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When the Lights Went Out

Last summer's blackout proved to be valuable training for cops prepping for more severe incidents.

February 01, 2004  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Uniform Officers

When the lights went out in the Motor City, then Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver made the decision to hold over all working personnel and to put all sworn personnel, including plainclothes officers, into police uniforms. Oliver says the measures increased uniformed manpower by more than 60 percent, improving visibility of his officers on the street.

Oliver believes that having all officers in uniform was an important factor in maintaining control. He had prepared for this type of an emergency by asking his plainclothes officers to have their uniforms always available.

Emergency Power

One advantage that Detroit PD could bring to bear was industrial generators. Oliver says the generators kept the stationhouses running, and they worked remarkably well.

However, not all affected agencies could field emergency generators during the blackout. Cleveland police did not have generators and the loss of electricity made it difficult for officers not only to maintain power at police facilities but also to keep patrol cars on the road. According to Kilbaine, "We noticed the gas pumps at all the districts are run by electricity. We realized we have to have backup generators."

Food and Beverage

As it was in Cleveland, the fresh water supply was a critical concern in Detroit. And Detroit officers also faced a prepared-food shortage.

"With everything closed, all the normal places for police officers to get nourished were not available," explains Oliver. "Initially we had a lot of people who donated food. Some even donated water. But logistically we had to start thinking about what happens after the first eight hours. You need several locations where police officers can go to get water and food to take a break."

This led to the adoption of a new Detroit PD policy. "We learned we want every one of our precinct stations to have enough food and water for each one of our employees for two or three days, so we don't have to scrounge around for it," Oliver says. "Our emergency plans worked out how to feed senior citizens and the homeless, but we never thought about our own officers."

But despite the fact that they had to work long hours with little food and water, Oliver says Detroit PD officers served the public well during the blackout. "We put just about every vehicle we owned on the street with uniform officers assigned, and we gave clear instructions to all officers to be highly visible. This is the time when we wanted them to be seen at every park, every street corner, and where elderly people were."

As for crime, Oliver says the Motor City had some problems but not much more than any other August night. "This is Detroit," Oliver says. "Clearly we can't say it is crime free. But during the blackout our stats were as low or lower than a normal day. We did have some party stores broken into, but we didn't have looting or large-scale waves of people breaking and entering."

Detroit was without electricity for two days, but Oliver says the city's police managed to maintain order. "The fact that we were out there so quickly and we were so visible reassured a lot of people and deterred crime."

Pitching In

Interagency cooperation also helped some of the Northeast's largest and most crime-ridden cities cope with the power outage.

In New Jersey, the blackout lasted only eight hours, but Lt. Al Della Fave, director of communications for the New Jersey State Police, says as soon as the blackout hit, his agency began "brainstorming and planning for when evening rolled around and what to do in the inner city areas of Newark, Patterson, and Berginton."

According to Della Fave, the N.J. State Police immediately assigned troopers to the high-risk areas. For example, in Hudson County there were what Della Fave calls "minor disruptions" but state police were immediately dispatched and had the situation under control "within minutes."

Della Fave credits the troopers' training with the success of the deployment. "We run exercises periodically, and they were helpful. There was communication not just between the National Guard but with the emergency responders on the municipal level," he says.

Della Fave adds, "All of our plans centered on the immediate recall of personnel and resources. It was a good practice. It helped us fine-tune our deployment of resources for the future."

The New Jersey State Police believes the most important lesson to be learned from the blackout is the importance of joint planning and communication between agencies. "We have in excess of 500 municipal departments in New Jersey, and communications between those municipal departments was outstanding," Della Fave says.

For the New York State Police, working the blackout was pretty much business as usual. "We have seen enough events in recent years that our practice is pretty good," says Lt. Col. James Schepperly. "We just went into automatic mode. We had troopers out in the field, and we opened a command post here at division headquarters and one at the State Emergency Office."

One blackout problem that did affect the N.Y. State Police was the disruption of computer systems in the state's Emergency Management Office. But Schepperly says these problems were easily surmounted. "From our point of view our plan worked as it is supposed to," he says.

The plan that Schepperly is referring to calls for troopers to provide assistance with traffic and additional police presence in high-risk areas. And by all accounts, it worked well.

Schepperly believes that because of the numerous incidents that have kept his department in constant training sessions the past few years, its response to the blackout was basically uneventful. And he sees in the N.Y. State Police's response an example for other agencies to follow. "You have to have protocols established and be sure that there are opportunities to drill," he says.

Peace and order were maintained during the blackout by a combination of factors. The timing of the outage allowed most departments enough daylight to call in personnel and to prepare for the night ahead. Also, post-9/11 emergency procedures and preparation lessened the impact of the blackout.

But questions remain. If the blackout had been more than a glitch in the power system, and if it had occurred during the evening hours, would the big cities of the Eastern seaboard have been so peaceful? Many police officers believe the chilling answer to that question is, no. Consequently, they believe much more preparation, planning, and training is needed before the next crisis.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Police magazine.

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