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Lessons of Survival

May 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

On Easter Sunday 1998, I was injured when a suspect ambushed another deputy and myself with an AK-47. In the shooting's aftermath, I considered how I owed my survival to formal and informal training that others had given me.

Since my officer-involved shooting, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the tactics and mental discipline that help officers survive deadly force incidents. And for the last several years as a member of the POLICE Magazine editorial staff and author of the magazine's "Shots Fired" features, I've had the opportunity to speak at length with numerous officers who have been forced to shoot people in the line of duty.

All of the officers that I've interviewed have volunteered generously of their time and energy, exhibiting a greater degree of candor than I could have possibly hoped for. And in those shootings where things could have been handled differently, perhaps even better, the officers involved readily acknowledged as much. Each is dedicated to sharing his or her experience so that their fellow officers might get home at the end of their own duty shifts.

Here's some of the information that they would like to share with you, the next generation of officers who may have to use deadly force on the streets.

You Are Never Off Duty

Kenneth Hammond was at the mall with his wife. Paul Ware was driving home. Spencer O'Bryan was at home, trying to get into his house. Ron Redding was at home, taking a nap. (You can read their stories by clicking on the links to their names in this article.)

Each of these officers was off duty, alone, and getting involved in a shooting was just about the last thing any one of them would have expected. Yet each found himself involved in just such a situation-and each was damn happy to have a weapon when he needed it.

But there are officers who routinely refrain from carrying firearms off duty. While for some it may be a matter of personal preference, I suspect that more often than not it is in keeping with the wishes of loved ones. If you refrain from carrying because your loved one doesn't want you to, ask your loved one to review the circumstances surrounding such shootings and consider the implications for each of the officers had they not been armed.

For however seemingly innocuous our daily routines, fate and circumstance can conspire to put us in life-or-death situations. Fortunately for each of these officers, they were not only armed, but had faith in both their weapons and themselves.

Prepare for the Worst

All of the officers I have interviewed for "Shots Fired" had envisioned themselves being in firefights long before the possibility became a reality. So when the time came, they responded quickly and reacted with conditioned accuracy.

Fort Worth police officer Paul Ware had considered the tactical implications of being engaged by a suspect while seated in the driver's seat of his personal pickup and how the vehicle's design could work to his tactical advantage: an elevated position (the high ground), tinted windows (obscuring the view from suspects outside the vehicle), and the offer of some additional cover and concealment (truck door, engine block, etc.). Such considerations paid off when he was confronted while seated in the cab of the truck.

Think about locations where you spend considerable amounts of time, then ask yourself: If I am confronted with a shooting situation in this location, what role will I play-survivor or victim?

Don't Rush In

Upon being dispatched to a call, one officer accidentally drove past the target location. Doubling back, he found himself parking across the street from his destination as opposed to on the same side as initially planned. In doing so, he'd unwittingly bought himself a couple of precious seconds that allowed him to quickly respond to an axe-wielding attacker.

With this in mind, don't rush into things. Unless the matter is a known life or death one such as an active shooter, take an extra second or two to get the lay of the land. If a neighbor is outside, ask them if they're aware of a problem and who the players might be.

Expect the Unexpected

Seemingly "low risk" calls sometimes turn out to be anything but. One officer was told a suicidal suspect wasn't armed, only to find out the hard way that he was. Another responded to a location expecting to find a subject wanting to turn himself in for an outstanding warrant. Instead, upon the officer's arrival the man charged the officer with an edged weapon.

The officer backed away from the subject as he drew his gun and fired, killing the man in what has become known variously as suicide by cop or officer-assisted suicide. Obviously, the nature of the call can be disarming; the intel as suspect as the people you're dealing with.

The threat may not always be visible, but may require immediate action. Faced with the prospect of having a physically stronger man pull a knife and stab him (as the suspect had already done to another man) or having the man take his service weapon from him and kill him, an Ohio lieutenant did not hesitate to fire. Remember: In any confrontation that you're involved in on duty, there IS a firearm involved-yours.

Take Your Training Seriously

Time and again, officers that I have interviewed have cited their debts to rangemasters and tactical trainers. More than one even acknowledged having resented going through training sessions, lamenting the impact that such training had on sleeping patterns and schedules, as well as a perceived general redundancy to the proceedings. But once their training kicked in when they most needed it, they realized how important it was to have been repeatedly subject to the same survival rhetoric and tactical training.

Los Angeles County Sheriff 's deputy Vincent Durante was one such officer. When he experienced a weapon malfunction in the middle of a shootout, he readily cleared the weapon and re-engaged the suspect. Laurel, Md., police officer John Sims, Jr., actually participated in a SWAT shooting exercise that anticipated his OIS in the hours preceding it. While he'd missed the head shots at the range, he made one when it most counted-in the seconds following his having been ambushed and fired upon by a suspect. In these shootings and others, it was the officers' training that gave them the edge over the suspect.

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