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Departments : The Winning Edge

Bad Tactics Can Get You Killed

It's easy for officers to fall into complacency and get lazy, and laziness can get you killed.

September 15, 2011  |  by Howard Webb

If you tell a suspect with his hands in his pockets, "Show me your hands," he could draw a gun too quickly for you to react. Photo: Howard Webb.
If you tell a suspect with his hands in his pockets, "Show me your hands," he could draw a gun too quickly for you to react. Photo: Howard Webb.
There are two types of bad officer safety habits: Those that you know are bad and those you don't. My advice to all law enforcement officers is to stop doing things you know put you at needless risk and constantly evaluate and improve your tactics.

The truth is we all develop bad officer safety habits and we have to guard against them. There are two factors that lead us to adopt sloppy and dangerous habits on the job.

First, in most of the situations that we encounter on the job nothing bad happens. As a result, we don't experience a negative consequence from using tactics that we know are unsafe. Second, we adopt and deploy tactics without first contemplating their legitimacy or evaluating their effectiveness. And because we don't always experience a negative consequence from using a tactic that is purported to be tactically sound but isn't, we continue to deploy it. We become tactically lazy and dangerously gullible.

Enforcing the law is inherently dangerous. Therefore, developing bad officer safety habits is like playing Russian roulette: You can only beat the odds for so long-then you take a bullet.

The primary reason that we do things we know are tactically unsound is simple: We get lazy. It takes more effort to use good tactics. Tactical laziness gets more officers shot than any other preventable cause.

Let's take a look at three bad officer safety habits that get officers injured or killed:

  • Standing in front of the door when you knock and
  • Contacting people while sitting in your patrol car
  • Sitting behind the steering wheel when running warrants, using the MDT (mobile data terminal) or computer, or when writing traffic citations

Standing in Front of the Door When You Knock and Announce

You know you should stand off to the doorknob side of a door (if it opens in) and to the hinge side of the door if it opens out. So, why don't you do it? Because it has become a bad habit. And it could be a fatal one.

I can give you countless examples of officers being shot through doors. One department had one officer killed and two officers wounded in two separate incidents in the same week during calls where officers stood in front of doors as they knocked and announced. The officers were responding to reports of domestic violence in both incidents.

In the first incident, the officer was shot through the front door with a high-powered hunting rifle. The bullet passed through his vest and killed him instantly. In the second incident, an FTO and his recruit stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the door as the FTO knocked and announced. The suspect fired multiple shots through the front door with a large-caliber handgun. The FTO was shot in the shoulder and the recruit received a non-life-threatening bullet wound to his neck.

I have a good friend who is an officer on the department in question. As we discussed the shootings, he told me: "I don't stand in front of the door and knock anymore. I stand off to the side and tap on the door with my extended ASP baton." I taught this officer building search and patrol tactics when he attended the academy. He was taught not to stand in front of the door. But like so many of us, he had gotten lazy and developed bad officer safety habits. Unfortunately, it took two attacks on officers for him to reevaluate his tactics.

Contacting People While Sitting in Your Car

You know this is dangerous. So stop doing it. Drive by the suspicious person, pull in behind him, park several feet away, get your lazy butt out of your car, call the person back to you, and use your car as a barrier. Then order the suspect to place his ID on the hood of your patrol car and step back. Don't take the ID from the suspect's hand and don't hand it back to him. Place it on the hood and let him pick it up.

Yes, this is a lot more work than driving up and calling the suspect over to your open car window. But it will also add years to your life. Think about it as a tactical wellness program.

Here's an example of what happens when you take the tactical path of least resistance.

Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

John Converse @ 9/15/2011 9:47 PM

Excellent article with some sound tactics. Despite my long and unstoried career, I'd never considered having the suspect place his or her ID on the cruiser rather than hand it to me.

If the suspect has his hands in his pockets, I'd consider grabbing the hand, checking as best one can for weapons, and then removing the hand from the pocket.

I'd also consider telling the subject that I'll have to search him if he needs to keep his hands in his pocket. Not that I'd ever use subterfuge to gain consent to search, but sometimes things happen.

Jennifer Modica @ 9/17/2011 6:33 PM

Very helpful article... Sending it to my Lt. Thanks!

Charles Kim @ 9/17/2011 7:48 PM

Good information. We've had two experienced officers killed recently - one shot through a bedroom door, one shot while sitting his patrol car. In the former case, the danger was known but the suspect fired through the door. In the latter case, the officer didn't have a chance.

Jason Johnson @ 9/18/2011 10:27 AM

That's a great article. I appreciate the time you took to address that typically overlooked bad tactical awareness when it comes to contacting suspicious subjects with their hands in their pockets and how sometimes we as officers, can't be bothered with making contacts as tactically sound as possible. It is true in this line of work - complacency will eventually kill you.

Mark @ 9/21/2011 8:39 AM

I wish you would have addressed how to deal with the suspects hands in the pockets ;)

Using the MDT while in the car is a necessary evil until they give us touchscreen windows.

mike @ 11/11/2011 2:08 AM

if you are not supposed to stand behind the steering column while you are running the license plates and so forth, what do you suggest you do?

David 403R @ 4/21/2014 7:27 PM

"if you are not supposed to stand behind the steering column while you are running the license plates and so forth, what do you suggest you do?"

I think he is saying don't get back into your car - as sitting on your ass gets you killed. After making contact on the traffic stop, stay on your feet. Consider standing behind your cruiser near the trunk, slightly off to the side so not to be a traffic hazard. Use your portable radio to call in the drivers license, registration, etc. Observe from behind your car until your dispatcher returns with the information. Write the ticket, from back there. Use your MDT as an admin tool, not when you are alone with suspects present.

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