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Multi-agency SWAT callouts: Who's In charge?

Some say chiefs and sheriffs should not even be at the scene of SWAT actions, but that is wishful thinking and not happening in the real world

Once upon a time there was a gunman barricaded in a liquor store which sat on the border between the cities of Hog Patch and Fog Patch within the county of Dog Patch. A command post was set up and manned by the regional SWAT team commander, Sgt. I. Don Ho. He was ably orchestrating the response as he watched one of his trained negotiators — Deputy Costello — skillfully establish a rapport with the gunman, when Sheriff Howe of the Dog Patch Sheriff’s Department strode into the command post.

Howe said, “I’m taking over. Ho I want you on the perimeter.”

After a passionate discussion, Ho relented to the sheriff and headed out onto the perimeter. As Ho left, Chief Waat of Fog Patch entered, followed by Chief Wu of Hog Patch. Another argument about jurisdiction and command ensued, and Wu determined that he would set up a command post in his jurisdiction on First Street, while Waat decided to set up another on Second Street. Sheriff Howe shortly became bored in his empty command post and abruptly took over negotiations from Officer Costello.

Who’s In Command?
As Costello sat shaking his head, wondering to himself what had just happened, Sergeant Abbot, the regional SWAT team’s team leader entered the command post and asked, “Who’s in charge?”

“Wu’s on First,” replied Costello.

“No, what’s the name of the person in charge?” clarified Abbot.

“No Waat’s on Second,” answered Costello.

Just then, the sheriff slammed down the phone and exclaimed, “The suspect hung up on me!”

Abbot turned to look at the sheriff, and with a puzzled look asked Costello — who Abbot knew to be the team’s chief negotiator — “Why is he negotiating?”

“Howe?” asked Costello?

“No Why?” repeated Abbot.

Just then their conversation was interrupted by a voice which crackled on the radio, “We have the suspect in custody on the perimeter.”

In a startled voice Sheriff Howe asked, “I want the name of the man on the radio.”

“I. Don Ho,” answered both Abbot and Costello, familiar with the voice of their team’s officer in charge.

“You don’t know? Doesn’t anyone know what’s going on around this place? Who’s in charge?” demanded the sheriff.

“Wu’s on First,” answered Costello…

Okay, Seriously...
“Who’s in charge?” seems to be a question asked again and again at some of the hottest and most dangerous scenes around the country. While an incident is in progress is not the time to have the discussion. This needs to be worked out in advance. Especially when command issues are complicated even more by a multi-jurisdictional responses, it is imperative that the question, “Who’s in charge,” is answered before the incident occurs.

When it comes to SWAT, the overall authority for all tactical decisions at the scenes to which they are called, should be placed in the hands of the officer in charge of the team at the scene, regardless of rank. The officer In charge of the team should have a clear chain of command in place for occasions at which they are not present. The officer in charge trains with the team and knows each member’s capabilities as well as the team’s capabilities. Too often, chiefs and sheriffs want to assign responsibility after an event, but find it difficult to relinquish their authority to subordinates during an event.

Some say chiefs and sheriffs should not even be at the scene of SWAT actions, but that is wishful thinking and not happening in the real world. When a chief or sheriff does arrive at a command post of an in progress SWAT event, they should take a deep breath and tell themselves, “These are the people I have chosen, whom I have had trained and placed my faith and trust in. I must let them work.”

If these issues are still unresolved in the areas where you will find yourself operating in the future, now is the time to sit down with all involved and answer the question unequivocally, “Anytime, anywhere our SWAT Team is called, who is going to be in charge?”

Remember the words of Sun Tzu, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.”

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