It’s a slow night in town. Everyone is making their own work in the absence of calls, running LIDAR or catching up on paperwork, or maybe doing some community policing. Perhaps you’re driving around on patrol, eyes and ears open for what might otherwise be unseen, or maybe you’re just trying to stave off boredom at the hands of the “Q” word (whose name shall never be spoken in this blog.)
Suddenly, a hot or interesting call comes in. Doesn’t matter what it is – shooting, robbery in progress, vehicle pursuit, squirrels breaking into the local bank – it’s something, and it beats doing “nothing,” so you and everyone else on the shift within a reasonable distance of the call decide to head over to check it out and help. Maybe you tell your dispatcher that you’re going, maybe you don’t (hint: if your dispatcher doesn’t know where you are, neither does the ambulance.)
Suddenly, there are enough cruisers on scene to arrest the same individual multiple times over (take turns?) and therein lies a gigantic danger-factor increase that we must take a serious look at. So let’s talk about what happens as a result.
When More Isn’t Better
We all know from the Academy about the concept of contact-and-cover during a felony stop. One officer makes contact while the other provides cover in case things go sideways – a clear delineation of roles that allows us to each perform a specific set of tasks, because we each understand what we are supposed to do.
But what happens if you suddenly have 10 guys on scene? Are they all going to approach from a safe angle, or are you going to find that since they came from multiple places, some of them are converging from the other side, putting themselves in a crossfire pattern? What about the question of who does what – do you think that the contact-and-cover roles are still going to remain as clear when suddenly you have 8 more guys on scene who want to act because that’s what they’ve been trained to do?
The latter might work okay if you have a controlled scene, but if the brown stuff truly hits the fan, all that is going out the window. It’s nobody’s fault – the simple truth is that if that happens, you’re not going to be able to adequately communicate to each other because you will be too busy reacting. Unlike a public order platoon or other “planned mass response,” these unplanned multiple-officer responses often don’t have clear rules of engagement, either, because the threat is unknown and oftentimes not observable until the last second.
As we’ve seen in many unfortunate examples, the result of the decentralization of a response, and the attendant confusion, is that people may be shot who were not the intended targets, or other adverse consequences may arise out of the incident, because the crowd mentality reduces awareness of the actual level of action needed... in part, because we tend to go with what the guy next to us is doing.
The other side to this argument is, of course, that nobody “really” knows how many officers will be required to respond to a particular call – but that’s the reason why dispatchers exist and why they are so highly trained. There will be the 1% of calls that truly go sideways and need all hands on deck, but for the most part, dispatch will be able to get a sense of what’s going on and send out the appropriate number of officers to handle what is anticipated to be the situation.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, too: going because we have nothing else to do does happen with some frequency in many areas, and isn’t always because we “don’t know if something is going to go wrong”. We got into this job because we wanted to make a difference, for the most part, and sometimes just driving around, or doing paperwork, doesn’t really feel like it fits the bill, even though it does. (As the saying goes, you never know what you prevented just by being visible.)
Nothing Else Waits
To flip around the argument that “you never know what will happen” justifies every patrol vehicle within a 25-mile radius going to a call that sounds busy or hot, consider that a call where large numbers of time-critical resources are actually needed could just as easily happen while you’re part of a 15-cruiser pileup on a residential street as a result.
What if your “hot” call is actually hot but part of it is mobile (e.g. fleeing felon, simultaneous related crime scenes, or – heaven forbid – an actual coordinated, multi-site terrorist attack), requiring resources in multiple locations all at once? All of the sudden, your self-dispatch has resulted in a scenario where your agency’s ability to adequately respond is negatively impacted, potentially resulting in death or bodily harm not only to civilians, but to other officers who may now be engaging a threat requiring more personnel.
It’s never as simple as “oh, I can get out if I need to,” by the way. Once you’re on a scene, either by dint of your cruiser not having jump jets to hop over the other 10 cars between you and the egress point, or because you’re now involved in the scene otherwise, it is very difficult to actually respond as rapidly as you could if you were not otherwise encumbered. Geographically, as well, you’re probably out of your normal sector and facing an increased response time even if you are the last car who pulled in and can get out.
The upshot of all of this is this: self-dispatching may seem like a good idea at the time, but in reality it actually hampers our ability to respond clearly and precisely to the reality of the call that we are faced with. There may be a few times where it actually helps, but for the most part it results in there being too many cooks in a kitchen where the wrong number of people can result in something far worse than being burned by mishandling a pot on the stove. If you can, remember that your own truly hot call may be just around the corner at any time, and that those who actually need you to prevent them from being consumed by an inferno are counting on your being there to extinguish the flames. That, in the end, is the true reason that we’re out here, and the greatest difference that we could ever make.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.