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Critical planning for high-profile events

Avoiding planning failures at large events with dignitaries present


Security surrounds the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The intent of this article is to provide guidance to law enforcement executives and planners responsible for planning the policing of high-profile events, rather than a criticism of how law enforcement handled events at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.

I sympathize with those few dozen officers isolated on the Capitol Hill steps and inside the building who were expected to deal with the hundreds who mobbed and infiltrated the building. While I have seen squads of police officers overrun at spontaneous events, I cannot recall such a fracas at a known and planned event such as the confirmation of the Presidential election vote count.

So what tools are available for police when planning a response to high-profile events?

Incident Command System

The most basic plans and objectives for planning and managing events and incidents are included in the Incident Command System (ICS) ICS 300 Module.

FEMA offers free online courses to train law enforcement, allied agencies and others in the planning process to speak the same language, to know roles and responsibilities, to learn how to plan within a department for small events and to learn how to organize multi-agency coordination for large-scale event response.

Primary objectives include forming an incident action plan, analyzing situational awareness tools and including outside resources for mutual aid when anticipated.

Plans should be flexible, scalable and achievable for large events such as celebrations, sporting events, concerts, demonstrations, protests and dignitary visits. A threat assessment is invaluable to gauge the threat level and number of possible attendees so as to ensure the appropriate number of personnel and logistical support to facilitate the event.

Overall coordination and communication must be included with off-site real-time coordination of the four main components of Operations, Planning, Logistics and Administration, and Finance to an Incident Command group at Department Operations Centers and a central coordinating Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to communicate between all resources. The Incident Commander or Joint Commanders at a Unified Command must have the ability to draw resources and apply them as necessary in a timely manner as events unfold.

PACE plan

Planning is key to a successful operation. As discussed in a prior article, a Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency (PACE) plan is essential in order to apply and modify plans and resources as events unfold.

The PACE plan can expand or change the direction of response to accommodate real-time events.

The Primary plan allows for a low- or medium-profile of resources at a planned event with oversight and crowd observation.

An Alternate plan is one that shifts from the original plan as necessary if, for instance, larger crowds appear, and areas need to be expanded. If an operation or event goes to plan, only the Primary plan may apply and the rest of the PACE plan may be set aside, with few resources activated from their staging areas.

The PACE plan is not meant to be a strict continuum; Incident Command should shift from one plan to another as the situation dictates. That is to say, if an event goes from peaceful to riotous in a short period, Incident Command may skip the Alternate and Contingency plans, moving directly from the Primary to the Emergency or evacuation plan.

External criticism of the optics of policing events

Law enforcement presence at a protest or demonstration has often been criticized as compromising First Amendment rights. Certainly, the microscope is present at our nation’s capital, where having a large presence of law enforcement in crowd control gear and equipment may be seen as intimidating.

A common theme of rhetoric often describes the “militarization” of police when officers are wearing protective gear such as helmets and carrying shields.

A plan may include platoons of personnel off-site with full gear available and at ready response. As part of the Alternate plan, under the control of the Incident Commander and Operations Chief, a rapid response could have ended the Jan. 6 siege at the Capitol Building and may have saved the lives of those lost at the melee.

the perils of Hampering intelligence-gathering that aids situational awareness

Legislators across the country are seeking to separate cooperation between local law enforcement and federal agencies. One example ended cooperative agreements with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in some cities, where law enforcement officers were removed from the teams.

There may be severe consequences to the symbolic acts that hamper communication and information-sharing. These severed ties may have broken communications pipelines full of valuable information, including threats.

At the time of this article, it is not known what level of situational awareness there was about the protests on January 6, 2021, at the Capitol Building. Situational awareness ahead of the events may have given planners an idea of the number of demonstrators planning to attend the event by means of hotel room reservations, social media chatter, online posts and dialog from chat rooms. Civil libertarians oppose such monitoring. It is difficult to understand, with all of the resources available in Washington DC and the federal abilities to analyze data, by the JTTF, Fusion Centers and elsewhere, why the level of security was not significantly more formidable.

A planning example of a sporting event with attending dignitaries

While planning for America’s Cup sailing events on San Francisco Bay during 2010-2013, I was in the position of acquiring resources and support to police the event. The original estimate to provide safety and security, crowd and traffic control for the multiple-week event in multiple jurisdictions across five counties was approximately more than $20 million.

The event is held every four years on waters chosen by the Americas Cup committee in the country of the previous champion. The event arena was to be in the bay that touches the shores of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Tiburon, Sausalito and others. This included shoreline viewing, boats and vessels on the water of the San Francisco Bay, from the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Treasure Island, Angel Island and Alcatraz Island.

Landside areas were expected to be impacted with traffic, commerce, crowds and potential demonstrations ,and even the outside possibilities of terrorism. The idea that such an event with images of tremendous wealth and luxury on display in front of an international media audience might attract violence or terrorism was strongly evaluated. High-profile dignitaries, the media, celebrities, politicians and international heads of state were expected to attend.

The threat potential on an international stage set up my rationale to request support from the federal government by declaring the event as a National Special Security Event or a NSSE (often referred to at planning meetings as a “Nessy”). Ultimately, the request was considered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service, but it was denied.

In the end, ICS was used with a Unified Command of the San Francisco Police Department partnering with the US Coast Guard Golden Gate Command, and support from county DOCs and a central EOC in San Francisco. More than 25 marine vessels from five counties assisted with on-water control with a complement of law enforcement personnel, including the California Highway Patrol, local municipal agencies and sheriff’s departments. Additional federal assistance was coordinated through the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC).

NSSE consideration for public events with attending dignitaries

In 2000, Congress enacted the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000 to authorize the US Secret Service to be the primary contact to “…plan, coordinate and implement security operations at special events of national significance. These special events are designated National Special Security Events.” Examples of the criteria include presidential inaugurations, major international summits held in the US, major sporting events, and presidential nominating conventions. (See document below for more information).

Further, since its inception of 2003, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was given authority as the representative of the President to designate NSSE status for events that anticipated factors including “attendance by US officials and foreign dignitaries; the size of the event; the significance of the event” and others.

The annual fiscal appropriation in dollar amounts for NSSEs has been relatively low at approximately $5 million on average over the past eight years. The benefit to an agency and jurisdiction comes in the form of assistance with planning, management, personnel, technology, logistics and other resources:

NSSE operational plans include the use of physical infrastructure security fencing, barricades, special access accreditation badges, K-9 teams, and other security technologies. To ensure consequence management, DHS pre-positions Domestic Emergency Support Teams, Urban Search and Rescue Teams, National Emergency Response Teams, Nuclear Incident Response Teams, and assets from the Strategic National Stockpile and Mobile Emergency Response System. Specific teams and groupings of teams are designed for each event based on coordination with other federal entities, state and local jurisdictions, available local resources, and mutual aid agreements.12 Additionally, USSS sponsors training seminars for command-level federal, state, and local law enforcement and public safety officials to provide principles for managing security at major events and strategies for reducing vulnerabilities related to terrorism. The seminars also discuss key strategies and lessons learned from past NSSEs.”

In light of the Capitol Hill debacle, it would be prudent for agency leaders facing events that meet the threat threshold to consider applications far in advance of the event with the goal of enacting NSSE protocols for events scheduled. A standing daily operations order and 24/7 Emergency Operations Center (EOC) should be at the ready with a PACE plan in place over the course of the estimated Operational Time Period (OTP).

Chiefs, sheriffs and agencies hosting political-themed events should download the NSSE documents and make applications for additional resources as needed. In cases where cooperation with federal agencies for information gathering and sharing may be hampered or prohibited, a review of social media and other open-source materials are still good points of intelligence and situational awareness.

National Special Security Events Fact Sheet by epraetorian on Scribd

NEXT: Why law enforcement needs an incident action plan for every event

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.