Integrating Law Enforcement & Emergency Management

Federal, state, and local law enforcement, with a focus on combating criminal activity, is well aligned with homeland security initiatives. The attacks of 9/11 exposed the need for local law enforcement to increase its role in anti-terrorism activities. In the United States, there are 18,000 local police agencies and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 780,000 police officers and detectives in 2012, compared to 13,260 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. Hence, it was a natural progression to engage local law enforcement in the war on terrorism. However, Jeff Rojek and Michael R. Smith from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of South Carolina reported in 2007 that empirical and practitioner literature has been deficient in describing the role of law enforcement in emergency management as relates to disaster response and agency experiences.

In the United States, local communities are more likely to be affected by a natural or manmade disaster than an act of terrorism. When a disaster occurs, an inappropriate response by law enforcement can place the officers and the community in greater danger such as in the case of a hazardous materials discharge. Patrol officers often are the first response personnel at the scene of any natural or manmade disaster and must have the requisite skills to make an assessment, perform rescue operations, maintain perimeter integrity, and ensure scene containment until additional support arrives. Therefore, it is imperative that local law enforcement agencies and their personnel become an integral part of emergency management within the communities they serve.

A Paradigm Shift

Historically, law enforcement has leaned toward reactionary and incident-based responses. Officers generally waited to be dispatched to calls for service; and there was minimal community engagement beyond responding to calls. This mode of operation has slowly changed over time with the increased acceptance of community-oriented policing (COPS) by law enforcement administrators. Jose Docobo, chief deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, found in his 2005 research that COPS involves decentralized problem solving, community engagement, fixed geographic and general responsibilities, and organization decentralization. These tenets can be adopted to better integrate law enforcement and emergency management.

During a critical incident, decentralized decision-making is crucial for a successful response and resolution. There may not be time to seek confirmation or direction through the chain-of-command, or all channels of communication may be disabled. For example, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many police officers became isolated with no means of communication.

Community engagement facilitates a “whole community” approach to emergency management, with citizens playing many roles during and after a disaster. In addition, if relationships have been established, community partners that are in tune to the needs of their communities can provide valuable information to law enforcement during a disaster. Police officers assigned to fixed geographical areas also are more likely to build an awareness of community members with special medical, mobility, and even psychological needs. By having such relationships with community members, law enforcement officers are able to maximize their efforts and assist persons with these special needs.

Training & Education: Precursor to Planning

Rudimentary law enforcement training takes place through two main venues – basic law enforcement academies and academic programs. However, there are problems with both of these training venues in terms of providing an orientation into emergency management. Academic degree programs in criminal justice may follow the guidelines of The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. This organization’s certification standards for College/University Criminal Justice/Criminology Baccalaureate Degree Program criteria identify seven core content areas inclusive of administration of justice, corrections, criminological theory, law adjudication, law enforcement, research, and analytic methods.

None of these content areas mentions emergency management or homeland security and their parallel relationship to law enforcement. The guideline encourages curriculum developers to add elective courses to these academic programs in the areas of diversity and ethics. However, there is no recommendation for infusing emergency management and homeland security content into these programs, either through the offering of electives or directly into the core content areas.

Allison T. Chappell, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University, stated in a 2008 research paper that 90 percent of basic law enforcement academy training is spent on task-oriented training such as defensive tactics, pursuit driving, firearm qualifications, and mechanics of arrest. She further stated that only three percent of training is focused on cognitive and decision-making scenarios, reasoning, and applications. Task-driven methods have limited application to emergency management due to the mechanical nature entailed in following “procedures.” Conversely, training in scenario decision-making places police officers in the mindset of “what if?” reasoning, which promotes critical thinking. Critical thinking encourages problem solving through innovation. Innovation builds resilience capacity – the ability to bounce back. In the end, the application of scenario-based decision making, sound reasoning, and critical thinking provides police officers with the competencies to more effectively respond to disasters.

Due to the permanent and diverse deployment of law enforcement, they are a primary agency to first arrive at the scene of an unexpected disaster, according to Rojek and Smith. Basic academy training must be revamped to give police officers the skill sets they need to plan for, respond to, and recover from disasters along with their traditional crime-fighting skills. Criminal justice academic programs, although required to be general in nature to cover all aspects of the criminal justice system, should be more inclusive of emergency management courses for awareness purposes. If a disaster results from an act of terrorism, almost all aspects of the criminal justice may come into play. Law enforcement, adjudication, corrections, and probation/parole will all be involved.

Planning & Coordinating

Major disasters often involve the activation of several law enforcement jurisdictions, which can create coordination issues. This underscores the importance of having emergency operation plans and statewide mutual-aid agreements in place before a disaster strikes. It is not enough to rely on the emergency operation plan that has been developed by the local emergency management agency with a reference to law enforcement in Emergency Support Function #13 – Public Safety and Security. Each law enforcement agency should have an emergency operations plan specific to its department, its operations, and its jurisdiction, with agencies testing these plans through exercises and updating them accordingly.

In addition to an emergency operations plan, departments should have in place a continuity of operations plan. A situation may arise where a continuity of operations plan becomes more vital than an emergency operations plan at the onset of a disaster. For instance, it would be very difficult for a department to implement the emergency operation plan if its headquarters is underwater, with records destroyed, communication nonexistent, and vehicles washed away. The first order of business will be determining an alternative location (continuity facility) for a base of operation. It may be necessary to cease operations and turn over law enforcement authority to another law enforcement agency such as the Sheriff’s Department or state police (devolution). If operations are able to continue or quickly resume, the time will come to bring things back to a state of normalcy (reconstitution) or the “new norm.”

Law enforcement is already integrated into emergency management because, whether an incident involves a hazardous material chemical spill, downed power lines and trees from a tornado, or an act of terrorism, law enforcement often arrives at an incident scene before other response personnel. To be effectively integrated, law enforcement has to be properly trained, equipped, and with plans in place to build capacity for effective disaster response. Using the COPS mindset will help ensure involvement from the whole community during the phases of disaster planning and response.

Lewis Eakins
Lewis Eakins

Lewis Eakins, CPP, has over 30 years of law enforcement, private investigations, and security consulting experience. He currently serves as the chief of police and director of public safety at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, where he also teaches Introduction to Emergency Management. He formerly served as the assistant chief of police at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, and as a captain with the METRO Transit Police in the same city. He began his law enforcement career as a reserve police officer with the Huntsville Police Department. He has an M.S. degree in Security Management from Bellevue University. He is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation in Homeland Security Policy & Coordination at Walden University and can be contacted at



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