On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States and quickly became the nation’s most expensive natural disaster to date, costing more than $80 billion in estimated damage and causing more than 1,800 deaths. The area impacted covered several southern states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – as well as Cuba and parts of the Bahamas. Perhaps its most visible victim was New Orleans. The Crescent City was devastated, with 80 percent of the city flooded, highlighting the need for robust emergency-management and public-safety response capabilities during and in the aftermath of catastrophic events affecting a multi-state area of the country.  

Many capabilities were found lacking, and the importance of maintaining and restoring public order in the aftermath of the storm was demonstrated by the numerous incidents of looting and other opportunistic crimes. Police and law-enforcement services are key to the management of most if not all state and/or local emergencies and disasters. Law-enforcement agencies not only preserve the peace and maintain law and order when responding to disasters but also carry out search-and-rescue missions, suppress crime, conduct evacuations, and provide security and force protection to fire-service and EMS responders. 

A Gap Between Manageable and Overwhelming 

Disasters, civil disorders, and major disruptions to the status quo caused by terrorism all demand robust policing capabilities. In many cases local agencies can handle most of the policing tasks assigned – sometimes, though, with assistance derived from mutual-aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions. However, although mutual-aid agreements between law-enforcement agencies can reduce the impact of.

The United States has no national police service; policing is for that reason a state and local function that usually is both fragmented and local in nature “normal” disasters, a truly major catastrophe that destroys or overwhelms local capabilities demands a new and more flexible type of response. In most such disasters the U.S. military answers the need for surge capacity.  

The National Guard units of individual states, as well as the nation’s armed services, can be and usually are activated to support the impacted area. This military support, generically described as Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA), is vital. However, more complex catastrophes – those involving high-intensity crime, for example – demand a set of special skills outside the normal capabilities of most U.S. military forces. Under the U.S. Constitution, the United States has no national police service.  

Policing is for that reason a state and local function that usually is both fragmented and local in nature – relying, therefore, on relatively small police and sheriffs’ departments, sometimes augmented by state police. There are a handful of federal law-enforcement agencies – the FBI, for example, and the U.S. Coast Guard – but their missions are few and narrowly defined, and their roles in day-to-day police functions are strictly limited by law. 

A Domestic Constabulary, a National Capability 

However, in the Age of Terrorism the demand for uniformed police to respond to and restore order in the aftermath of disaster calls for a well organized and sometimes expeditionary type of police capabilities. In many other nations, constabulary or gendarmerie forces fill this need. The huge volume of mutual-aid capabilities needed to cope with major incidents affecting a multi-state area of the country were provided ad hoc in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Law-enforcement agencies from California, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Texas, and other states responded quickly and generously when Katrina hit, and provided massive support to the devastated local police departments and other law-enforcement agencies in the Gulf region.   

Their responses were facilitated by agreements among governors in what are called Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs).  While these provide some capacity, it seems evident that additional steps, such as the development of a domestic constabulary, are needed to build an effective national capability. 

Rampant Opportunities for Crime 

The need for a uniformed police capability to address domestic catastrophes is paralleled by the need to also develop an expeditionary police service to carry out certain missions overseas – e.g., stability and support operations and the provision of humanitarian aid.  Such transitional-stability police units would fill the existing gap between military forces and individual police units. They could not only help to restore order and create the conditions necessary to provide aid, but also carry out various reconstruction tasks and suppress high-intensity crime.  

Not only fragile states – i.e., failed or transitional states – but also fragile communities experience an increased demand for police services during an intense period characterized by the combination of rampant opportunities for crime and diminished local police capabilities. Communities devastated by disaster require the restoration of order both to sustain the rule of law and to maintain social structures. Individual police units – or task forces of several units drawn together as a last-minute contingency – rarely possess the depth of organizational capability and/or the flexibility needed to effectively deal with the tumultuous conflict environment that exists in the aftermath of a major disaster. 

Constabulary forces, however, are by their very nature configured from the start to have the resources, capabilities, and mandate required to operate in these austere and conflict-ridden settings. They would be optimally positioned, therefore, to bridge the existing gap between military and police skill sets.  

The Limitations of Current Forces 

Military forces are effective in large-scale operations, providing a show of force, maintaining fixed-site security, and suppressing actual combat.  But, except for military police and special operations units – which are almost always in short supply and may well be deployed elsewhere – they have limited experience in, and are not optimally configured to carry out, sustained policing duties. Individual police and law-enforcement mutual-aid task forces, on the other hand, rarely possess the common doctrine, training, experience, and logistical-support infrastructure required to operate in adequate strength for an open-ended period of time. 

An effective domestic constabulary that could bridge this gap would consist of units operating with a command-and-control structure that stimulates unity of effort, along with the doctrinal foundation and training required as well as the support infrastructure necessary to perform both community policing and high-intensity law-enforcement operations – with appropriate accountability measures also included. The specific skills required would include but not necessarily be limited to the ability to carry out:

  • Intelligence and criminal/forensic investigations;
  • Crowd-control and riot-suppression missions;
  • Emergency-response and -management tasks;
  • High-intensity policing and enforcement duties;
  • The protection of senior officials and other VIPs;
  • Search-and-rescue missions; and
  • The provision of force protection for fire, medical, and humanitarian operations.

Communications Interoperability Mandatory

Constabulary units would of course have to integrate their operations with those of local, state, and tribal police and federal law-enforcement and homeland-security agencies, as well as National Guard units and military forces. To do this would require interoperable communications at all levels, together with common approaches to mission planning and concepts of operation. All of these would have to be reinforced by the mechanisms needed to produce and use intelligence properly and maintain situational awareness. 

Moreover, these operational issues would have to be anchored firmly in national policy – with effective oversight provided and appropriate rules of engagement (including rules for the use of force and the addressing of civilian complaints) agreed upon well in advance.  Warning capability, mobilization, training, exercising, and logistics also would be needed to ensure adequate cross-jurisdictional authority and a force structure appropriate to carry out a full spectrum of complex missions.   

The development of such capabilities is essential to meet the new threats likely, both at home and overseas, in the Age of Terrorism. The open question is what would be the best organizational configuration. Should the capability be provided by a federal civilian force, and therefore under the Department of Homeland Security? Or should it be primarily military in nature? Or a combination of local/metropolitan police and state police, with some essential assistance provided by private security contractors?   

These and other political and operational issues would require considerable study. It would not be surprising if a mix of all these resources would be required to address the broad range of missions faced in catastrophic settings. In any event, a credible case can be made that a domestic constabulary service with expeditionary reach is not only needed but would be an exceptionally prudent national investment.

John P. Sullivan

John P. Sullivan is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau and currently serves as Director of the National Terrorism Early Warning Resource Center. He specializes in terrorism, intelligence, and conflict disaster operations and studies.

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