The Cult, The Confrontation, The Chief And The Court

June 1, 1996
William C. Richmond has advice for departments called to operations involving terrorists or cults.
No one in the American fire service has to be told that we are living in the time of the terrorist and operating in the day of the cult. Real threat and danger has arrived. Wanton death and destruction has come to our doorstep. We are all exposed. Regardless of size, no community is immune. We have only to bring to mind Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, Waco and Ruby Ridge to validate this reality. It can happen here. It has happened here.

Accepting this as a given, and generally accepting it also as a given that fire departments across this land have or will be deeply involved in confronting these issues, this writer offers here a unique as well as topical perspective; that is, a context framed in an overview of an event that has already been addressed and the offering of a checklist outlining points that should be considered when your fire department is called upon to participate in an operation involving the facing off against terrorists or cults.

In the case of terrorist activity, we are forced to be reactive to a great extent. We can prepare in a basic and generic way but, by and large, our role is dictated by others: the terrorists. They pick the site, they select the time and they set the parameters as to what happens and how extensive the destruction or slaughter will be. After our planning, preparation and training are in place, the role we play is, for the most part, a waiting one.

Cult-related confrontations usually develop more slowly and, in most cases, allow us to take a proactive posture. There is some degree of warning that a confrontation is inevitable or at least likely by way of an orchestrated and/or public buildup. We know who they are, where they are and their basic philosophy and a have fair idea of their degree of preparation. However, it is not until they step over the line of legal limit that the jurisdictional authority is prodded or provoked to take action. It is at this point that there is frequently an outcry from angry citizens to "do something," and this is when those of us in the public safety arena are called on to resolve the issue.

In most cases, the problem first involves the police department and then spills over into other city services. Unfortunately, many communities across our country do not have the resources to properly address a full-blown confrontation. A recent national TV show told of a town in a Canadian border state facing a cult-type problem that escalated to kidnapping and murder threats against public officials. My heart goes out to them but at the same time I'm forced to ask, "What is government for if not to provide all that is needed to assist in restoring this community to its once-peaceful status?" This besieged citizenry needs help and needs it fast.

Enough philosophy; the sad fact is that, to date, public-sector response to cult confrontations has ended in great controversy. The news media, as they are wont to do, viewed the outcome of these events with a harshly critical eye. Wrapped in the luxury of post-action review, vast reference resources and adequate time to prepare, they literally picked these operations apart.

In defense of the public safety entities involved, there is no textbook approach for handling these showdowns and each transaction has taken on a life of its own, complete with a set of peculiarities, problems and issues. That textbook is developing, and new chapters are added as each subsequent event takes place.

At present, facing off with an angry and dissident cult is just not an exact science and is fraught with pitfalls of every conceivable nature. In reality, though, when the law has been disregarded and action must be taken, it is up to us to devise and execute a plan to bring things back in line, knowing it's a no-win situation and that critics are waiting to take their shot.

A proper question to be posed at this point is, "What credentials does the author have or what is in his background that qualifies him to presume to expound or present his view on this subject?" Fair enough. I was in charge of the firefighting forces and emergency medical services in a major Eastern city that were called on to participate in a police operation intended to serve warrants and apprehend urban cult members who had barricaded themselves in a heavily populated section of our city. The setting was a two-story rowhouse with a fortified bunker constructed on the roof. As it eventually turned out, the group was made up of 13 people, including children. When all was said and done, 11 of those in the house died in the battle and over 60 homes were destroyed. Due to legal constraints, the details of that operation must be saved for a subsequent article.

Some 10 years after the confrontation, the facts surrounding the outcome are still in dispute. A commission was established to review the conflict, and state and federal grand juries also looked into the matter. While criticism of the city's planning, execution and decision-making process was forthcoming, no criminal charges were identified and the only legal issue remaining is a civil suit filed by one of the occupants who exited the property safely and by the family of a deceased dissident. Elements of this suit have made their way up to the United States Supreme Court and it is hoped the whole matter will finally be ended in court this spring. Suffice to say, any fire chief anywhere can find himself or herself in a similar circumstance.

A retrospective look at the findings of those review bodies was done to provide the basis and substance for this article. At the outset, this fire chief never expected to face a barrage of negative press, harsh personal criticism or entanglement in the legal process as a defendant but that is just what happened. I will not go into the particulars of our event or divulge further details concerning the confrontation nor will I identify areas of dispute as, already mentioned, the issue is still to be adjudicated.

I have prepared a brief list of items that can be used as a basic guideline when you are faced with this type of problem in your own community. I use the word "when" because as sure as God made little green apples somewhere in these United States another confrontation is developing that will foment into a life-threatening sequel to battles already fought. When reviewing these entries, identify problems you may encounter:

  • Make sure you are involved in all aspects of preliminary discussion and the planning stage of the operation. Be satisfied that preparations are adequate for the task at hand. Do not hesitate to speak up if you are not in agreement. Prepare and retain your personal notes and identify all attendees.
  • Make sure the plan has legal oversight, and that counsel is present through all phases of preparation and at the operational command post as well as when the event takes place.
  • Make sure those in the highest levels of your political jurisdiction have a role in the review and signing off of any plan developed.
  • Make sure the chain of command is clearly identified. Someone has to be in overall charge, particularly when equal levels of command are present representing individual disciplines from your jurisdiction. This is even more important when "outside" departments or activities are involved.
  • Make sure your department's role and responsibilities are spelled out in detail. Have no doubt in your mind what is expected of you and your people. Understand the limits of your authority.
  • Commit adequate resources and make sure that backup, in terms of personnel, equipment and apparatus, is available and ready to go.
  • If possible, do an on-site inspection of the geography involved, noting those points that affect your role in the operation. Surprises at the time the event takes place should be addressed, eliminated or minimized up front.
  • An on-site command post must be set up with all entities represented by individuals who have the authority to make decisions. As mentioned before, a representative of your jurisdiction's legal arm should also be present. (You may feel this will be a hindrance you don't need at the time and that caution will be that lawyer's only byword but, believe me, there's nothing wrong with caution in dealing with these cult events, as history has shown us repeatedly.)
  • Conduct on-site communications on a frequency that will be taped. This will not only provide an official departmental record of events and prompt your personal recall if needed but could prove valuable if you must face review panels. Consider making typed transcripts of all tapes.
  • Assign someone to keep a written log complete with a timeline of all that transpires during the operation that pertains to your department, including orders given and received. Again, this can be helpful in the event a future dispute arises.
  • If you are involved in critical decisions being made or debated, state your opinion and refer the matter up the chain of command if disagreement surfaces. Keep a record.
  • Arrange periodic press briefings and designate one individual as the media spokesperson for the overall operation.
  • Defer participating in any post-confrontation press conferences or media interviews until you have reviewed and verified the facts surrounding your department's role in the event for content and accuracy.
  • Remember that firefighters are neither police officers nor infantry and their protection from gunfire is a primary responsibility for you.

As you review this presentation and the above list in particular, you may conclude that the general theme is "cover your butt." That was not really the intent but if you get that message, take it to heart, for it has proven to be sound advice.

This short list was developed from real-life experience on an extended fireground and from many hours of courtroom exposure. You may or may not agree with all or part of its content but ignoring its precepts can easily land you in a court of law. You want to do all you can to see that that does not happen but if it does, you want to be prepared.

William C. Richmond served in the Philadelphia, PA, Fire Department for 28 years, holding every rank from firefighter to chief of department. He worked both line and staff positions in the officer ranks and was the incident commander at some of the city's most noted fires. Richmond presently is an in-house consultant for the law firm of Hecker, Brown, Sherry & Johnson and participates in fire service studies for Tri Data.

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