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Back to Archives | Back to December 2007 Contents 

Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Best Practices for Law Enforcement Administrators

By Karl Bickel, Senior Policy Analyst, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.; and Ed Connors, President, Institute for Law and Justice, Alexandria, Virginia

pecial events are important to local governments for many reasons, including the public enjoyment and sense of community they provide as well as the revenue they generate. Effective security, a critical feature of these events, requires that law enforcement agencies conduct extensive planning to achieve the right balance between ensuring the public safety and supporting an atmosphere of hospitality.

Most of the time, special events proceed as planned and represent business as usual for law enforcement—handling petty thefts, minor incidents of disorder and vandalism, public intoxication, traffic control, and so on. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, produced a heightened awareness that terrorists can strike anywhere and that special events are potential targets. In fact, planning for major special events today requires at least as much attention to homeland security issues as it does to traffic and crowd control. In addition, community policing strategies for partnership building and problem solving are essential. Multiple federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; other public agencies; and private sector organizations and security forces must collaborate to produce safe, successful major special events.


In 2004, Congress directed the Officeof Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), U.S. Department of Justice, to report on the “best practices” that law enforcement agencies have developed to secure special events of national or regional importance. These events—including sporting events, concerts, political conventions, and cultural exhibitions—present unique security concerns because they draw large crowds; often involve public officials and other VIPs; and may attract terrorists, other criminals, or protestors.

COPS worked with the Institute for Law and Justice (ILJ), a nonprofit criminal justice research and consulting firm, to identify effective event security planning and management practices across the United States and develop related best practices for local law enforcement agencies. The study focused on large-scale events, including those designated as National Special Security Events by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but covered many approaches that can be tailored to local special events of all sizes.

The study was completed in 2006 and involved the following tasks:

  • Extensive consultations with representatives of the DHS, U.S. Secret Service (USSS), U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and other agencies charged with providing high levels of security for major national events

  • In-depth telephone and in-person interviews with command staff from more than 40 local law enforcement agencies concerning best practices for securing major events in their jurisdictions

  • Interviews with private security experts about such events as National Football League and National Basketball Association games

  • On-site observations of security planning and management for 15 major special events, including the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, the Kentucky Derby, G8 summits, major college football games, the Super Bowl, and NASCAR races

  • Reviewing security plans, reports, articles, guidelines, and other documents produced by experts in event security planning and management

  • Convening a focus group of special event security experts and obtaining technical reviews of draft best practices from representatives of the DHS; FBI; USSS; DOD; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); local law enforcement agencies; and the private sector

The resulting best practices report, Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Guidelines for Law Enforcement Administrators, includes practical recommendations and specific examples of effective approaches used by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as by private security.1 This article offers a brief summary, with a focus on guiding principles for major-event security, recommended planning and management practices, threat and risk assessment, communications, personnel and training, and postevent assessment.

Guiding Principles for Major-Event Security

The most obvious principle—one that many in the law enforcement community said cannot be overstated—is that timely, effective planning, communication, and training are critical. Other principles that law enforcement administrators emphasized during the study included the following:

  • Plan for worst-case scenarios extraordinary crimes, violence by protestors, a possible terrorist attack, natural disasters—but also be thoroughly prepared to deal with ordinary crimes and incidents (pickpockets, thefts from autos, disorderly conduct, etc.)

  • Weigh the security measures that conceivably could be taken (for example, street closures, searches, highly visible tactical units) against the jurisdiction’s desire to produce events that are enjoyable, well attended, and profitable

  • Establish new and effective—but temporary—organizational arrangements, management structures, and methods of communication

  • Ensure that the event continues safely while respecting constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and assembly

  • Anticipate unplanned activities and spurof-the-moment gatherings—for example, on the eve of a major event

  • Ensure that the rest of the jurisdiction receives essential law enforcement services, regardless of the size or importance of the event

  • Ensure that appropriate federal officials, such as DHS state homeland security advisers, are informed in advance about events with national or international significance to guarantee federal awareness and possible support

  • Develop an effective interoperable communications capability if multiple agencies are involved in the field

  • Involve citizens and the business community in planning efforts

  • Consider building event security training into basic and in-service training, if the jurisdiction routinely handles special events

Planning and Managing Major-Event Security

The best practices resulting from this study are adaptable to a variety of circumstances and special events. Local jurisdictions must decide how to apply them, taking into consideration the nature of the events and available resources, but one best practice applies across the board: use a formal, three-phase planning process, with timelines and accountability built into each phase.

Phase I: Pre-Event Planning: Phase I usually begins 12 to 18 months before the event. It involves the lead agency receiving authorization from its local governing body, establishing its mission, reaching out to collaborate with partners to help secure the event, meeting regularly with team members and partners, and developing detailed security plans and contingency plans.

Phase II: Managing Security during the Event: Phase II begins just before spectators, officials, crowds, media, and others assemble at the event sites. For some events, people begin to gather days beforehand. Tasks include comprehensive communications monitoring; reporting; and ensuring that key operations are functioning properly, such as the communications command center, credentialing, and access control posts. Phase II also involves checking the readiness of field and support areas such as mobile field forces to deal with crowd control, intelligence support, arrest processing, emergency medical services (EMS)/medical support, and more.

Phase III: Postevent Activities: The final phase, which begins when the event is over, includes conducting a comprehensive review of successes, lessons learned, and areas needing improved security. It also involves accounting for all equipment and other resources and paying bills for the security.

Executive Team

Major-event security planning begins with the creation of an executive team. Headed by the overall event security director representing the lead law enforcement agency, this team involves top commandlevel personnel from all partners in securing the event. Major tasks include the following:

  • Identifying all functional areas that must be planned, creating subcommittees to handle those areas, and issuing timelines—who will plan what by when

  • Reviewing subcommittee operational plans (for example, current resources, resources needed, plan to obtain additional resources, and so on) to ensure that they are comprehensive, consistent, and realistic, and that contingency plans are in place for each major function

  • Determining any changes needed in routine policies, practices, or laws (for example, does the union contract permit 12-hour shifts to cover a major special event?)

Agreements with Other Agencies

During the pre-event planning phase, the lead law enforcement agency must clarify legal relationships and leadership of event security forces. This is essential to avoid problems and delays when it comes time to make important public safety decisions about the event. In multiple-agency situations, a simple, straightforward memorandum of understanding (MOU) or agreement (MOA) should be signed.

MOUs must clarify the legal authority of assisting agencies to enforce the law in the lead agency’s jurisdiction. This may not be included in existing mutual-aid agreements, which often cover only “emergencies” strictly defined as natural disasters. For a recent G8 summit, for example, local law enforcement officers from some jurisdictions in Georgia and other states lacked the legal authority to enforce the law throughout Georgia. To resolve this situation, the Georgia governor issued an executive order authorizing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s director to swear them in as temporary special agents of the state.

It is also essential to bring in other city agencies as partners—fire/EMS, transportation, sanitation, and so forth—and some jurisdictions have developed unique partnerships to enhance security operations. For example, the transit company in Austin, Texas, has trained 13 police officers to drive city buses. The company now “turns over the keys” to police for special events so they can use the buses to transport equipment and officers to their posts.

Threat and Risk Assessment

In the pre-event planning phase, it is critical to develop a formal, credible threat and risk assessment unique to the special event. This assessment will drive the overall planning process and must be continually updated as more timely information and intelligence becomes available.

The main threat and risk categories are (1) harm to persons, (2) damage to property, (3) loss of revenue for the event and jurisdiction if incidents prevent people from attending or cause increased expenses, (4) increased liability due to negligence, and (5) loss of reputation, which may result in visitors not coming to the jurisdiction or event again because of problems.

Comprehensive threat and risk assessments involve (1) identifying potential threats, including common crimes (robbery, assault, and so on), fires, vandalism, natural disasters, protests, terrorism, or gangs; (2) gauging potential damages from such threats (impact analysis); (3) determining the likelihood that the problems will occur; and (4) developing cost estimates and actions to prevent the threats.

Figure 1
The FBI, DHS, and International Association of Assembly Managers are among the organizations that offer criteria for classifying special events according to threat levels and corresponding security levels. A recent DHS model (SEAR—Special Event Assessment Rating) incorporates a risk methodology that prioritizes special events using seven factors relevant to local law enforcement event security planning: size of event; historical, political, religious, or symbolic significance; duration; location; dispersion of the site and protective complexity; dignitaries attending; and preparedness of state and/or local law enforcement agencies to protect the event.

Other best practices for conducting threat and risk assessments also stress prior threats, including known threats to the specific event; cultural, political, and religious backgrounds of attendees; media coverage; and known vulnerabilities, such as building characteristics and security practices. The USSS has also developed threat assessment tools, primarily regarding protection of targets.

Functional areas that must be addressed for major-event security (listed in figure 1) are discussed in detail in the best practices report. Depending on the size, nature, complexity, and duration of the event, the planning process may involve as many as 20 subcommittees to address these functional areas. In addition, cyber vulnerability and business impact must be considered early in the planning phase.

Cyber Vulnerability: One of the greatest threats to the security of future special events may be cyber attack. The National Infrastructure Advisory Council notes that cyber vulnerability may lead to “an implicit or explicit failure of the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an information system.”22 The fear is that a group could disrupt a major special event by infiltrating or hacking into on-site information systems that control communications; utilities (electricity, water, heating, and cooling); automated locking mechanisms; elevators; or other essential functions. The USSS, in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University, has been leading the effort to develop cyber vulnerability assessments for major special events.3

Business Impact Analysis: Although special events can mean increased revenues for businesses, the opposite may be the case (for example, temporary Jersey barriers block access to retail stores). It is incumbent on law enforcement, as part of planning for special event security, to assess the likely impact on local businesses.

Communications and Communication Technology
Figure 2

Communications Command Center: One of the most important aspects of major-special event security is an integrated communications command center. This center brings together leaders and key personnel from all agencies and jurisdictions that support security at the event. On-scene coordination is most often managed in accordance with principles of the Incident Command System (ICS), a component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) developed by DHS; ICS principles can also be applied to operating the integrated communications command centers. The DHS NIMS Integration Center (NIC) establishes standards and training related to NIMS and ICS, and training is available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The best practices report describes common features of ICS centers and discusses central features of the DHS/USSS Multi-Agency Command Center (MACC), including video feeds, management systems, facility requirements, contingency planning, new technologies, and so forth.

Radio Communications: For some events, the lead agency may be able to disseminate radios tuned to the same frequencies to all personnel involved in security. More commonly, other approaches are used to allow personnel from multiple agencies (with different radio models operating on different frequencies) to communicate in the field. Figure 2 provides an overview of questions and protocols that an event’s communications subcommittee will need to consider.

Recommended Radio Communications Protocol at Special Events

  • The lead agency should send a survey form to all assisting agencies requesting information on radios—models, frequencies, contact for technical problems, and so forth.

  • Check (“ping”) all radios in the field the day of the event, before activities begin,to ensure all radios are operational and personnel are on the proper frequencies.

  • Do not use “10 codes” on the radio—di fferent agencies working the event have different definitions. Create and disseminate clear, consistent radio identification codes for all assignments. For example, use the agency name first (when multiple agencies are assisting), then a call number, for instance, “Alexandria 15.”

  • Ensure that radio chargers are available in key locations in the field.

  • Brief personnel and distribute handouts on radio channels to use (for example, channel 1 for the outer perimeter, channel 2 for the inner perimeter, channel 3 for emergencies, and so on) and protocols (limit chatter, assume anyone with a scanner can pick up your transmission, and so on).

  • Establish a check-in system to ensure that all outside agencies bring in radios to the lead agency to enter frequencies into the communications network, if the technology is available. This allows the lead agency to check the radios’ quality.

The quality and effectiveness of radio communications between field forces and the central communications command post is essential. One lesson learned from the G8 summit in Georgia is that despite multiple means of sophisticated communications, many officers still relied on their own cellular telephones. Some field supervisors were equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking chips in their cell phones that were connected to mapping software in the command center. Thus, the exact movement of the teams could be observed on computer maps.

Personnel and Training

The first issue to address in the initial security planning phase is the need for personnel resources. It is essential for planners to answer the following questions:

  • What are all of the security assignments/posts that require staffing (inner, middle, and outer perimeter; transit routes; and so on)?

  • How many officers will be needed at each assignment/post?

  • How many supervisors will be needed for each assignment/post?

  • How long will shifts last (8 hours, 12 hours)?

  • How much relief will be needed?

  • Will the lead agency’s officers and officers from other agencies be paid overtime?

  • What different types of skills are needed (information technology; administrative support; dispatchers; specialized patrol, enforcement, or investigative units)?

  • What different types of authority are needed (for example, prosecutors or civil attorneys)?

  • Will officers need security clearances if they intend to receive federal intelligence information?

Law enforcement agencies must decide whether and how to deploy such specialized services as explosive detection canines and handlers; horse-mounted units; bicycle units (bicycles can also be lined up as a “portable fence” for crowd control); and crisis management units such as hazmat, explosives ordinance disposal (EOD), special weapons and tactics (SWAT), and intelligence teams. In addition, depending on the nature of the event, agencies may field members of gang, fraud, vice, or narcotics units or other specialists, such as postblast investigation or dive teams.

Because major special events are planned more than a year in advance, some of the senior command staff responsible for planning may retire, transfer, or be promoted before the event is held. Thus, turnover in leadership positions must be planned for. Other recommendations from law enforcement administrators include the following:

  • Have a sufficient show of force for events with a history of disruption while being sensitive to participants’ civil liberties.

  • Place crowd control officers on standby at the site of major national sporting events.

  • Do not underestimate the need for relief personnel. Officers, supervisors, and commanders become exhausted without good scheduling and sufficient relief. This issue is especially complex and expensive to resolve when several major special events are scheduled within a short period.

  • Keep as much distance as possible between demonstrators and official venues while being sensitive to participants’ civil liberties.

  • The value of explosive detection canines typically depends on the extent to which an area can be physically and permanently secured after a sweep. Working explosives detection dogs can also become fatigued, a factor that must be considered when determining the number of dogs needed to sweep large venues.

Private Security and Volunteers: The law enforcement community must also develop partnerships with private security, a vital component of major-event security. The private sector owns the organizations, and often the facilities, involved in many of the country’s major sporting events, concerts, and other public entertainment. Venue owners often employ or contract for their own private security personnel, who may take the lead in securing an event or may play a supporting role to law enforcement agencies. Similarly, the law enforcement community needs to cultivate relationships with hotel security, since spectators and VIPs stay in hotels, and the event itself may be held at a hotel (for example, world championship boxing in Las Vegas). For major special events, law enforcement agencies should have a contact list (cell phones, pagers) for hotel security officers.

Finally, for some special events, security and other functions are supported by volunteers. For example, more than 1,000 volunteers assist with the Rose Bowl each year. For law enforcement agencies, this means attention to credentialing the volunteers as well as close coordination with volunteer organizations.

Training: In the special event after-action reports reviewed by the study team, many agencies said that they wished they could have received more training before the event. The best practices report contains training resources and discusses various training approaches, including the following:

  • Tabletop exercises, which typically involve fire/EMS, the health department/hospitals, partner law enforcement agencies, and other government officials (such as the city or county attorney)

  • Live training events where various types of terrorist attacks or other disasters are staged

  • Special classes held to prepare for a specific event (rights of protestors, use of riot gear, venue security, surveillance, operating in teams, and so forth)

  • Training in specialized areas, such as crowd control tactics, use of hazmat/WMD or other protective equipment, and so on

  • Training exercises during the event (if it lasts several days) to help maintain officers’ focus on what could happen and encourage continued attention to detail4

Management during and after the Event

Final Security Briefings: Final briefings are essential for communicating key points in the event security plan and any last-minute changes. These briefings are typically held early in the morning, several hours before the event begins. If time and logistics permit, it is useful to brief all involved personnel at the same time (a large space like a gymnasium or auditorium may be needed). If the event is exceptionally large and involves too many people to assemble at one place, the briefing may be limited to command staff and supervisors. If the event takes place over several days and involves officers on different shifts, additional briefings should be held at the beginning of each shift change.

When events involve protestors, it is always best for the lead agency to make sure the rules of engagement have been clearly and consistently explained to all field officers, especially those from outside agencies. Supervisors from an outside agency can sometimes miscommunicate instructions to their officers after hearing the briefing and later trying to pass them along.

Listed here are some of the points typically covered in final security briefings:

  • Distribution to commanders, supervisors, and key officers of contact lists, maps, and annotated event agendas

  • Reminders to everyone to check all equipment, especially radios, and report any malfunctions immediately

  • Last-minute intelligence reports

  • Logistics support plans—when personnel will get breaks, food and drinks, necessary supplies, and so on

  • After-action recommendations from previous events

  • Specific key assignments

  • Communications/radio protocol

  • Procedures for reporting incidents—minor and major—and how the response will be handled

  • Procedures for dealing with suspicious packages and bomb threats

  • Person and vehicle search procedures

  • Rules of engagement, being sensitive to participants’ civil liberties

  • Evacuation procedures

The best practices report includes checklists for use immediately before and during the event in many of the functional areas that were noted earlier in this article. It also discusses ground rules for ejection from an event, an issue on which law enforcement agencies and private security will need to agree for many major special events.

Postevent Activities: After the event ends and the crowds exit, responsibilities include completing the administrative and logistics plan for equipment return and inventory, removal of temporary barriers, accounting, billing, payment of overtime, and so forth; debriefing personnel; and preparing an afteraction report. For events taking place over multiple days, supervisors should prepare daily critiques of operations so that details are not forgotten. Debriefings may take the form of interviews and/or surveys of supervisors and representatives from other law enforcement agencies and partners (such as fire, EMS, or the city attorney). Finally, the after-action report should include the following:

  • Critiques of all operations (field operations, access points, personnel including supervisors, logistics, equipment, communications, training, and so on)

  • Deviations from the event security plan

  • Recommendations for what to keep, what to change, and how and why changes should be made


This article has only touched on some of the major components of planning and managing security for major special events. The full best practices report includes many more details about the issues that must be addressed for each critical function; checklists; and resources to consult for more information. The report also benefits greatly from the specific examples and lessons learned by the many federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and private security experts who contributed to the study. The guide and training CD were officially released at the COPS Office workshop “Making Special Events Safe Events” at the annual IACP conference in New Orleans in October. The full report, Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Guidelines for Law Enforcement Administrators is currently available from the COPS Office by calling 1-800-421-6770 or visiting ■

Note: Points of view or opinions contained in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Karl Bickel is a senior policy analyst with the COPS Office and served as project monitor for the COPS special event security study.

Ed Connors, president of the Institute for Law and Justice, directed the special event security study for COPS and served as principal investigator and author of the best practices report.


1Edward Connors, Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Guidelines for Law Enforcement Administrators (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, 2007), (accessed November 2, 2007).
2National Infrastructure Advisory Council, Vulnerability Disclosure Framework: Final Report and Recommendations by the Council, by John T. Chambers and John W. Thompson, January 2004, (accessed October 31, 2007); see also White House, The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, February 2003, (accessed October 31, 2007).
3The Secret Service has developed a partnership with the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute’s CERT Coordination Center (CERT/CC; The Center is developing protocols to evaluate information technology security risks and implement protective measures. This technology is evolving.
4This recommendation is from a report on security at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. See Jack R. Greene et al., Safety and Security at the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, 2002).



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 12, December 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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