the ability to manage risk and make sound decisions. It takes training, experience and a dedication to safeguarding the lives of civilians and our officers for you to carry the day. Earn your pay as an incident commander in advance by getting ready now—and ensuring that others in your department are ready as well.
Train safe, and God bless America.
Risk Management & Below 100
In 2010, Law Officer announced the creation of the Below 100 initiative. If you aren’t familiar with it yet, the goal is to reduce yearly line-of-duty deaths in law enforcement to below 100. The Below 100 initiative features five simple tenets, but especially relevant here is the last point: “Remember: Complacency kills!” This must be taken to heart by those who assume responsibility at critical events.
We know from the March 2009, Oakland incident, as well as other similar tragedies, that the decision to send cops into harm’s way is not always well thought out. Commanders faced with such circumstances should heed the advice of Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Make the big decision in the calm.” As a five-star general and our 34th president, Ike had some experience in crisis decision-making, and his suggestion should be a commander’s commandment. Basically, Ike was saying that in crisis situations, the incident commander should mentally step back and evaluate the situation. This is especially true if you begin to hear that “little voice” in your brain trying to use a verbal breaching tool to get into your decision-making.
As I’ve written about before, internal and external pressures, lack of time and other variables may reach an overwhelming level. Under such circumstances, you must maintain a clear focus on a basic goal: Although we have a mission to accomplish, our personnel should not be asked to risk their lives unless it is for an identified and justified need.
3 Types of Plans
Typically, incident commanders should consider three types of plans:
1. The deliberate (or detailed) plan: your A-game for resolving the incident
2. Contingency options: backup plans developed through an analysis of what might happen
3. Hasty plans: used for worst-case scenarios, such as the immediate response to a suspect’s actions before other plans can be made