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Planning for the Media in SWAT Mission Plans

We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” While a hackneyed expression, it’s a valid one. And no organization can attest to it more than a tactical team.

Those who think of SWAT as just the team of tough guys who get called in to handle the hard stuff are quite mistaken—they don’t realize how much planning actually goes into a mission. Tactical teams rely on their skills and training, without a doubt. But without detailed planning, those skills and training are useless.

SWAT knows that behind every successful mission there is a plan that takes personnel, equipment, movement, timing, location, transportation and contingency options into account. It will address the staging of an ambulance, it will address the location of a command post, it will address Plans A, B and even C. And because of all that included detail, the majority of missions are successful.

But there is one variable some teams fail to consider—media presence. Fail to prepare for the media at the scene of a callout and prepare for media problems.

The Media

The media love a good SWAT story. They will listen to their scanners waiting to hear a tactical alert and they will take off running when Joe Sixpack calls the newsroom to ask why the SWAT team is raiding the house across the street from him. Much like sharks attracted to blood in the water, the media will sense a SWAT callout a mile away.

Therefore, you should plan for them.

So how should a tactical team deal with the media at the scene of an operation? Very simply—they shouldn’t. The last thing a SWAT commander should have to do is have immediate contact with the media during (or after) a mission. In order to institute this plan of not dealing with them, there has to be procedure in place that is outlined in the mission plan.

There should be a section of your mission plan that is titled “Media.” In this section, you should include two key concerns: the media liaison and the media area. Even if the media are not expected, you should complete this section for the simple reason that you never really know when the media will arrive. Let’s say, for example, your team is serving a high-risk warrant and no media is expected.

But one of two things happens: the neighbors call the TV news station to report “a big raid” or the high-risk warrant results in an exchange of gunfire and a dead suspect. In both of those very possible situations, the media will be arriving promptly, and unless you have plans for a media liaison and a media area, your tactical team members will be leaving a mission and into the lights of the cameras.

Media Liaison

In most departments, the media liaison will be the public information officer. If you do not have a PIO, someone designated from the command staff should be tapped to be the media liaison. This person will be the one who is assigned to deal with the media on the scene. This means the media liaison will have to report to mission scenes and be able to contact the command post so as to relay non-jeopardizing information to the media. The media liaison should be well-versed in SWAT policies so they can answer questions appropriately. It should be made clear in this section that the media liaison will be provided information that is releasable in a timely manner—you certainly do not want to leave your liaison stranded among the sharks with no chum to throw their way.

SWAT personnel should not be put in the liaison position. Tactical officers should handle the situation at hand and not be expected to spin information to the public. And while the liaison should have a grasp of SWAT policies and procedures, they should not be experts with valuable information brimming on the surface of their tongues.

Media Area

You plan for the location of the ambulances even though you may not (hopefully) need them, so you should plan for the location of the media. You’d have a backup plan if you cannot ram the door, right? Well, you can’t ram through a gaggle of reporters, so you’d better plan for them to be in your way.

It is perfectly acceptable to create an area for media staging. Media areas can be established to maintain their safety and to ensure scene preservation. By their very nature, SWAT scenes are more dangerous than a typical scene (or else SWAT wouldn’t be there in the first place), thus for the safety of the media, you can create a media area very far away from a scene. You can even relocate media perceived to be too close to the action. In order to achieve this, though, you’ll need a little finesse.

The media have to be told they are to congregate in the designated area out of safety concerns. The media should also be told that the media area is the location at which information will be given as it becomes available. The media, then, will see it will be in their interest to remain in the media area as it ensures their safety and it also guarantees their ability to collect information.

The success of the media area can be augmented by establishing three perimeters: inner, outer and outer circumference. The first perimeter (inner) encircles the action, and no one is permissible in the zone unless the person is tactical personnel. The second perimeter (outer) is where additional personnel are located and may include patrol officers, detectives, etc. This should never include the actual scene, rather, it should surround it. There should be no evidence collection or interviews conducted in this perimeter—it is the traditional outer perimeter.

This outer perimeter should also include the vehicles SWAT officers used to arrive at the scene—doing so prevents the media from being able to accost officers as they’re leaving. This outer perimeter should be clearly marked with crime scene or police line tape.

The third perimeter (outer circumference) encompasses the first two perimeters but creates an additional buffer. It is behind this line where the public (and even news gatherers, as they have the same freedom of movement as a regular member of the public) can remain. Those who stand at this line are not in harm’s way and probably cannot see much of the scene, if anything at all.

Here is how the strategy of the three perimeters works in your favor: the media will be in their area under the watchful eye of your designated liaison. If they have been cooperative, they can be escorted to the outer circumference perimeter for “a closer look.” At this point, and if the situation warrants it, the media can be escorted into the outer perimeter. The media, then, can say they have been granted “exclusive access” and view your agency as being accommodating to their needs.

Basically, this is a psychological tactic…when you lift the tape up and allow a reporter to walk under it and into your world, they perceive that to be an act of good faith on your part. Now, are you really giving them access to anything of vital importance? No. But does it help with media relations and does it also allow them to get a different video or picture angle? Yes. It’s definitely win-win.

When selecting a media area, be sure to consider what the vantage point is from that location. If a video camera can capture activity that can be broadcast live via video-streaming news websites, that’s probably not an ideal place to have the cameras stage. Remember with the advent of consumer-friendly satellite technology, cutting power to a house does not eliminate access to local television news anymore. If you don’t want your team’s movements piped into your suspect’s cell phone, make sure your media area is tactically located.
By including the media as an actual tactical consideration in SWAT mission plans, you are essentially planning for a potential obstacle. By creating an area that keeps the media at a safe and tactically sound location, you preserve the sanctity of your ongoing mission. Your liaison will assist your team during your mission and also when it’s accomplished, unless, of course, you want microphones and cameras thrust in the face of your team members as they make their way toward the locations for the after-action briefing.

Dealing with the media may not be the job of a SWAT commander, but it is the job of the SWAT commander to be sure his team is prepared for anything thrown his way. Incorporating a media plan into your mission plans is much like staging an ambulance—you may never need one, but if you did, the plan is there to follow.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2009

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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