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IACP Quick Take: Learning from the ‘critical incidents’ of 2020

Panelists shared lessons learned, leading practices and cutting-edge approaches that can assist agencies in dealing with unplanned critical incidents


LAPD Chief Michel Moore noted that his entire department was put on call for the first time in 30 years in addition to LAPD’s specialized units.

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Among the lessons of 2020 – and there are depressingly too many – is how law enforcement deals with civil unrest. Even in that sentence lies the seeds of potential discontent.

Labeling what we imagine from the televised images or first-person experience as merely civil unrest could be viewed as a decidedly euphemistic characterization. The word riot also inflames those who wanted to be part of a peaceful, passionate protest and ended up on the scene of degrading violence and property damage.

Invoking the treasured and constitutionally protected freedom to assemble, speak and seek redress of grievances is noble, but too often used to justify dangerous mob action that strays from legal protection and crosses the line to criminality. We defer here, then, to the police language of “critical incident.”

At the IACP virtual conference, I tuned into a panel discussion moderated by IACP President Cynthia Renaud with expert discussion of critical incident response in the backdrop of last year’s long series of protests and civil unrest.

Renaud was joined by:

  • Todd Axtell, Chief of Police, St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Vince Hawkes, Director, IACP
  • Colonel Matt Langer, Minnesota State Patrol Chief
  • Michel Moore, Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department
  • Katie Nelson, IACP’s PIO Section Head and Mountain View (California) Police Department PIO

Why these protests were different

A central focus of the discussion was the uniqueness of the theme of the disturbances of the last year or more which was that the protests were not just a matter of law enforcement concern but were about law enforcement.

Langer noted that where the protest is about police oppression that creates a shift in the dynamic and tenor of the incident and the perception of the police response. Hawkes noted that the police were criticized both for their response and their perceived lack of response by citizens affected on both sides.

Chief Moore commented on changing their tactics as they learned from experience. The current strategy is to have a minimal footprint with the capacity to bring in officers where needed in a “tiered” approach. This provides more opportunities to de-escalate and redeploy. He noted that his entire department was put on call for the first time in 30 years in addition to LAPD’s specialized units. He used “shadow teams” of undercover officers to identify and isolate agitators. He emphasized that those officers were not deployed to gain intelligence information but to identify bad actors.

Police1 resource: Report details LAPD response during 2020 protests

Unified command and mutual aid

Panelists noted that few agencies, even when deploying assisting agencies, have the capacity for a quick response that LA and New York have. This means that interagency communication is essential. This includes knowing other agencies’ use of force and other relevant policies that may be in conflict with that of the host agency. The level of training and equipment that assisting agencies may possess might require that the use of the additional manpower be focused on fixed post duties and assisting with the normal call load, rather than being thrown into the front lines of confrontation.

The use of unified command must include cooperation with fire, EMS, public utilities, and a host of other public or private entities including faith groups and relief agencies who might be drawn into the event. Maintaining contact with supervisors and commanders across agencies and deployment areas is also essential. Briefings should include plans, contingency plans, information about the nature of the protest and what resources are available. Chief Moore emphasized the value of commanders knowing each other personally ahead of a mutual aid event.

Training and munitions

All the panelists lamented the lack of tools and munitions available for critical incidents. Moore described his agency’s attempts to have target-specific force application. This means that a projectile or chemical would be used against a specific threat to avoid injury to innocent participants in the protest. LAPD determined, for example, that the limited effective range of a bean bag round negated their predictability and use from crowd control, in addition to stopping the use of aerosol pepper spray as well.

PIO expert Katie Nelson stressed the need for early, preemptive and frequent communication. Communication and establishing relationships with the citizenry, businesses and protest organizers can help reduce tensions. Information releases about a known event before it happens can help frame the narrative and set the public’s expectations.

The police executives emphasized the need for ongoing training on perishable skills for the “high risk/low frequency” events that require unique tactics, gear, munitions and rules of engagement, including interagency training.

Police1 resource: 10 current violations of crowd control protocols and what to do about them

Communication is key before, during and after

Chief Axtel noted that front-end communication with the community and politicians can help them more accurately interpret police activity. Educating the community can include inviting them to training and educating them on the realities of crowd dynamics, legal constraints on use of force, and tools and tactics to be used.

Nelson realizes that many agencies do not have a full-time, well-trained public information officer, but emphasized that learning through “trial by fire” in critical incidents is not acceptable. She advocated keeping abreast of the situation by releasing any available, appropriate information can help steer the narrative and avoid information gaps that will be filled by others who are speaking out. Flashes of video and viral social media pronouncements should be monitored to create an accurate narrative and response. “The longer you go without sharing information, the greater the risk of losing the driver’s seat of the narrative,” said Nelson.

Police1 resource: 10 keys to managing the narrative of a critical incident captured on body camera

In summary, Col. Langer noted that law enforcement’s role in keeping civil discourse alive and well is to prevent the violence that prevents that discourse.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.