How a City With Two Dozen Law Enforcement Agencies Handles a Huge Crisis

The Navy Yard attack was an example of D.C.'s complex jurisdictional landscape.

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REUTERS

There are roughly 27 law enforcement agencies with overlapping jurisdiction in Washington, D.C. To the casual observer, opportunities for confusion and miscommunication, especially during events like the Navy Yard shooting, probably seem infinite. Yet there were no "mission critical failures" when agencies responded to alleged gunman Aaron Alexis's rampage on September 16, says Chris Geldart, the director of D.C.'s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

The agencies that initially responded to the Navy Yard shooting—D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department, the FBI, the National Park Police, and the Capitol Police, among others—worked together almost seamlessly, largely thanks to the amount of time officers spend training with each other. "Not only do you all know the same procedures," Geldart says, "You probably know the guy from the other agency."

In a phone interview Geldart described a degree of cross-agency collaboration unique to D.C. Officers and agents from the MPD, the Park and Capitol Police, the FBI, the Federal Protective Service, and the Secret Service (to name a few) meet and train weekly. D.C. residents see the product of this cross-training more often than they realize.

Every time a presidential motorcade races through the city, that's D.C. police working with federal agencies; the same goes for "suspicious package" reports, presidential inaugurations, and events held on the National Mall. "The planning for those things and the execution is hand in hand with Capitol Police, Federal Protective Services, MPD, and others," Geldart said. "Weekly I have every federal agency you can think of in my building planning for events that are coming up."

They're also planning for events they can't foresee, like active shooter situations. While Geldart couldn't speak to the specifics of the Navy Yard shooting, which is still being investigated, he said the same protocol was used during the shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in June 2009.

"Dispatch gets the 911 call saying shots have been heard or fired, and the closest police units respond. Park Police gets a call as well and they show up too," Geldart says. Those earliest responders, no matter their rank, are responsible for setting up an "Incident Command System," which the Department of Homeland Security describes as an "incident management approach" that:

  • Allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure.
  • Enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and functional agencies, both public and private.
  • Establishes common processes for planning and managing resources.

Every law enforcement agency in D.C. knows how to set up an ICS, according to Geldart. As representatives from more agencies begin to show up, the responders rely on interoperable radio systems to keep everyone on the same page. These radios allow users to talk across agencies, though Geldart did say that Navy Yard police were not able to communicate via radio with people outside the building (Congress is looking into this claim, as well as a report that Capitol Police were told to stand down). Interviews and intelligence gathered by various agents, largely from witness and survivor interviews, is relayed to the ICS through the radios, and then vetted. (Geldart believes much of the misinformation reported on the day of the shooting wouldn't have been reported if journalists had relied on the ICS instead of individual officers.) 

Geldart also noted that the Navy Yard response went "beyond" law enforcement. "There were so many people at Navy Yard, reuniting families at Navy Yard was its own whole operation." The Nationals baseball team allowed HSEMA to use the stadium parking lot as a staging area to connect families and survivors, and later agreed to postpone that night's game when the agency said it wouldn't reopen all the nearby streets that evening. ("The Nationals didn’t like it, of course, but they understood," Geldart says.)

While HSEMA has determined there were no "mission critical failures" in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, Geldart believes the agency has room for improvement. "We could have better communication with people who live in the surrounding area. Alerts went out, but we could improve that," he said.

But at the end of the day, everything and everyone worked like it was supposed to. "That sidewalk is my jurisdiction, the street is yours, and the crosswalk is somebody else’s—that all goes away in an event like this."

Top image: Members of various law enforcement agencies are pictured at the Washington Navy Yard campus in Washington, September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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