Sports celebrations can be anything but celebratory. Many cities around the nation and the world have seen peaceful celebrations of their team’s success turn violent. In Boston, three people have died during sports celebrations in recent years. The June 2023 mass shooting in Denver, Colorado, at a championship celebration for the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association (NBA) is another stark reminder of how things may go awry at such events. Denver Police and other municipal agencies planned for the celebration, which ensured they had enough staff to assist the victims and arrest two suspects. That event shows how proper pre-planning by law enforcement and other stakeholders in the community can help mitigate potential problems that may arise.
Planning for post-championship celebrations, or any mass gathering of people where emotions may run high, is critical to public safety. Failing to plan can lead to an ineffective response when crowds get caught up in a contagion of excitement, which may lead to widespread lawlessness. Proper planning with built-in flexibility to address issues as they arise leads to more positive outcomes for law enforcement and revelers alike. While there are many things to focus on when planning for such events, this article focuses on six important planning elements to consider, which are critical to mission success: command and control, incident objectives, intelligence, resources, training, and a whole-of-government/community approach.
Command and Control
Assigning one person as an incident commander, with authority to establish incident objectives, make decisions, and delegate tasks and responsibilities, is crucial to responder command and control. For this purpose, utilizing the Incident Command System (ICS) established in the National Incident Management System is highly recommended. ICS facilitates lines of communication and the assignment of tasks and responsibilities down through a chain of command to front-line personnel. ICS also provides an organizational structure for collaboration, communication, cooperation, and coordination among government services in a multi-agency response. Such a system ensures the following:
- All personnel assigned to the event or incident clearly understand what to do, where to do it, and to whom they report (i.e., unity of command); and
- The response to unexpected issues that may arise during planned events and unplanned incidents is more organized and rapid.
Despite the best intentions, without establishing incident objectives in planning, dealing with a large celebratory crowd can get messy. Therefore, creating formalized incident objectives – which is the job of the incident commander – should be approached methodically. SMART planning is one such method of developing actionable incident objectives. The SMART acronym can mean different things depending on the topic and source. For ICS purposes, SMART translates into specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-sensitive, which means formulating incident objectives that:
- Are specific and unambiguous,
- Can be measured in a meaningful way,
- Are realistically achievable through the tasks and resources assigned, and
- Yield results in a defined timeframe.
The above is just one way of approaching the formulation of incident objectives. However, establishing incident objectives is vital to planning regardless of which interpretation of SMART or another paradigm is used.
Knowing what to expect in a large celebratory crowd event helps facilitate proper planning. To that end, a robust intelligence component to planning assists risk assessment efforts that yield insight into the necessary depth and complexity of planning. Most, if not all, law enforcement agencies have some level of intelligence-gathering and analysis capabilities. For example:
- Larger agencies often have greater capabilities, which they must include in the planning process, than mid- to small-sized agencies.
- Small- to medium-sized agencies may have a solid understanding of what occurs within their immediate jurisdiction but may lack the ability to reach beyond their local area for in-depth analysis of needed intelligence.
- The various state-run fusion centers and nodes of the Regional Information Sharing System around the country can be of great value to law enforcement agencies of any size by enhancing or providing the capacity to collect and analyze intelligence relevant to an upcoming event or unplanned incident.
The resources necessary to successfully handle a large celebratory crowd depend on the incident objectives identified after considering intelligence analysis and a threat assessment. The number of personnel and their capabilities rely on this process. Intelligence-driven risk assessments that do not identify potentially unruly elements in the crowd may call for fewer personnel with basic crowd management qualifications. Risk assessments that identify potential risks call for a different approach. For example:
- If potentially unruly threats are identified, responding public safety agencies should consider a tiered response featuring larger, more mobile personnel groupings with specific skills for handling escalating civil unrest in addition to personnel with basic qualifications. Emergency management and emergency medical services are necessary adjuncts to integrate at this stage.
- A recently released publication from the National Tactical Officers Association entitled Public Order Response and Operations Standards details the law enforcement capabilities recommended for a tiered response to unruly crowds.
Other resource considerations include venue selection and security, and transportation. Where to hold a large-crowd event of any kind and how to ensure the safety of attendees is of paramount importance. A venue large enough to accommodate the expected crowd, with controlled access points and amenable to a diversity of transportation options, is essential to the managed flow of people. Equally important is ensuring approaches that provide unfettered venue ingress and egress for emergency vehicles and personnel should they be needed.
Where to position a command post with representatives from multiple agencies is another resource consideration. That venue must be able to accommodate the expected number of personnel and their secure communications and cyber-infrastructure needs. Like the event venue, it must have controlled access points to ensure physical security. It is not recommended the command post be located inside the event itself, but in proximity to avoid physical security issues should the crowd become unruly.
Training personnel is an often-overlooked facet of preparing for large-crowd events. A large celebratory event, where high emotions and potential unrest exist, is no exception. Key training considerations include:
- Regardless of their size, law enforcement and other local government agencies must train to manage a peaceful crowd and control an unruly one.
- In a whole-of-government approach, it is imperative that agencies, especially law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, and emergency medical services, train together to ensure continuity of effort.
- Regardless of agency, all responders should be trained in de-escalation and dialogue techniques if they may be in contact with the crowd.
- Agencies should also prepare for a worst-case scenario, where a multi-agency tactical response is necessary to quell a disturbance or respond to a mass casualty event, such as the Denver shooting incident.
- If non-government organizations are expected to assist governmental efforts, joint training between these entities and governmental agencies is recommended to ensure coordinated efforts.
When planning for a large celebratory event, it is critical to remember that more stakeholders may be affected in the community than law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, and emergency medical services. A whole-of-government/community approach should be adopted for such events:
- Political leadership and other government entities – such as public works, public health, public transportation, licensing and permitting agencies, legal departments, and more – may be impacted and should be included in planning. Their vital role in these events should be welcomed and not overlooked.
- Non-governmental organizations such as business groups, faith-based institutions, civic groups, cellphone service providers, commercial sanitation services, private venue security personnel, and others whom a large-crowd event may impact should be queried for their input into planning.
- Even the team around which the celebration is centered could play an essential role through messaging from its influential star athletes.
This whole-of-government/community approach ensures all facets of the community that the event may impact have a say in how the community responds while enhancing communications and coordination efforts across the broad spectrum of stakeholders before, during, and after an event or incident.
Large celebratory events, especially after a professional sports team’s championship win, necessitate a coordinated response from municipal government agencies and the community. Thorough planning, enhanced by intelligence-based risk assessments and input from all potentially impacted stakeholders, ensures an effective, coordinated response to peaceful or unruly events. Although other aspects of planning are certainly applicable, command and control, incident objectives, intelligence, resources, training, and the whole-of-government/community approach are critical components of any comprehensive plan that planners should embrace.
Robert Leverone retired as a lieutenant from the Massachusetts State Police after thirty-one years of service. He was commander of the Special Emergency Response Team, an arm of the agency tasked with crowd control. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Northeastern University, a Master of Science in Criminal Justice from Westfield State University, and a Master of Arts degree in Homeland Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School, where he wrote his thesis entitled, Crowds As Complex Adaptive Systems: Strategic Implications for Law Enforcement. He is the owner and president of Crowd Operations Dynamix Inc., specializing in training and consulting law enforcement and private industry in crowd management and control issues.