The City of West Covina, California, located approximately 20 miles east of Los Angeles, is home to 110,000 residents spread over a 16-square mile service area. Surrounded by the cities of Covina, Elmonte and Baldwin Park, West Covina is not what you would think of when referring to the epicenter of state-of-the-art technology.
When you meet the Chief of Police in West Covina, Dave Faulkner, you immediately feel his passion for his agency, officers and the people of the city he serves. Faulkner has been a cop for 32 years and worked in many roles—in both uniformed and special purpose units. Faulkner is also a certified helicopter pilot, which is where I first met him in the fall of 2013 when he was the head of the Fontana, Calif. Police Air Support Unit. He was a pioneer then, assisting Fontana in the planning, establishment and ongoing development of their Air Support Unit that also serves the California cities of Rialto and Redlands.
Realizing a need
After being appointed West Covina’s Chief of Police in 2014, Faulkner again found himself in a situation where his knowledge of available technology and how to implement it into a law enforcement agency was put to the test.
Faulkner speaks very proudly of the achievements of the West Covina Service Group, an internal department within the agency that focuses specifically on technology, more specifically, technology made for the officers who use them.
Back in 1985 a West Covina Police captain made the suggestion to upper command that it would be nice to capture all police department records and investigation files on active cases on a computer system, to eliminate the need to go through the complicated process of trying to locate a file that was often housed in a specific detective’s filing cabinet. This one single comment led to the development of what would become a program police officers, dispatchers and detectives now use a variation of worldwide on a daily basis.
The records management system (RMS) was originally planned as a database solution to house digital files compiled by detectives during investigations, but quickly morphed into the addition of a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system as a combined product offering technology that not only assisted detectives, but could now also assist officers on the street, and proved an even a more effective method of dispatching officers to active calls for service. Even though CAD is offered by many different vendors today, with each having slightly different interfaces and functionality to the end user, ultimately, all of these systems are still providing officers the ability to check criminal records from patrol cars, dispatchers keep track of calls for service, detectives to keep case notes, evidence files, photos and other relevant information in a paperless environment. This was the original goal back in 1985 before CAD and RMS systems were adopted as technology standard across the policing world and became an essential tool.
Critical incident response
One of the key areas that make technology like CAD and RMS essential to law enforcement is critical incident response. The department decided it was time to upgrade their capabilities in the early planning stages of a large scale inter-agency readiness exercise. They presented a business case to the city and received approval for a new mobile command center (MCC) to be purchased and fitted out with the latest technology to assist in the coordination and inter-agency cooperative effort required in the event of a full scale incident.
Previously, West Covina Police Department’s MCC was a 1987 Winnebago, which “had been technologically outdated for over a decade and served no real emergency coordination role, other than to act as a shelter from bad weather and provide a rallying point for departmental operations during previous incidents,” said Lieutenant Pat Benschop, commander of West Covina Police’s Special Problems Detail. Lt. Benschop’s responsibilities cover operational management of West Covina’s specialist units such as the SWAT Team, Crisis Negotiation Team, Tactical Robotics Squad and K9 Unit.
Now the MCC is fitted out with the latest technology has to offer law enforcement. It has mobile Wi-Fi to allow both internal and external use of Wi-Fi signals to incident response agencies, a mobile tactical communications center, fitted with large operations viewing screen, CAD/RMS terminals, and a private compartmentalized area where crisis negotiators can operate without interruptions or distractions.
In an incident that involves a SWAT response, the mobile command center serves as the nucleus of support and command level operations for West Covina. The tactical communications center portion of the mobile command center is then staffed with two specially trained police dispatchers who manage all radio traffic from SWAT and robotics operators. The dispatchers also coordinate command requests for additional resources.
Crisis Negotiators work out of the MCC in their purpose designed area where command can also monitor their progress on a real-time basis, which becomes paramount to decision-making in a critical incident response. If used during incidents, the West Covina Robotics Squad is likewise based at the mobile command center where they can link audio/video feeds from their robots to a centralized monitoring station within the MCC. In this capacity, decision makers are again able to utilize live information and intelligence in deployment strategies.
The MCC has been deployed several times since its arrival at West Covina in both simulated training events and in operational response to several real world incidents in the area. According to Lt. Benschop it has “quickly proven its functionality and worth to the city.”
The first deployment of the MCC in a tactical environment was in a large scale training exercise conducted inside a regional shopping mall in the City of West Covina. The readiness exercise simulated an active shooter scenario that shared similarities in its structure of events to the Westfield Shopping Center active shooter terrorist attack September 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya.
The simulated event involved a scenario constructed around four terrorists launching an armed assault on the general public inside a shopping mall. This scenario incorporated a response from several surrounding law enforcement agencies, including the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol.
A large scale critical incident training event requires a massive amount of planning and coordination, including notifying the public of the event and giving plenty of warning to prevent panic. The city of West Covina went one step further by asking for the public’s assistance in carrying out the event. The city received assistance that day from between 150 to 170 local residents willing to play the part of victims of the attack, ranging from severely injured victims, to members of the public playing the roles of bewildered shoppers that needed to be given direction.
Adding to the realism factor, professional Hollywood makeup artists were on-hand to add apply realistic injuries to some of the role-playing “victims” of the mock terrorism scenario.
In real situations of this nature, communications between public safety agencies is crucial. However, communication between first responders functioning on separate radio networks that cannot be patched often presents a significant challenge.
Throughout the training exercise West Covina Police successfully negotiated communications compatibility issues by incorporating technology available in the mobile command center to solve incompatible technology issues between agencies. Now thanks to the exercise, participating agencies learned to solve potential issues that might arise during an actual incident. They’ve created valuable protocols to set in motion should a critical incident response be needed in the city and surrounding areas.
Mutual aid deployment
A short time after the training exercise, tragedy struck a neighboring police department when one of their police officers was involved in an on-duty traffic accident and suffered fatal injuries. WCPD responded to the scene of the accident immediately with the MCC, where it was used to coordinate the activities of officers and investigators on-site.
While this was not a large scale event like in training, the command center provided an office-like setting with functional Wi-Fi and CAD/RMS ready computers for use at the scene. It also provided a private place for officers at every level of the organization to grieve outside of the public eye while investigating the cause of an accident that took the life of a fellow officer.
Benefits of conducting a critical incident exercise
“The biggest lesson we learned during the readiness exercise was that training on a regular basis with our regional emergency services partners is essential,” said Lt. Benschop.
“While most agencies in Los Angeles County are well trained as individual departments, we don’t all train the same way. In other words, the tactics that West Covina’s Police will deploy in a critical incident may be slightly different or in some instances profoundly different than the tactics of our neighbors.
In managing a chaotic incident like an active shooter with mass casualties, the command staff must quickly coordinate with the leadership of assisting agencies and ensure that first responders “check-in” with the command post prior to self-deploying. This will aid in ensuring a more coordinated response, proper communications and the deployment of consistent tactics”.
With the latest in technology and a robust custom-made software solution that assists in both daily law enforcement operations, and also has the ability to assist in the management of a mass casualty critical incident, West Covina, California seems well prepared for anything coming their way.
Ryan Mason is originally from Melbourne, Australia and served as a police officer in Indiana. He has spent the majority of his career in law enforcement training, operations and management, and is trained as a helicopter pilot.