Interagency collaboration between a law enforcement officer and firefighter.
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December 7, 2017
    Article highlights
  • What does interagency collaboration really mean?
  • Benefits of interagency collaboration.
  • Where can you go from here?

At some point, every law enforcement agency will need to collaborate with other agencies.

Interagency collaboration in law enforcement may take the shape of sharing resources with another police department to offer specialized training. Or working with other local public safety agencies to plan for potential emergency situations. Or collaborating with the city’s public health department to develop better ways to respond to calls involving people with mental illness.

Interagency collaboration in law enforcement can be challenging. Different agencies have different cultures and ways of doing things. But they also have different perspectives and different areas of expertise, and collaboration can be very beneficial if done effectively.

As one research study found:

Interagency collaboration promotes greater efficiency in service delivery, improves the role definition of participating agencies, improves the quality and quantity of program information, and minimizes political damage from reduced funding.

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What Does Interagency Collaboration Really Mean?

Interagency collaboration is the process of agencies working together toward a common purpose or goal.

The Government Accountability Office defines interagency collaboration as “any joint activity by two or more organizations that is intended to produce more public value than could be produced when the organizations act alone.”

Interagency collaboration in law enforcement is a mutual sharing of resources and ideas.

No one wants an outsider overstepping boundaries or telling them how to do things in their department. So collaboration requires respect and clear expectations and boundaries on both sides.

However, when done well, interagency collaboration helps prevent potential issues between departments. Proactive collaboration allows the agencies to set terms and establish protocols for situations where both (or all) of the agencies might be involved.

Collaboration vs cooperation

The terms “interagency cooperation” and “interagency collaboration” are often used interchangeably. But they’re not always the same thing.

Interagency cooperation usually describes a more reactive approach. Agencies deal with incidents as they occur and try to work together as-needed in a professional manner.

Cooperation is often more of a forced arrangement – when circumstances or leaders compel agencies to work together.

Interagency collaboration in law enforcement takes a more proactive approach. Agencies actively plan for potential situations, share information, discuss potential issues, establish join protocols and lines of communication.

Collaboration happens before an incident occurs. Sometimes it’s formalized, such as in interagency committees. Other times it happens more informally, as members of different agencies build relationships, share expertise, and suggest ways for their agencies to work together.

Multiple agencies responding to a scene, requiring interagency collaboration.

An example of interagency cooperation vs interagency collaboration

Here’s an example to help illustrate the difference between interagency cooperation and interagency collaboration:

A police officer pulls over a driver for a DUI and notices that the driver is behaving erratically and may need medical attention. They call in emergency medical services.

The EMTs want to take the driver to the hospital. The police officers think the driver is just drunk and want to take the driver in for booking. Who makes the final decision?

In a case of interagency cooperation, the officers and the EMTs will have to make the decision on a case-by-case basis. They may waste valuable time arguing, or may have to call in supervisors.

In a case of interagency collaboration, however, the police department and emergency medical services have already communicated beforehand and established protocols for this sort of situation.

The officers and the EMTs will still have to discuss the particulars of the scene, but they will have more context to understand one another’s point of view. They will have guidelines for decision-making that will allow a swifter response that works well for everyone involved.

More than jurisdictional issues

Sometimes, interagency collaboration in law enforcement is a matter of deciding how to work together when in areas where different local, state, and federal agencies share jurisdiction.

But interagency collaboration is far more than just figuring out how to not step on each other’s toes.

Collaborations can help prepare for emergency response situations that involve multiple public safety agencies. If departments have collaborated beforehand, they can respond more quickly and work together more efficiently.

Interagency collaboration may also include opportunities to pool resources to make training more effective while cutting costs.

In some cases, public safety departments may even share other resources. For example, police departments may share a drone with the city’s fire department or urban planning department.

Policy-level issues

Some aspects of interagency collaboration in law enforcement will need to be formalized in a policy or procedure.

For critical situations where multiple agencies will respond, a formal procedure can help things run smoothly.

For example, the police department and fire department may collaborate to create a policy for situations where there is a fire at a crime scene.

A formalized policy will help everyone involved do their jobs effectively.

Firefighters can respond to the fire and make sure the area is safe, but also minimize scene contamination. Police can help redirect traffic and secure the scene, so the public remains at a safe distance and firefighters can work without interference.

Policy-level interagency collaborations may also involve creating shared communication systems for emergency situations.

A picture of interagency collaboration in law enforcement as multiple agencies work together at a scene.

Benefits of Interagency Collaboration

As mentioned before, there are many benefits of actively collaborating with other agencies rather than just cooperating with them when necessary.

Builds public trust

When public safety agencies work together, it creates more efficient departments, safer communities, and more trust in the public safety agencies in a city.

In our post about Breaking Down Silos in Public Safety, fire and police officials from the City of Elgin, Illinois, discussed how interagency collaboration has helped their department and their community.

“It saves money for the citizens when you have organizations that work tightly together,” the fire battalion chief said. “You’re getting the best bang for your buck. That’s what communities care about.”

Allows for better information sharing

Proactive interagency collaboration in law enforcement opens the lines of communication between agencies. This allows for better, more accurate information sharing between departments. It reduces misunderstandings and miscommunications, which can be dangerous in emergency situations.

This information sharing is helpful in non-emergency situations, as well. Agencies can share information about trends happening in the community, or about big community events.

For example, the police and fire departments in Elgin have begun doing a joint command center during big city festivals. This allows them to better respond to incidents depending on the need.

Instead of having to back and forth about who should respond the join commanders can decide together.

Emergency and situational preparedness

If an emergency situation occurs, things quickly become chaotic. Interagency collaboration can help with planning and preparing so agencies can respond swiftly and effectively.

For example, after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, agencies and nonprofits from around the state and country mobilized to respond. Different agencies coordinated to rescue those stranded, offer medical assistance, and house survivors.

This sort of collaboration also comes into effect with situations such as active shooters, terror attacks, and other multi-agency events.

Of course, every situation is different, but having a plan in place helps everyone know their roles and responsibilities.

Accepted protocols and open lines of communication help agencies leap into to action and increase the safety of everyone involved.

Pool your resources and expertise

Police training budgets are often tight. Our recent survey on the State of Policy in Law Enforcement found that only a small percentage of police departments felt they had the budget to do all the training they felt their staff needed.

Interagency training can be a way to extend law enforcement training dollars.

This may include working with neighboring police departments to host combined training or offer specialized training. It can also include shared training between different local public safety agencies.

For example, the police and fire departments in the City of Elgin do inter-department training for situations that will include both agencies. This includes active shooter, hostage, and barricaded builder scenarios.

Interagency training not only cuts costs, but it ensures that police officers and firefighters are drawing from the same training when responding to an incident.

Training and information sharing doesn’t always have to happen in a joint classroom setting. In some cases, agencies may be able to use online software tools to share training resources and information.

Police and fire departments respond to the same scene demonstrating interagency collaboration in law enforcement and public safety.

Where Can You Go From Here?

Interagency collaboration in law enforcement doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few ways to get started with collaborating with other agencies in your community:

Reach out and build relationships

Interagency collaboration starts with personal relationships.

As Commander Ana Lalley of the Elgin Police Department says, “What really gets the work done is personal relationships. The philosophy matters, but the people carry it out take it to the next level.”

Getting started with a collaboration may be as simple as getting a handful of people in a room for coffee or breakfast.

Chief-to-chief relationships are helpful, but collaborative relationships should be deeper than that. There needs to be a level of trust between members at all levels of the agencies. In Elgin, the police and fire command staffs get together for breakfast every few months.

Leaders set the tone for the officers and employees working together on the ground.

Command staff should work to foster a culture of collaboration, where there is an expectation that the department will work with other agencies to plan and prepare for ways to work together.

Establish two-way lines of communication

Different agencies often have different philosophies and methods, which can result in clashes when multiple agencies have to work together.

Once you’ve built trust between agencies, you can openly talk through problems and issues. You can establish compromises that work for everyone involved. This can help prevent conflicts and quickly resolve any issues that arise.

For example, police and fire commanders may discuss how far back the police should stay from a fire scene. And they may decide who to call if there is a problem between the departments.

Conduct joint training and exercises

As previously mentioned, interagency training can help pool resources and cut costs.

Talk with other agency leaders about overlaps in training. Are there areas where you could work together?

This could be as simple as sharing online training content or getting a group together to do scenario-based field training. Or it could be as involved as a full-fledged training exercise to prepare for an active shooter or natural disaster with all public safety agencies participating.

Don’t forget about inner-department collaboration

In order to collaborate with other agencies, you have to make sure your agency is working well internally.

Make sure the different units within your agency are actively collaborating, sharing information and training and building relationships and trust. Good internal collaboration will lay the groundwork for effective external collaboration.

Done well, interagency collaboration in law enforcement benefits everyone involved. It helps cut costs, improve information and training resources, and make agencies more effective overall.

As you seek to build interagency collaborations, remember it’s about working together effectively, not about which agency is best.

As the Elgin battalion chief advised, “Take the temperature in your community and establish what the needs are. Then, build personal relationships and reach out. Focus on relationships, not on which department gets the credit.”

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