5 reminders for police command post operations following Ferguson

Planning is critical to success in establishing a command post, so take a look around your world and consider your options


As more than a thousand marchers approached the perimeter armed with Molotov cocktails, bottles, and bricks, I wondered how orange cones, yellow tape, and single officer units could safely protect the hundreds of police vehicles and personnel assigned to assist in the Ferguson riots. 

As I heard the popping of tear gas deploying and the rumble of the helicopter overhead, I listened to commanders on scene ordering officers to tighten up the line. With the proper equipment and manpower, police were able to hold the perimeter, turn back the mob, and avoid the images of a hundred overturned and burning police cars that I’d imagined in a worst case scenario.

No space is likely to meet all of the challenges of defensible and functional space for a command post. Commanders in Ferguson took over a section of an outdoor mall with plenty of parking lot and empty office space. Planning is critical to success in establishing a command post, so take a look around your world and consider your options. 

1. Redundancy
If you have only one CP planned — perhaps a nicely equipped and secure building like New York City's 2001 World Trade Center emergency operations location — don't count on it without a back-up plan. 

A magnetic attraction to the scene of an event often gets a CP located near the action when it should be as far away as practical. The Ferguson CP was located a distance from the epicenter of violence which allowed time to react to the marching mob before it was too late. 

Scout multiple options now to avoid making a decision — under duress — on where to place your CP. 

And have a “Plan B” even after choosing a location, just in case a move becomes prudent. 

2. Space
The demand for parking of police cars, multiple mobile command posts, and specialty vehicles grew an acre or more as additional mutual aid began arriving into Ferguson from agencies as far as an hour away from north St. Louis County. 

As the perimeter grows, assets required to defend it must be increased at a time when front line needs are likely already stressed. Short term space for supplies must also be secure, since sensitive items arrive that would normally be kept in vaults or secured areas back home. 

Ask what supplies would be vulnerable if the CP were breached, as well as what safe space exists for unarmed personnel at the CP such as chaplains, paramedics, and reporters in the media staging area who will expect protection. Don't assume that friendly operations like disaster relief are immune from infiltration.

3. Defensibility
In today's environment, even a benevolent CP for natural disasters or public events is a potential target for hate groups and terrorism (?). Security at any known gathering of police officers should now be standard planning. Staffing and physical barriers should be mission appropriate. 

Keeping entry points far enough from the heart of the CP will give a time over distance disadvantage to groups, individuals, or vehicles with ill intent. Credential checking should be accepted by everyone entering without resistance or grumbling. 

Perimeter assignments are often intimidating to line officers who don't want to annoy all of the important people coming in and out of the area. 

Security is never convenient, so their mission should be clear and supported throughout the chain of command. Signing in and out is a hassle, but having a roster of who is inside the boundaries is a good idea. Posting a spotter on high ground watching the entire area can be an effective early warning system.

4. Communication
Most agencies have gotten a good handle on interoperable radio communications. The "riot channels" in St. Louis County seemed be effective in keeping squads assigned to the field in good communication. However, the more agencies involved, the more likely that individual officers will fall out of the information loop. 

Signs showing reporting areas and resources within the compound as officers arrive will reduce confusion for new troops.  

Messages to assisting officers before they leave their own jurisdiction about their mission can create efficiencies on-scene. Some assisting officers at Ferguson arrived lacking critical personal protective gear for the mission and were surprised that there was no equipment already there for them. 

5. Respite
Some events — like storm clean-up — have a reasonably predictable operational cycle. 

This event in Ferguson did not. 

Lounge areas for safe rest, natural peer support, quiet space for family phone calls, and other amenities can help extend the mental endurance of officers facing long, stressful shifts. 

Thinking about CP locations can be a great roll call exercise, especially since often by default the first responding officer often establishes the location on rapidly developing events.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has 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 bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty 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.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

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