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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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Stay Calm on the Radio and On the Road

Losing control when calling for backup or responding as backup can multiply a tragedy.

May 09, 2007  |  by - Also by this author


How would you react to hearing this impassioned plea over the radio?

One deputy who'd been off training for only a few months heard just this type of highly charged request for assistance. Already in the process of transporting a prisoner when he heard the transmission, the rookie felt that the tone of the broadcast was so emergent that it obligated him to respond code 3 to assist. As he did, he drove 80 mph through a red light and broadsided another vehicle.

This single incident can be divided into two cautionary tales.

First, it illustrates how important it is to consider the implications of our radio transmissions. When we key up the radio and speak, we communicate more than mere words; we communicate our state of mind and give some sense of our predicament. When we allow our emotions to get the better of us, we can find ourselves shouting into the radio, cutting ourselves off, or needlessly tying up the frequency by repeating ourselves while our fellow officers are responding code 3 on possibly divergent paths.

Emotionally charged transmissions not only complicate our primary mission—which is to get help—they can also foster unanticipated situations as when officers over drive in their efforts to get to us. This underscores the need to communicate requests for assistance or backup in an even and clear tone.

By multiple accounts, the deputy who requested assistance was shouting into his portable radio, suggesting a more emergent situation than he was confronting. While more veteran deputies had gotten used to the deputy’s emotional requests, newer personnel had not. Indeed, the rookie deputy thought that his fellow deputy was in dire trouble and decided to roll hard to his location.

This incident shows how important it is for us to recognize how we evaluate the information we receive and how we choose to react to it. In this situation, the rookie’s decision to respond with a prisoner in tow and the manner in which he set about doing so, proved fateful for several parties.

As a result of the collision, both the deputy and his prisoner received major injuries and, for a period of time, there was discussion of the deputy being the first officer in California to be charged for vehicular murder. He ended up plea bargaining down to a misdemeanor and found himself medically retired.

Two primary factors caused this tragedy. But it all comes down to adrenaline.

• The deputy asking for backup let his adrenaline take over on the radio.

• The responding deputy’s adrenaline flow led him to over drive and that caused the accident.

How might the responding deputy have reacted to a more tempered request for assistance?

Officers should give this situation some thought. No doubt, many cops have been on either side or the equation. If not, the odds are very good that they one day will be. Anticipating and planning for this possibility can help.

It is certainly understandable for rookie officers to feel heightened anxiety when encountering new situations. But as officers are increasingly immersed in a variety of field situations, it is expected that they will respond with ever greater degrees of competency and professional calm.

Responding officers also have to realize that they have to arrive at the scene in one piece if they are going to provide backup.

It all comes down to controlling your adrenaline, not letting it control you.

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