Managing Police Shooting Incidents

August 18, 2011

By Steve Turcott

Too many police officers have been shot in recent years.  Too many have been injured, too many killed, their families changed forever.  Too many have been put in positions to use lethal force to preserve life, their own and the lives of others, resulting not only in the emotional trauma that is a natural outcome of using deadly force, but too often also in malicious public condemnation for life-saving acts.  Out of respect for these sacrifices, we conscientious public safety leaders should learn the lessons that are provided to us in the tragedies that our fellow responders have experienced.  It would be, at the very least, negligent of us not to look at these situations and see if we, in the same circumstances, could improve on our response and management of similar incidents.  Experiences not learned from are lessons lost.

We recognize that law enforcement typically does not have the same frequency of extended/major incidents that the wildland fire community experiences.  It is generally true that the number of major incidents that require substantial, sustained engagement by law enforcement is low.  Sometimes that observation is offered as recognition of our limited opportunities to use the Incident Command System for extended duration incidents.  Sometimes, that observation is unfortunately used to justify a minimal commitment to the use of ICS.   While police shootings are relatively rare (“low frequency”) occurrences, they are obviously very high risk incidents should lead us to be thoroughly prepared to manage them successfully.

So that law enforcement’s losses are not in vain, let’s look at some of the lessons provided to us in recent shootings.  From Don Perry, a close friend and former Washington State Incident Commander I learned “never underestimate incident potential”.  When someone’s been shot, we instantly know a lot about incident potential, and we can accordingly “order” Information Officers and enough supervisory personnel to staff the requisite organization (perimeter, investigation, involved officer care, etc.).  We can instantly enhance our response as soon as we become aware of other complexity factors (such as a suspect at large, multiple victims, dozens of witnesses, or that the incident occurred in a school, shopping mall, airport, or other similar high-occupancy environment).   

In Washington State, we’ve learned from planning efforts and school mapping projects that a typical, adequate active shooter response in a school requires dozens of officers.  That tells us that a minimally reliable report of an active shooter should prompt a response of dozens of officers.  When two officers were shot in a traffic stop on the West Coast in 2009, the after-action review reported that 115 officers responded.  What ICS tools get us beyond a span of control of 1:115?  ICS principles provide each of us with some very simple practices that can be implemented in a matter of seconds that will make our span of control manageable.  

There are foundational ICS practices that are absolutely essential during a rapidly developing incident, such as a police shooting (particularly with some additional complexity factors, such as a suspect at large or active shooter).  We can’t deviate from establishing command (meaning at one location, with appropriate participation in unified command), establishing applicable objectives, communicating effectively, providing strategic-level planning and logistics, organizing our tactical response in a manner consistent with the incident situation and objectives, and establishing a Communications Plan that meets the needs of the incident.  These practices, as well as others, are absolutely essential to our success. 

Because we can recognize now the need for solid ICS practices, we have the opportunity to prepare to implement them when an incident makes it necessary.  Because of the low frequency nature of these responses, we need to compensate through training, exercising, and other means of reinforcing these best practices.  Wiland Associates makes available personnel with decades of experience in applying these ICS principles to all-risk incidents, such as active shooters and police use of force incidents.  We welcome the opportunity to share what we’ve learned along the way.  The incident command system works well every time it’s correctly used, and it provides all of us in public safety with the opportunity to collectively manage dynamic, challenging, complex incidents with as much safety, effectiveness, cost-efficiency, and overall success as we do our daily, “routine” responses.

Lt. Steve Turcott is a twenty-nine year veteran of the Washington State Patrol and currently serves as Planning Section Chief on the Spokane County All-Hazard Incident Management Team.

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