Blue Line

Planning police operations: Lessons from the military

March 8, 2023  By Matthew Wood and Ryerson Maybee

The military and police share a lot in common. A look at their uniforms, symbols and customs tells us that much. In places like Afghanistan, Mexico and the United States, the police even wage wars on things like terror, organized crime and human trafficking. But those who have worn both uniforms know that there are some significant differences between the training, education and professional development of the two. One of those differences relates to planning operations.

From Feb. 13 to 23, 2022, the federal government declared a public order emergency in response to the weeks-long trucker protest in Ottawa. This was the first time a government had invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act, and the commission charged with investigating the Act’s use released its findings on Feb. 17th. What we’ve learned from their investigation is that the plan implemented by the police – which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested “wasn’t a plan at all”1 – was poorly developed,2 led to the loss of the public’s trust,3 and damaged Canada’s reputation as a nation.4

Generally speaking, operations take place at three levels: strategic (long term), operational (medium term) and tactical (single, one-off deployments). Each corresponds with a different level of command and resources. The bigger the problem, the longer it will take to solve, the more resources it will need, the larger the coordination and level of command engagement will have to be. This isn’t to say that tactical deployments don’t warrant as much attention – they too can have significant consequences if police constables don’t think strategically.5 But they are often the more routine police activities like maintaining public safety at small protests.

In the military, every leader at every level is trained in the principles of planning operations. In practice, the highest levels of command plan strategies and allocate resources to support them. The resulting missions trickle down to mid-level leaders who interpret their orders, plan their piece of the larger pie, and coordinate their resources to achieve the higher-level objective. And so it goes, trickling down from top to bottom, refined at each level until the front-line soldier understands exactly what, where, when, why and how s/he is doing what s/he’s been ordered to do. This often isn’t the case in policing where single, one-size-fits-some6 plans are created in silos by those without training, the power to define objectives or allocate resources.7


In the military, every leader at every level is trained in the principles of planning operations.

When military leaders complete their planning process, they issue orders (i.e. plans) to soldiers in the SMESC instruction format: Situation, Mission, Execution, Service and Support (or Administration), and Command and Signals. Lots of police services use this format for their plans but have misinterpreted it as the planning process, when in fact it is meant to be the outcome of the planning process.

In policing, it is common for mid-level leaders to direct low-ranking officers to develop plans without any meaningful training in plan development, a doctrine to follow, or a “Commander’s Intent” from which to interpret their mission. The resulting plans are often generic statements of action which may or may not align with the operational or strategic goals of the service.

The concept of a commander’s intent is one of the most important parts of any plan. Defined as “a concise expression of the purpose of the operation, which describes the desired end state,”8 a commander’s intent is a statement that outlines what the leader hopes to accomplish. The mission statement, on the other hand, is a specific task that the leader assigns to his or her subordinate in pursuit of that intent. The mission is the what, the commander’s intent is the why, and the rest of SMESC is the how.

By understanding the commander’s intent, subordinates are empowered to use initiative – even deviate from their mission – provided their actions accomplish the commander’s intent. This concept, known as mission command, is founded on trust between leader and subordinate and offers the subordinate flexibility to respond to events as they unfold on the ground. After learning the commander’s intent is when the planning process truly begins.

The Operational Planning Process8 (OPP) involves five steps designed to be used in both deliberate (expected) operations or crisis situations. A crucial part of this process relevant to policing is the “estimate,” which is a formal approach to thinking. It is a methodology that ensures a planner understands the mission and accounts for the factors likely to affect it. The first part of the estimate, mission analysis, asks four questions:

  • What does my leader and their leader intend to do, and how do I support that intent?
  • What tasks do I need to do to accomplish my mission?
  • What limitations are there on my actions (e.g. geographical boundaries)?
  • Has the situation changed since I started my planning process?

The second part of the estimate, the factors analysis, requires the planner to consider a series of factors that could affect the success of the operation. The military groups these factors into large buckets like “environment” and “morale,” where planners consider specific variables such as terrain and weather. For each factor, the planner asks: “So what?” and produces a deduction. For example, if an operation involving vehicles is taking place in the winter, an environmental factor to consider is the potential for snow. “So what? Maybe we should equip our vehicles with snow tires.” That deduction then becomes a task to assign to someone in the subsequent plan. Once a planner has considered all the relevant factors, the deductions are grouped together to develop several Courses of Action (COAs) before selecting the best one to become the plan.

While the OPP is a military process, its principles are undoubtedly applicable to policing. Police services can develop their own lists of factors to consider, such as the type of problem (e.g. property crime, violent crime, public order), the model of policing (e.g. community, order maintenance, intelligence-led), level of public trust, political environment and degree of social cohesion. Although training for police officers (beyond IMS) is a challenge that requires a larger, institutional response, police planners today can add a modified factors analysis to their current processes to make their plans more robust. The public is watching, and proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance.


  1. Tunney, C. (2022, Nov 25). Trudeau ‘serene’ about invoking Emergencies Act, says police plan to clear protest ‘wasn’t a plan at all’. CBC News.
  2. Tunney, C. (2023, Feb 17). Federal government met the threshold to invoke Emergencies Act: Rouleau. CBC News.
  3. Tunney, C. (2022, Nov 25). Trudeau ‘serene’ about invoking Emergencies Act, says police plan to clear protest ‘wasn’t a plan at all’. CBC News.
  4. McLeod, M., & Walsh, M. (2022, Dec 1). What we learned at Emergencies Act inquiry after six weeks of testimony. The Globe and Mail.
  5. Wood, Matthew. “The Strategic Constable: Developing resilient police constables in Ontario.” Blue Line Magazine. July 2020.
  6. “The final operational plan included a traffic management plan, a tactical plan and a public order plan.” OPS Closing Submission.
  7. “The planning for the Convoy was the responsibility of the Special Events office. Upon his appointment as Incident Commander, Inspector Lucas tasked planners in Special Events to prepare an operational plan and to reply upon subject matter experts to prepare supporting subplans.” OPS Closing Submission.
  8. B-GJ-005-500-FP-000, “Operational Planning Process, 5I-2.

Matthew Wood is a police constable with the Toronto Police Service, currently assigned to divisional planning. He’s a part-time professor at the Seneca College School of Public Safety, and also served 18 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a sergeant. He is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law program at York University.

Ryerson Maybee is a Manager of Security Operations for the City of Mississauga. He served over 25 years with the Canadian Armed Forces and deployed to both Bosnia and Afghanistan. He retired as a captain.

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