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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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Call for Civilian Backup

When dealing with uncivil civilians, you might find yourself needing help from another, more civil, civilian.

November 07, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Recently, I got to thinking about Nicola Cotton, the New Orleans police officer shot and killed with her own sidearm by a wanted rape suspect early this year. For seven minutes, Cotton struggled with her assailant in clear view of numerous civilian witnesses. None came forth to help the officer who was half the size of her assailant. Cotton, as well as the unborn baby she was carrying, paid the ultimate price for the apathy of those who milled around, idly intrigued by the sordid life-or-death drama that played out before them.

I was both depressed and disheartened by the incident. Depressed by the loss of another officer’s life; disheartened that so many she was trying to protect didn’t try to do as much for her.

People often ask, “Who watches the watchmen?” But they might be better served to ask, “Who helps them?”

Not that cops can’t be their own worst enemy, occasionally getting into situations over their heads. Worse still, they’re like men who refuse to ask for directions: A cop, regardless of gender, can have a macho “I can handle it” paradigm that overrides his or her sense of self-preservation.

Fortunately, there are those civilians who—requested or not—will jump into the fray in a cop’s hour of need.

People like twenty-one-year-old Ben Saks, who in 2006 was shot in his left hand while helping a police officer.

Or Texan Travis Neel, who, having witnessed the shooting of a Harris County deputy sheriff, pulled his own gun and fired, driving the deputy's assailants away.

Then there’s Ralph Festavan, who watched as a heroin peddler attacked a Shreveport (La.) policeman and grabbed the officer's gun. Festavan ran to a nearby patrol car and grabbed a shotgun, which he used to shoot and kill the offender.

I should also mention Floridian Vincent McCarthy, who didn’t hesitate to lend help to a police officer struggling with a man and woman at the side of the road. When his own efforts failed to deter the man’s assault on the officer, McCarthy shot the cop’s attacker once in the leg with a pistol he was licensed to carry, stopping the attack.

These and many other citizens have put their own butts on the line to go out of their way to assist officers, often saving their lives.

Ironically, numerous psychological studies have shown that the fewer people present at the scene, the greater likelihood an officer might get desperately needed assistance. Observers to problem situations often assume that someone else is going to intervene and that this anticipated interloper—such as another officer—will somehow be more qualified to help than they are. This “bystander effect” is reinforced when people look to see what others are doing, all of the witnesses in effect becoming mutual inhibiters to one another.

If faced with such a situation, it’s incumbent upon you to identify an individual and tell him what to do to help you. By placing the responsibility upon a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse among several bystanders, you could save your own ass. At the very least, you’ll give his conscience some badly needed grief if he just stands around and the situation goes further south for you.

But when civilians decide to help, their assistance can be invaluable.

Just ask Ramiro Martinez, one of two hero cops who shot and killed Charles Whitman. He will tell you that civilian Allen Crum, who volunteered to accompany the officers to the top of the university Tower, was a “rock of Gibraltar.”

So continue to take precautions. Use officer safety practices to minimize the prospect of your having to go mano-a-mano with some suspect. Always try to keep the sympathies of witnesses on your side by displaying patience and professionalism. Don’t be shy about asking for assistance from everyday people should you find yourself in need. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response.

Comments (9)

Displaying 1 - 9 of 9

hansen @ 11/10/2008 7:48 AM

Very tue! Don't let your ego get the best of you. I have never met someone that didn't need help at some point in thier lives.

By the way, do you mind if I use this article in training classes???

John Hansen

prosecutorx @ 11/14/2008 4:10 PM

Good article, but there's a disconnect between what help patrol officers and deputies may need on the street and what licensed CCW citizens are told. CCW holders are told to remember they are not police officers and are not to intervene to stop criminal acts unless their own lives are threatened.

In other words, CCW holders are supposed to do what private security does when faced with criminal activity that is not directed at them: observe and report. And, especially in the People's Republic of California, it is considered in bad taste and contemptible to use deadly force in defense of one's self, let alone in defense of a third person. (The press and the public here ignore the laws regarding self defense. The thought of civilians using deadly force, let alone training to do so, is anathema to liberals.)

We in law enforcement in California need to support right-to-carry laws and to encourage training in the where, when, why and how regarding the use of firearms. After all, more than 37 states already have passed such laws and with no ill effects. I believe our society needs to seek a return to self-reliance and autonomy. When more and more law-abiding citizens begin to believe that they, too, share responsibility for the safety of themselves and those around them, we all will be more secure. Our citizens will never believe that as long as law enforcement bureaucrats continue to oppose right-to-carry laws.

David Moore S-55 @ 11/14/2008 7:34 PM

Excellent Article!!! "Fortunately, there are those civilians who—requested or not—will jump into the fray in a cop’s hour of need." - "In a heartbeat." I could never look away and deny, then live with myself! In 1975 I came across a 10-45 fatal traffic accident man drunk in street vs car...Car won...Although not a Immediate emergency for the deputy, traffic was getting dangerous and a safety concern with cars piling up...too many babyneckers driving by...I was in Uniform Off Duty Armed Security on way home at this time in 70's). I asked the deputy if he needed help he said yes as I did have a safety vest I put on, so I jumped in to helping another agency, ( by directing traffic around scene), done per permission of Deputy on-scene. Upon arrival of a Field Sgt he jumped all over me for being in street, The deputy who also told the Sgt he approved me to help until other units arrived. His comment back to deputy was I don't give a F**k I'll deal with you later... "Mr. Personality came running up to me - got in my face and ordered me out of street - I complied with a beet red face of anger, and deputy told me sorry he asked for my name and number called me later to have coffee and thank me." This was in front of quite a crowd of on-lookers, that had gathered. I would do it again in the same situation- the teeth marks on the rear are a sign of being involved. I now understand there was a liability concern me in street. Some people are just like fire, you stay away from as they are just too hot to be around!!

kunu963 @ 11/15/2008 10:51 AM

As an active member of our village EMS, I would never hesitate to come to the aid of my officers, but we all know each other. I admit that although I am more than willing to aid another jurisdictions officers, I would be fearful of being mistaken for one of the assailants and possibly shot or arrested by other responding officers. "The spirit is willing......."

nracfi @ 11/18/2008 7:04 AM

I think that many people hesitate to get involved because they don't know what to do and are fearful of making a bad situation worse. There are probably some who have faced a situation similar to or worse than what - David Moore - describes in his comment above and will no longer get involved. Training is one remedy for this, civilians who come into positive contact with law enforcement through media such as Civilian Police Academies, Block Watcher Programs, Crime Prevention Seminars, etc.. should be taught various methods of assistng LE when a situation goes south. Also those civilians who get involved should be thanked and commended and if warranted departmentaly recognized for their actions. This will encourage civilian involvement and help foster a more positive view of LE amongst the community and quite possibly reduce the number of names being added to the wall in Washington D.C.

SgtMark08 @ 12/7/2008 6:13 PM

I had the help from a citizen a couple years ago. The citizen approached me as I was trying to take a person into custody and asked if needed help. The help was as something as simple as the citizen grabbing the other arm and holding it behind the suspect so I could free up a hand and grab my cuffs.

Don't be afraid to thank your helper. I extended a handshake, a sincere thank you and got the citizens name and address. The next day I went to the citizens house and gave him a $25 dollar gift certificate for a local restaurant.

Hansen @ 1/1/2009 9:49 AM

I just saw the post about CCW carriers, I teach CCW classes in AZ. Here is what we advise them word for word!

Approaching an officer during volatile situations can further aggravate the situation. DO NOT approach officers without first getting their attention and requesting permission. Best to stay away. 1.) Ask the Officer if help is needed! 2.) Inform the officer that you are armed! 3.) Follow his directions at that point! If asked to help you are covered from GROSS NEGLIGENCE.

This is the short version, we discus this in great detail. I often remind students of Phoenix Police Officer Marc Atkinson. The only reason the suspect in his murder were caught was because of an armed CCW holder that happen to be around and acted accordingly!

John Hansen

dscoville @ 1/2/2009 1:13 AM

While feedback is always appreciated, there are some real "rubber meets the road" suggestions herein. Prosecutorx's comments about societal inhibiters here in California are sad, but true (I know places like Chicago and New Jersey are no better, but I like to believe the problem isn't pandemic). In any event, suggestions about how education can encourage citizen-assistance is an extremely valid point. Simple everyday field contacts - while you're on calls, eating, or just talking with someone on the street - can help to this end. And as Sgt. Mark notes, if someone does go that extra mile for you, please take the extra time to thank them. They deserve at least that much.

Rob @ 6/17/2016 10:07 PM

As a traveling salesman who puts 50,000 miles a year on the road for 30 years I have had occasion to come upon an officer in a potentially sticky situation once or twice. As a CW licensee, I have parked my car far enough away from the situation and just sat there and watched until back up came. I no more wanted to get out of my vehicle and "get involved' than the officer probably wanted me to stay put. The feeling that I got when I put it in drive and slowly rolled away was awesome compared to how I could have felt if I ignored the officers exposure to harm and did nothing.

I have considered many times about forming a "non-profit" association called OFFICER BACK-UP and issue bumper stickers that just say B-U in black with a thin blue line. This way officers would be able to identify possible back-up in a parking lot in a neighborhood

If anyone has interest or think this idea would go national let me know at the email above or my cell: 321-960-9174


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