OnPolicing Blog

Managing Chaos

February 18, 2016

John McMahon

John McMahon

San Bernardino County Sheriff

John McMahon

John McMahon

San Bernardino County Sheriff

If you have been in the business of law enforcement for a significant time, there’s no doubt you have had to deal with some extraordinary circumstances and incidents. I have been the Sheriff of San Bernardino County, California, for three years, and I have definitely seen my share of high-profile cases.

Within the first six weeks of being sworn in as the Sheriff, I found myself and my department in the middle of an intense situation involving Christopher Dorner, a deranged ex-cop who terrorized Southern California during a ten-day killing spree that ended in a massive manhunt in my county. Hundreds of news cameras and reporters from throughout the world descended on the scene, and the event became the top national news story for five straight days.

Tragically, three officers and one civilian lost their lives, and many more were seriously injured as a result of Dorner’s domestic terrorist activities. One of my own deputies was killed and another was critically wounded during this event.

As you can imagine, this was one hell of a test in leadership for a brand new Sheriff. And as I expected, more tests were to come.

My career has been incredible. I started as a young deputy sheriff, promoted through the ranks, and was ultimately elected as the Sheriff of San Bernardino County. For me, it was the culmination of every position I experienced that provided me with the ability and knowledge to successfully manage chaos.

On Dec. 2, the City of San Bernardino came under attack from two heavily armed terrorists who killed 14 innocent people and wounded 22 others. Almost all of the murdered and injured citizens were San Bernardino County employees who had gathered to take part in a training event and a holiday gathering. This was later deemed to be the largest terrorist attack in the U. S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

Once again, as Sheriff I was thrust into a multi-week long, high profile event that required leadership and collaboration. As I look back on everything that transpired, I could not be more proud of the collective efforts of the men and women of my department and every agency that responded to this incident. The competence and the interagency teamwork of all involved was truly extraordinary.

It might seem easy to say that nothing can prepare you for something like that. I would say it’s actually just the opposite. Everything in my career prepared me for the chaos of that day and the weeks that followed. I have learned a lot over the years, and when it comes to leading through chaotic high profile events, there are a few things I would like to share that have worked well for me.

I have put competent people in critical positions because I believe it’s a mistake to surround yourself with “yes” men and women. If I was told every time that my idea or plan was great, there is a strong chance that somewhere along the line I would make a costly mistake. I expect my staff to provide me with honest feedback, and I listen! When given the pros and cons, sometimes it becomes very clear that my initial idea didn’t make sense.

I also understand that I alone cannot do everything. I have great people who work for me, and they understand the mission of the department and the direction we are heading. It is important to select the right people to be in key positions for the right reasons, and not because you owe someone or because they are your friends. I rely on them heavily, and delegation is critically important.

This is especially true during a crisis. I trust and expect the people around me to get their respective jobs done. During rapidly evolving complex situations, it is impossible to think of everything. I have competent people in place who feel comfortable feeding me with information and ideas; they help me vet out the tasks that need to be done and carry out the duties that are delegated to them. In a crisis this process happens quickly, and efficiency is critical to a successful outcome.

My trust has to filter down to every single person who works for me. On Dec. 2, it was evident that my trust was warranted. Everyone on my staff handled their jobs remarkably. Dispatchers calmly took information and got our people to the right places. Our deputies and our SWAT teams joined with San Bernardino police officers and several other agencies at multiple scenes. Our detectives and analysts immediately began trying to figure out who the suspects were while our bomb team made sure the scene of the original attack was safe. Our executive staff and commanders helped me coordinate the entire effort; our crime scene technicians spent days processing the evidence, and our Media Relations team did an outstanding job helping to manage the intense media demands.

One of the things law enforcement throughout our entire County has been widely recognized for following the terrorist events on Dec. 2 is the incredible inter-agency cooperation that occurred during and after the event. That cooperation does not happen by accident. For the last several years, we have worked hard to develop friendly and trusted working relationships with all of the law enforcement agencies in our County and beyond. We meet regularly, and we go out of our way to help each other when needed.  As you might expect, that help is always reciprocated.

To achieve this level of cooperation, it is vitally important to check your ego at the door.  Big egos are destructive and are often the cause of interagency strife.  It doesn’t matter whose agency is bigger or perceived to be better. We are not in competition, and when we work together, we only pull each other up. As a law enforcement leader, I have to continually strive to remember that we are all in this together, regardless of what patch we wear.

One other important lesson that I was reminded of from the Dec. 2 attacks is it remains critical for folks in our position to be ready physically, psychologically and mentally to handle any situation and to recognize it can happen at any time. We owe it to our citizens and staff to serve them well.

I maintain a strict exercise program and a healthy diet. I often compare thoughts and ideas with some of my fellow sheriffs, and I am blessed to have a very supportive wife who does her very best to take care of me. I also have a pastor I talk to on a regular basis. All of these things help me to be prepared, as I truly believe that if you don’t take care of yourself, you aren’t doing your job.

To summarize, when it comes to leading though chaotic high profile events:

  • Delegate, listen and trust your people
  • Develop key inter-agency relationships well in advance of a situation
  • Leave your ego at the door
  • Have the right people in critical rolls
  • Take care of yourself physically and mentally

While I realize this is not a comprehensive list, I do believe these are a few important areas you can focus on to help ensure you are ready to lead your agency when the chaotic event comes your way. Believe me, because I know, it can happen to any of us. Given our world today, traumatic events will unfortunately visit many of our communities in the years ahead. Good leaders do what they can to be ready. Your people and your community are counting on you, and someone’s life may depend on it.


Sheriff John McMahon began his career with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as a patrol deputy and worked his way up, serving in multiple capacities throughout the organization before he was appointed to Sheriff by the Board of Supervisors to fulfill the unexpired term of Sheriff, after which he won the ensuing election. McMahon possesses an Associate of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Victor Valley College, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice Management from Union Institute & University. He is certified as a Jail Manager through the American Jail Association, and is a graduate of the Los Angeles Police West Point Leadership Program.

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John McMahon

John McMahon

San Bernardino County Sheriff

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