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Suffolk County's Crisis Action Team: a Mobile Field Force for the 21st century.

The riots in Los Angeles, California, in 1992 prompted the Suffolk County, New York, Police Department to review its existing disorder-control policies. This led to a decision to implement the Mobile Field Force, a concept pioneered by the Metro-Dade, Florida, Police Department in the 1980s. (1) In 1993, two Suffolk County lieutenants visited the agency and acquired a great deal of information about disorder control.

The system centers on rapidly mobilizing personnel from disparate commands into a unified, organized, highly effective disorder-control unit. Commanded by a lieutenant, the field force has six to eight individual squads, each comprised of a sergeant and seven officers, that respond as a highly disciplined and cohesive disorder-control force. The Suffolk County Police Academy informed recruits about the concept during their initial training and offered courses for newly promoted sergeants at its supervision school. Additionally, the department provided in-service classes for volunteers, both officers and sergeants, interested in becoming field-force trained. The department also acquired the necessary equipment for the newly formed Mobile Field Force, as well as a van for storage and transportation.

Fortunately, Suffolk County, similar to most American communities, did not experience a lot of civil unrest and the field force was not needed for that purpose. Instead, the department adapted the mobilization and leadership concepts for various large, personnel-intensive events wherein officers from many commands worked together, such as sniper patrols, forest fires, an airliner crash, and the mutual-aid response to New York City after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The initial training proved adequate, but, as time passed and the Los Angeles riots faded into history, officers and supervisors received little additional training and few exercises were conducted. While the field-force concept was sound, the continued implementation dwindled, primarily due to the lack of an ongoing training program and poor equipment quality.

After September 11, the New York City Police Department invited officers from the Suffolk County Police Department and representatives from surrounding agencies to participate in the New York Metropolitan Counterterrorism Incident Response Committee. One of the first assignments given to all of the agencies was to conduct an after-action review of their mutual-aid response to New York City and to supply the results to the committee. Among the many positive elements that came out of this process was the formation of the Field Force Review Committee to examine the status of Suffolk County's Mobile Field Force. The committee looked at the concept both within the department, the primary law enforcement agency for five of the western townships with several independent town and village departments serving subsets of citizens, and throughout the entire county, comprised of a total of 10 townships located on the eastern end of Long Island with a population of close to 1.5 million. (2)

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THE REVIEW

When the committee began its review process, the department considered over 1,000 of its officers as field-force trained and equipped. The department believed that it would benefit from having such a large number of officers trained because it could mobilize a field force from on-duty personnel with minimal overtime costs. Despite these perceived advantages, the department faced a major dilemma. Could it successfully train and sufficiently equip over 1,000 officers for their newly expanded roles involving both the traditional civil unrest control responsibility coupled with the new homeland security onus?

As the review process progressed, the realization that the September 11 attacks had forever altered police work was beginning to sink in. Reacting to the times, law enforcement personnel intensified their commitment to prepare for a potential response to attacks against America involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Civil unrest could be coupled easily with or caused by an attack of this nature. Was the department's training and equipment up to the task? (3)

THE CONCEPT

After much debate, the department opted for a smaller, well-equipped, and highly trained force. As a period of transition would occur, the department felt that it should differentiate between the new force and the old Mobile Field Force. Hence, the Crisis Action Team (CAT) was born. The department decided to purchase up-to-date, reliable equipment and to conduct the best training possible, coupled with frequent refresher training and exercises. After all, how could it expect a group to remain unified and well-disciplined without continual training? CAT personnel would receive training in conventional field-force techniques combined with WMD.

The CAT concept fills a void between sector patrol officers and specialized sworn personnel in the department's Emergency Service Section. Consisting of about 40 people, this section includes the department's SWAT, hazardous materials response, and technical rescue units, along with its bomb squad. While this requires a great deal of training initially, it proves beneficial when it comes to providing homeland security. Whereas some police departments may have needed to increase cooperation between their bomb squads and hazardous materials units to prepare for the threat of a dirty bomb, Suffolk County had these capabilities combined in one unit. Multifaceted threats became a little less challenging because officers were multidisciplined and crosstrained.

The CAT concept allows these specialists to concentrate their efforts on jobs that require the advanced level of training that they possess. As a force multiplier, CAT adds depth to the department because it provides an intermediate level of trained people. Specialists can be quickly depleted, especially when required to work at a task below their level of training. As in the previous Mobile Field Force, street officers pulled from the seven precincts and marine and highway patrol bureaus would comprise CAT. The department specifically did not include highly specialized personnel from its Special Patrol Bureau to keep them at the jobs requiring their advanced skills and abilities. But, having command staff from these specialized areas involved in the setup and oversight of CAT proves invaluable because they fully grasp the limitations of this concept and its associated training. These individuals can keep CAT from exceeding its appropriate roles and responsibilities. CAT is not a SWAT team, a bomb squad, or a hazardous materials response unit, but, rather, a group that allows personnel from these entities to work more effectively and efficiently.

Personnel

The department decided that CAT personnel would receive refresher training in conventional Mobile Field Force concepts to bring everyone up to the same competence level, regardless of when the academy had initially trained them. It instructed precincts to select their best personnel for assignment to CAT. The Field Force Review Committee recommended that training and equipment be given only to enough people to staff three complete field forces, about 56 people for each. The department attempted to equally divide these individuals among the precincts and squads to ensure the best possible availability of personnel at all times. During the initial 2-day training courses, students learned about the field force's newly expanded role and that it would be a strictly volunteer duty. Having a wholly volunteer force comprised of interested and motivated personnel constitutes a huge asset.

Equipment

New equipment purchases began, including air purifying respirators (APRs), basic duty uniforms, high-quality boots, and protective helmets with face shields capable of closing over the new APRs. The department replaced all of the metal insignia with embroidered patches as an added safety precaution. CAT supervisors decided to augment riot shields with blunt-force body armor, both for added protection and its imposing appearance. The focus shifted more toward officer safety than ever before.

A new trailer replaced the old field-force van. CAT supervisors felt that a trailer would require far less maintenance than a vehicle and be more reliable, even after long idle periods. Extensively customized, the trailer contains a generator, a heating and air conditioning unit, shelving, and a work station to enable its use as a remote command post.

Training

Because CAT would have an expanded role as a homeland security prevention and response team, much additional training would prove necessary. All supervisors of the rank of lieutenant or higher attended a course for hazardous materials technicians and numerous other antiterrorism and WMD classes. Some supervisors also completed instructor development training to acquire the proper certification to instruct fellow CAT personnel.

As an additional margin of safety, two officers from each of the three squads became COBRA officers, a concept based upon these officers obtaining advanced training so that they can serve as safety officers and advisors for their respective squads. (4) Like the supervisors, the COBRA officers also instruct their fellow CAT members. Having CAT personnel serve as instructors offers a twofold benefit: 1) other team members have greater confidence in these officers' skills, knowledge, and abilities during field deployments and 2) serving as instructors reinforces the material learned and keeps these personnel current. Moreover, it makes the team independent and self-reliant, thereby not depleting assets from other specialized commands during CAT training. Also, the team can schedule and implement its own training at the most beneficial times because it does not depend on the availability of outside instructors.

Once most of the supervisors and COBRA officers received their training, it came time to prepare the rest of the personnel. This included a variety of courses, such as basic instruction in the use and limitations of the APR mask under field conditions, a 1-hour block on improvised explosive devices, the opportunity to drive the emergency vehicle operations circuit while wearing an APR, and individual training for a few selected personnel on the gas grenade launcher.

The idea of training officers to operate a vehicle while wearing an APR came from participating in several homeland security exercises. One involved using a bus to move officers from the staging area to the drill site after they had donned their masks. While this proved adequate for the exercise, the department did not want officers to hesitate to drive while wearing a mask if it became necessary during an actual incident.

Training for all CAT personnel in awareness-level courses will be ongoing and include several on homeland security issues. Those designated as shotgun officers attended a specific 1-day tactical shotgun course. It included firing the weapon while wearing an APR, which was an eye opener for many officers unfamiliar with the process. Most found it very challenging just to sight and aim the firearm with the mask in place. They soon realized why the department chose an APR that offered three filter attachment points when they had to relocate the filter to the other side of the mask to properly sight their weapons.

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CAT training is open to allied law enforcement agencies because of the benefits inherent in sharing training with others, both on an individual and an agency basis. Individually, officers from other departments generally leave better prepared to deal with crisis situations they may personally encounter. On an agencywide basis, officers return home with an idea of what Suffolk County is doing, which proves useful in preparing their own organizations to deal with crisis situations and also in coordinating efforts whenever work is performed together. The team also benefits from this interagency cooperation by culling innovative ideas from other agencies. The department has found that the more exposure it has to what others are doing, the better it can gauge and adapt the effectiveness of what it is doing. Quite often, the adage of not reinventing the wheel works well. Simply seeking out and borrowing someone else's best practices, much as the department did with the Mobile Field Force, proves extremely helpful.

Enhancements

Training and equipment enhancements continue. CAT always will be a work in progress, as it should be. When it comes to responding to a WMD incident, an agency never can be fully prepared, but it can be better prepared. Through a liaison with the department's intelligence component, CAT remains informed of recent trends in civil unrest and homeland security issues, which it can use to adapt training and equipment to best prepare and protect its personnel.

The team has deployed a few times but, consistent with the prior use of the Mobile Field Force, not always at the standard complement of 56 officers. Therefore, the department developed the concept of a mini-CAT, one or more squads of officers utilized for specialized assignments because of their advanced training. These were employed at the 2004 U.S. Golf Open in Southampton, during the Republican National Convention, and when the President visited Suffolk County.

A BROADER USE

Once the Field Force Review Committee examined the department's use of the Mobile Field Force, it turned its attention to the other agencies in the county. The review committee recognized that during most large scale incidents, a certain amount of self-dispatch and self-response occurs among first responders, which can cause confusion and, at times, hamper operations. Realizing this and the fact that the only official mutual-aid request from New York City to Suffolk County after September 11 had come to the Suffolk County Police Department, the committee thought that a more coordinated response should be developed. An assortment of law enforcement organizations within Suffolk County agreed to form the Suffolk Coordinated Law Enforcement Response Group (SCLERG), which facilitates all law enforcement agencies within the county to respond as one unified assemblage. The format used to bring these diversified personnel together was the tried and tested Mobile Field Force. Most officers had attended the Suffolk County Academy where many received instruction in field-force mobilization procedures and became familiar with the command and control aspects. SCLERG responds both internally to handle issues within the county and also externally as a mutual-aid resource. It serves as a way to mobilize a large number of patrol personnel for a general law enforcement assignment and is not intended specifically for civil unrest control. All participating agencies act as equal partners, providing whatever assets they can spare and sharing command and control responsibilities.

SCLERG has held several drills, starting with simply mobilizing personnel and progressing to a mock mutual-aid response outside the county. At present, 29 federal, state, county, town, and village organizations participate in SCLERG. Several departments have successfully commanded the overall force during previous drills, and personnel from a variety of agencies have smoothly integrated into the group. These drills and exercises have served to reintroduce and reinforce the adapted field-force concept and have assisted in overcoming numerous issues, not the least of which was interoperable communications. The SCLERG concept also has transcended the drills and improved the everyday coordination and cooperation between these agencies.

SCLERG has benefitted both the Suffolk County Police Department and all of the allied agencies. The department now can share the burden of a protracted deployment, both for personnel and equipment, and can access specialized equipment, such as refueling trucks and large buses owned by the sheriff's department, that it does not possess. All of the allied agencies have the ability to officially participate in an effective way during a large mobilization. The effort has eliminated self-response from within the law enforcement ranks of Suffolk County. Any external agency requesting mutual aid from Suffolk County law enforcement organizations now will obtain help from one unified force with interoperable communications and preestablished command and control. Suffolk County law enforcement personnel will arrive prepared to effectively go to work immediately.

CONCLUSION

The Crisis Action Team has made the Suffolk County Police Department better prepared for both civil unrest situations and homeland security responsibilities. Employing an all-hazards approach, the team offers great utility and flexibility for responding to both man-made and naturally occurring events. The concept of training patrol officers to a higher level has an added benefit. These officers, spread throughout the precincts, provide additional protection on a daily basis while they go about their normal duties. Undoubtedly, they also will share some of their acquired knowledge with their coworkers. The CAT concept has given the department a reliable, flexible, and effective method to mobilize trained personnel in a timely fashion.

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CAT is both proactive and reactive as it serves to prevent, detect, deter, and mitigate the myriad of threats facing Suffolk County in the 21st century. Moreover, when used in conjunction with specialized emergency service personnel and the Suffolk Coordinated Law Enforcement Response Group, it offers an excellent overall response matrix. In short, specialized emergency service officers can focus on the epicenter, CAT personnel can secure the perimeter, and SCLERG participants can handle all other necessary law enforcement duties.

Endnotes

(1) Charles Rappleye, "Fear Itself Keeping Democracy Safe from the Streets," LA Weekly, August 17, 2000.

(2) A combination of the New York State Police and several town and village departments serve the five eastern townships. With the exception of New York State Police personnel, the Suffolk County Police Academy trained most of these officers.

(3) One of the first things the department did was examine all of the field-force respirators. When it issued these, the worst potential result of a mask failure would have involved officers receiving a face full of riot control agent and the necessity to back off the skirmish line. Suddenly, no acceptable failure rate existed because inadequate protection in a toxic WMD environment could have far graver consequences. Qualified personnel examined these masks and found that some had expired filters and others were torn or dry-rotted. This was not the equipment that the department wanted for its personnel. It recalled all of the masks and sought reliable, high-quality replacements.

(4) COBRA refers to chemical, ordnance, biological, and radiological issues and signifies that these individuals have received enhanced WMD training to act as safety officers and technical advisors.

Deputy Inspector Cameron commands the Special Patrol Bureau of the Suffolk County, New York, Police Department.
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Author:Cameron, Stuart K.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:2930
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