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.