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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

An officer was shot in the head and killed by a pedestrian he had stopped for routine questioning. It was late in the afternoon when the officer pulled alongside a man and began to ask him a question. A moment later, the man took a step back, pulled out a handgun, and fired three shots at the officer at nearly point-blank range. "The shooting happened so suddenly that the officer did not have time to draw his weapon. That's how quickly the whole thing occurred," a local prosecutor said, calling the attack "an execution-style killing."

Sitting Behind the Steering Wheel While Running Warrants or Writing Citations

You may have been trained to sit behind the steering wheel to check a driver's status, check for warrants, or operate your computer. You may even have placed a driver in your patrol car's passenger seat while you wrote the citation. If you have developed any or all of these bad officer safety habits, reevaluate your traffic stop tactics.

Sure, these bad habits have not killed you...yet. But as several officers have found out too late, they can be fatal.

One sunny afternoon, an officer stopped a vehicle for speeding. The vehicle contained the driver and two passengers. As the officer sat behind his patrol car's steering wheel to check the driver's DMV status and run the passengers for warrants on the computer, a passenger exited the suspect vehicle, walked back to the patrol car, and shot and killed the officer. When the killer was arrested, he confessed that the officer was completely unaware of his presence when he shot the officer in the head.

In a similar incident, a deputy stopped a vehicle for speeding. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the deputy, the driver was wanted for a shooting spree that had occurred a few hours prior in a town several hundred miles away. As the deputy sat behind the steering wheel of his patrol car to check the driver's status, the driver exited his vehicle and shot the deputy through the windshield multiple times. By the grace of God, the deputy's soft body armor stopped the bullets. With the deputy stunned from the blunt trauma of the bullets' impact, the driver was able to return to his vehicle and escape.

Meaningless Habits

Adopting and deploying tactics without first contemplating their legitimacy or evaluating their effectiveness can get you killed.

Let me give you a scenario: You see me standing on a street corner with my hands in my pockets and you think that I look suspicious. When you contact me, what is the first thing you ask me to do?

I have given this scenario to thousands of officers who have attended my training classes and instructor courses. Without exception, the officers answer: "Show me your hands." At which point, I pull a small training pistol from my pocket and point it at the officers. Their response is a wide-eyed "Oh shit" look on their faces.

During the awkward silence, I ask, "Now what?" Universally the officers reply: "Put your hand back in your pocket."

If you, like my students, answered, "Show me your hands" to the contact scenario, then you may find yourself also asking, "Why was I shot or taken hostage in the scenario?" The answer is that you did what you were taught and you accepted that tactic as legitimate and safe without considering the purpose of the tactic. Ordering a suspect to show you his hands has become a meaningless habit. Meaningless habits can get you killed.

Analyze the legitimacy of your tactic by identifying the concern that the tactic allegedly addresses and then determine if the tactic provides the best possible solution.

Back to our contact scenario. When you confronted me as the subject on the street corner, what was your concern? You were concerned that I may have a gun in my pocket. As you learned from my response of removing the gun and pointing it at you, ordering me to "show me your hands" was not the best possible tactical solution.

So if you feared that I had a gun in my pocket, what should you have tactically done? Here are my suggestions: (1) Tell me to keep my hands in my pockets. (2) Ask me if I have any weapons. (3) Order me to turn away from you. (4) Order me to slowly remove my right hand and then my left hand. (5) Secure my hands. (6) Perform a "Terry Frisk" for weapons.

The key to not developing bad officer safety habits is to identify your officer safety concerns and then deploy the best possible tactical solutions. Think through the scenarios and evaluate your tactics. If you find them wanting, it's time for change.

Howard Webb is an internationally recognized use-of-force expert and trainer who has an extensive law enforcement and training background. As the director of the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, he developed the first scenario-based academy training curriculum in the United States. He currently serves as the executive director of the American Council on Criminal Justice Training.

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Tags: officer safety, defensive tactics


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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