LASD custody incident command school
A violent gang member strikes one of your personnel, breaks his jaw and knocks him unconscious. Other correctional staff races to his assistance, beat back other inmates, and drag the injured officer to safety.
But this rescue touches off a powder keg, as well over 100 inmates begin to riot. They erect barricades, attempt to open closed cells to free more inmates, and they begin to tear up mattresses and put on their own riot gear and they start breaking up the tier to manufacture weapons.
You are the on scene incident commander. What do you do? But there is one catch: You don’t have the resources and tactical teams available to you in your jails and prisons that are there today — All you have is what existed in 1986.
The incident above was one that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department faced in April 1986 when the Blood Gang module erupted at Men’s Central Jail. Like so many jail disturbances, the flashpoint was a spontaneous event. What turned it into a huge riot was the response to that event.
Like all agencies back then, we were a lot less sophisticated in our response to disturbances than we are now. The consequences of our performance during that incident led to a change in philosophy about how we prepared our custody incident commanders and squad leaders to deal with jail disturbances. The result was LASD’s Custody Incident Command School.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department maintains the largest jail system in the world. There are nine separate facilities, the inmate count is approximately 20,000 a day, and one facility houses more inmates with mental health issues than any other correctional facility in the United States.
It’s a massive undertaking, and during the past ten years these jails have experienced nearly 800 riots and other inmate disturbances.
Jail disturbances like the Blood riot were the exception in the 1980s. Over the past decade they have become the rule.
The Custody Incident Command School was designed to provide new supervisors with the information and tactics they needed to deal with any major incident they might face. This is not limited to inmate disturbances, but includes any significant incident that is likely to occur inside a jail.
Since 1986 Los Angeles has experienced major earthquakes, fires and mechanical failures that have all impacted jail operations. For example, what would you do if the water in your facility was shut off for three days? That happened to the three facilities in downtown Los Angeles a few years ago when a worker from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power flipped the wrong switch.
The incident command school continues to evolve as new incidents produce new experiences and new technology provides new tools to help us deal with them.
The CICS is a five day school. The curriculum includes classes in risk assessment, force, handling jail crises, the anatomy of a jail disturbance, hostage situations, less lethal weapons, squad tactics, cell extractions, and a review of LASD tactical incidents. There are also a lot of small group and table top exercises.
On the final day, the class is broken into small groups and assigned to the Sherman Block Jail. This is a fictional facility that is a compilation of all correctional types from open dorms, to linear and podular remote facilities. Bad things happen at SBJ and each group is given a chance to solve them. There is usually a healthy spirit of competition in the air on this final day.
The CICS is not limited to LASD supervisors. In the past, we’ve had personnel from agencies all over California. A few years back deputy sheriffs from Orange County, Florida joined us and in 2003 we went on the road and conducted a class for Las Vegas Metro.
Class size is usually kept to the mid-twenties so the table top exercises are manageable, so space is limited. Best of all, there’s no tuition — All you have to do is get yourself to Los Angeles.
We also conduct a two day custody command school for newly promoted jail executives. Newly assigned captains and commanders are also often many years removed from an assignment in corrections and it is important for them to see the tools and tactics that are being employed in their facilities and affirm their continued use. The last time this class was offered the number of students in attendance from outside agencies outnumbered LASD by about four to one.
During my years in custody training I’ve been contacted by corrections supervisors from jails and prisons around the country asking for my opinion on the use of less lethal weapons in jail disturbances. Unfortunately, because of our massive amount of experience in the Los Angeles County jail system we have probably made just about every kind of mistake.
In the Custody Incident Command School we are very transparent about our failures. We subscribe to the adage, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.”
We have done our best to learn from our mistakes, it’s the intent of the incident command school to pass this knowledge along.
If you are interested in attending a future LASD command school, or want help developing one of your own, feel free to contact me.
Sergeant John Stanley is a twenty-two year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He is a member of TASER International’s Corrections Advisory Board. He wrote corrections scenarios for the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University and contributed to its on-line Less Lethal Weapons class. He has taught less lethal weapons and incident command classes since 1996. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.