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Managing the mass response

Six steps to balancing efficiency and safety when multiple officers converge on a scene


AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Most officers know what it’s like to work a call or traffic stop knowing backup is far away or non-existent, but what happens when dozens of cops converge on a hot call?

Many years ago I responded to a fatal crash that happened shortly after my shift ended, as did the other officers who were about to clock out. My chief turned down my overtime request. I was perplexed. My sergeant convinced the chief that “we needed all the help we could get” and I got the extra check. In that case, my sergeant was right, but in retrospect, the boss had every right to question whether I added value to the event.

Can there be too many officers on a scene? How should a mass response be managed? Here are six steps to follow to avoid mass confusion at a mass response.

1. Somebody give the order to stand down

Quickly establishing incident command can resolve potential coordination problems. There may be a point when additional units are no longer needed. The crowd is being monitored, the traffic is being controlled and the situation has been stabilized. Somebody in command will need to give the order for other responders to stand down, hold their position, or report to a staging area. Any officer involved in a crash running hot after a scene is secure would have a lot of explaining to do.

2. Assign meaningful roles

As assisting units arrive and the situation comes under orderly command, units need to be assigned to specific duties.

Ideally, a staging area will be identified to avoid clustering emergency units that may clog access to arriving EMS or other specialty teams that need access. Units at a staging area can respond as needed when there is a request for a ballistic shield, breaching tool, or less-than-lethal force tool that may be missing from the first units on the scene.

Getting traffic stopped or re-routed, managing and identifying bystanders who may be witnesses, setting up a perimeter for operational security, and other duties become necessary the larger the event and response. Officer safety extends beyond the epicenter of the event since bad guys can call for backup, too.

3. Everybody writes a supplement

Like any other crime scene, law enforcement must identify all involved persons. Even if the report is just a dispatch log entry or a note of time of arrival, nobody who responded should remain anonymous. A defendant, police monitor, or state statute may require all officers on a scene to submit their body camera videos. Any defense attorney worth their salt will pore over dispatch records to see if any responder present was not identified and weave a story of coverup or impediment to discovery.

4. Manage the traffic

I recall an officer who responded to a crash and began directing traffic around their patrol car. Their patrol unit was the only traffic impediment and the need to direct traffic would have been solved by him leaving the roadway. Sometimes the traffic snarls can be resolved by moving some emergency vehicles to allow traffic to normalize and self-regulate.

5. Establish rules for self-deployment

Many of the after-action reports on school shootings mention the issue of self-deployment. Agencies should establish protocols for off-duty response to incidents. In addition to complicating the management of the scene, officers arriving in shorts and sandals with no visible ID increase the risk of a blue-on-blue injury.

6. Tactical considerations

Remembering that officers are most familiar with single or small team responses it takes additional training and policy for large numbers of responders on such essentials as situational awareness to avoid cross-fire hazards, using one voice to give commands, getting on the right frequencies, and respecting unity of command should be incorporated in exercises.

The first responder community is magnanimous and heroic when the call goes out to help. Making that help effective is a professional responsibility.

Topics for discussion

1. How can police departments improve their protocols for managing large-scale responses, including the assignment of meaningful roles and the establishment of incident command?

2. What strategies could be implemented to ensure all officers and their actions are accounted for during a mass response?

3. How could additional training and policy development help officers better handle situational awareness, communication and other tactical considerations during large-scale emergency responses?

Police1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

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.