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Ian I. Mitroff Headshot

Crisis Management 101: A Wakeup Call for Law Enforcement Organizations Everywhere

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To say the least, the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri raises highly disturbing and troubling issues for law enforcement agencies everywhere. It is imperative that they learn and put into practice immediately, the most critical lessons from Crisis Management. Let us list briefly a few of the many lessons:

1. A crisis is the worst of all possible times to conduct a review of department policies and actions. Indeed, crises generally drag departments through the mud relentlessly with regard to their current and past behavior. The result is that calm, contemplative institutional change gets lost in the din of the crisis. Everything is exposed and criticized for all to see. Long-range damage is done. Affected individuals and communities not only stage legitimate protests, and sadly, violence often erupts as anger towards the police boils over. For this reason, before major crises occur, police agencies need to conduct regular, ongoing Crisis Audits of their strengths and vulnerabilities. They need to imagine the unimaginable. They need to surface and address potential crises long before they occur. They need to bring in outsiders, such as members of police community advisory boards who can perform hard-hitting, no-holds barred assessments of their susceptibilities with regard to potential crises of all kinds. Outsiders also need to be involved in reviewing the lessons that should have been learned and implemented from past crises. It is not that outsiders are perfectly "objective and unbiased," for no one possess these desirable attributes. Rather, outsiders are indispensable in surfacing and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and practices that insiders are often reluctant unwilling to face.

2. Again, with the help of outsiders, realistic assessments of the ethnic and racial compositions of law enforcement agencies need to be performed. Members from surrounding communities need to be involved in such assessments and with all aspects of Crisis Management. Outsiders and members need to be involved in plans for correcting ethnic and racial imbalances. This takes transparency and community involvement to new levels.

3. Realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios such as the shootings of unarmed teenagers need to be performed and assessed on a regular basis. The simulations need to cover what can occur before, during, and after such events. Good crisis simulations also cover what happens when any single crisis sets off a chain reaction of other crises. That is, crises virtually never occur in isolation. To be prepared for one and only one type of crisis is not to be prepared at all. Further, no simulation is worthwhile if it doesn't take a hard look at the assumptions governing when it is allowable to use the various legal and policy approved levels of force in responding to any situation.

4. Finally, Crisis Management needs to be an integral of the "new skill set" of modern policing. Crisis Management needs to be woven seamlessly into day-to-day operations. This means that everyone needs to be trained and evaluated with respect to the best practices of Crisis Management.

The worst form of Crisis Management is reactive, that is, responding without any prior preparation or training. Law enforcement organizations including city, county, state and federal, must learn to practice proactive Crisis Management or things will only get worse. And, if proactive Crisis Management means anything, it's that plans are not enough. One needs the capabilities to handle crises.

But most of all, good Crisis Management is not just responding well to crises once they've occurred. Good Crisis Management is doing everything humanly possible to prevent major crises from happening in the first place. Years of sincere, community based policing built linkages and partnerships can build prevention, proper response and effective containment of even the most difficult crises.


Ian I. Mitroff is Professor Emeritus from USC. He is a Senior Investigator in The Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. He is President of Mitroff Crisis Management. With Murat Alpaslan, his latest book is The Crisis Prone Society: A Brief Guide to the Beliefs that Drive Risks in Business, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Mark A. Kroeker is Senior Vice President for Justice and Rule of Law at PAE, where he implements global rule of law programs. He is a former LAPD Deputy Chief, Deputy Commissioner for the UN mission in Bosnia, Portland Oregon's Police Chief, the UN Police Commissioner in Liberia and Police Advisor to the UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations.