You see a lot of cops on TV arguing about jurisdiction. Generally speaking, the set-up is that whatever group of cops the show is following is being squeezed out by someone else, claiming jurisdiction. The whole thing comes across as petty and political, and while's probably some truth to that, there are a few things I've learned about jurisdiction over the years, from my worth in the lab, in the field, and on the ambulance. If you're a crime writer, or just an interested reader, maybe some of these notes will be interesting or helpful:
- Any service that's provided by multiple agencies is going to have jurisdictional issues. Jurisdiction is simply how those agencies define the boundaries of who provides that service in what geographical location, at what level of need, in what context of government, etc.
- More often than not, multiple agencies with overlapping or unclear jurisdiction in a certain situation will actually cooperate and work together. There's not always bickering between them.
- The most common tie-breaker when agencies have competing claims is, "who got there first?" The other common one is, "who was actually dispatched to the scene first?"
- Sometimes there are good, but not obvious, reasons to be concerned about jurisdiction. In a volatile situation, an agency with a bad reputation in the area might be better off deferring to a more popular agencies in order to manage the public.
- Sometimes jurisdiction changes as a case or situation develops. For instance, the DNR might handle the initial scene management if skeletal remains are found on park land. A local law enforcement agency will probably be brought in for crowd control. A county or state agency will be contacted to coordinate with the coroner. If the crime itself crosses state lines, the FBI might need to take over, as the county or state agency would have no authority in another state. (On the ambulance side, a basic life support unit may call for advanced life support when they determine that the patient needs breathing treatment, and ALS might then call for a helicopter if they determine the patient needs to be flown to a specialty trauma center.)
- Complexity of mobilization increases with scale and scope. It's always least complex for the most local agency to respond. Once a higher-level agency has gotten everything together and arrived on scene, it is understandable that they might be reluctant to withdraw. It was harder (and probably riskier) for them to get there in the first place.
- Typically, units are dispatched to a scene. If an agency has been told by another authority to go to a scene, they often don't have the freedom to just back off. They might require the permission of the dispatching authority, or they might be required to stay on-scene or on the case by their operating protocols or even laws.
Just as you see on TV, jurisdictional disputes can be heated, but it's important for crime writers to not oversimplify the situation. Even when it's petty and personal, it's not as simple as people grabbing for power in most cases.
For instance, our EMS system in the county where I live and volunteer is distributed. There are two advanced life support units out of the main hospital, and then volunteer basic life support units in most of the towns. Because the local units are volunteer, they don't always have the people to be in service. Other local units cover their territory when this happens.
So, even though our town is small, we get a fair number of runs because we cover part of the countryside and also cover for other towns which are either smaller or else just have a smaller volunteer base. There's a very small town near us. Most nights, they don't have an ambulance in service. That means they dispatch our ambulance when there is an emergency.
When our pagers go off, we have four minutes to make it to the station and be rolling. Most of all calls are 911 responses and that means as soon as we're going, it's lights and sirens and high speeds. This is very dangerous, particularly when it's 3am and we were just woken out of our sleep.
So then, as we get close to the town, pretty often, all of a sudden, that town's local ambulance comes on the radio, says they're going in-service and are arriving on-scene. Our presence is no longer required or desired.
This is jurisdictional dispute. They were there first. It's their territory. But they were out of service, so we were dispatched and then took the risks involved in responding. Ultimately, if the patient is cared for, that's what's important. We know it's petty, but we do feel put out, and it's not some sort of power-grab.
This sort of thing happens all the time on the police side, as well. So be kind to jurisdiction, dear crime writer friends.