A deputy sheriff confronts three hitchhikers on a rural road. While one distracts the officer, another maneuvers into position and shoots. The deputy dies from his wounds.
Without ever getting out from behind the wheel of his patrol car, a state trooper hails a man walking alongside the highway carrying a rifle. The man approaches the car and fatally shoots the law enforcement officer.
An experienced patrolman verbally challenges a pedestrian and tells him to remove his hands from his pockets. The man complies, but when his hands come into view, one of them is grasping a .45-caliber handgun. Shot through the chest before he can draw his own weapon, the police officer is dead at the scene.
Do these stories sound familiar? Tragically, these examples of police killings are no longer rare. At a time when the American scene sees more and more people with guns who are willing to use them, the "routine" pedestrian call has become anything but routine. In all too many instances, a simple request for identification and compliance with lawful instructions has led to the murder of a law enforcement officer.
Why have these common police activities become so dangerous? In addition to the number of weapons and violent offenders loose in society today, the very nature of the pedestrian stop renders it dangerous for the unwary police officer. As every veteran knows, a lack of information can kill. In many instances, an officer making a pedestrian contact has precious little advance knowledge of what he or she is dealing with. The officer may know only that the targeted individual is acting suspiciously.
On the other hand, the individual knows that he is armed, has just committed a crime, is wanted, is an escapee, just doesn't like cops-or any combination of those. The point is that in all too many instances, the bad guy already knows the score and is willing to kill a cop to keep it in his favor. The officer may have little more than his suspicions to go on. The playing field is far from level.
In some instances, an officer's desire not to offend or draw a complaint may have set him or her up for disaster. By declining to do a pat-down search for weapons, which the officer knew he should have done, he may have set himself up to die. But in many more instances, the simple truth may be that an officer knew what to do to stay safe, but failed to operate safely out of plain carelessness, laziness or apathy.
It is no secret that the same fatal errors that killed officers in 1935 are still killing them in 1996: false assumptions, relaxing too soon, missing the danger signs, failure to summon help when indicated, lack of proficiency with equipment, or poor tactics and techniques.
For many years now, officers have known about these fatal errors and how to avoid them. But sometimes when it's hot, cold, rainy, or the officer is simply too tired, bored or irritated, it's just easier to cheat and do it the easy way. Because if the suspect gets lucky and gets away with it, he'll do it again.
Soon the "easy" way becomes ingrained, and a bad habit is born. That habit serves well enough until the day or night when a bad actor is looking for an opening. If the officer is still lucky, he may survive the attack and live to change his dangerous habits. If his luck has run out, his peers can dress up for his funeral and talk about what went so terribly wrong. Neglecting the basics of officer survival can kill too.
Do it Legally
If you are going to contact a pedestrian, it makes sense to do it the right way-in all aspects. Generally speaking, you lawfully can contact and temporarily detain someone you reasonably believe is committing a crime or has just committed one. (Check your own jurisdiction's applicable laws to be sure you are on sound legal footing.) The purpose, nature and duration of this "field investigation" or inquiry must be reasonable. That would prohibit, for instance, detaining at gunpoint an unarmed kid who just pinched a pack of gum.
It is also well established that, for your safety, you may conduct a cursory pat-down search of a subject who you feel may be armed. Again, your tactics must be reasonable and the scope of your search limited. (That would eliminate going into shirt pockets or tiny containers "looking for a shotgun. ") The key is that you must later be able to put into words, if need be, exactly why you felt the subject might have posed an immediate, armed threat to you. Your police experience counts here, and you may be able to cite such factors as:
- The subject is known to carry weapons;
- The contact is occurring in a high-crime area;
- You observe furtive actions made by the subject;
- You observe suspicious circumstances, such as bulges in clothing:
- Your own knowledge of the subject's history with violent crime; and
- Any admissions about weapons made by the subject.
Steps Toward Safety
Imagine you have made the decision to stop a suspicious pedestrian and inquire into his activities. You have determined that it is both legal and tactically wise to do so. What now? Conducting a safe pedestrian contact requires you to call upon all basic officer safety knowledge that you have learned. The following safety guidelines may be used to carry out an effective pedestrian contact that you will survive:
- Observe and gather information first-Don't be in a big hurry to confront a suspicious pedestrian. If possible, watch from a point where he or she is unlikely to notice you, which may be impossible. Who is the subject? What is he doing? Why is he here? Is he out of place at this time or location? Is there any indication of a weapon or crime?
Gather as many observations as you can, so you do not go in totally unarmed in the information contest. Act on what your data-collecting efforts have told you. You may, for instance, want to call backup before making contact.
- Approach from the rear -Whether you are in a vehicle or on foot, you'll have a better chance of taking a pedestrian off-guard if you approach from behind. On occasion, that may mean you must pretend to ignore him on your first pass so that you can return from a direction of tactical advantage. Try not to lose sight of the subject in the process, if at all possible. You don't want to return to find a surprise waiting for you.
- Pick Your spot-Try to contact your party at a location that gives you an advantage. That may mean avoiding potentially unfriendly territory like a bar parking lot. Seek a spot with limited escape routes if possible. At night, try to choose a site that has good lighting. Realize too, that your pedestrian may be looking for a location that suits him if he suspects you are about to stop him.
- Watch your initial approach and positioning-As you begin your approach from the subject's rear, be conscious of close by cover possibilities in case things go sour and shooting starts. Once you have initiated the contact, do not let him (or them) get too close. You will want a reactionary gap of several feet separating you from your subject so that you may have time to detect and respond to a sudden attack.
Beware of the individual who persists in trying to get close to you with ruses such as offering his ID while holding it close to his body. Don't play that game. He may be planning an assault or a grab for your weapon. Don't get between two pedestrians, and do not let anyone maneuver into a position behind you. Don't hesitate to give clear, firm instructions about where you expect people to stand. If you suspect you are being set up, get help on the way immediately. and be prepared to defend yourself.
- Do a pat-down, if necessary-If you suspect that your safety requires it, have the subject face away from you, legs apart and fingers interlaced on top of his head while you do a protective search for weapons. Keep one hand gripped on his interlaced fingers as you pat him down. Be sure he remains off-balance all the while. Be sure not to overreach and lose your own balance.
If you feel the subject may be armed, hold back contacting him until you have a backup on-scene. If the situation indicates, draw your own weapon and give orders from behind solid cover. If possible, have the subject back up toward you. Don't leave cover to go to him if you can avoid it. Let him know he is being covered by a second officer.
- Practice good contact and cover tactics-Search while your backup covers, and be prepared to intervene with whatever force necessary. Stay in communication with your backup about what you find -work as a team.
- Watch the subject's hands-His hands, and what he may put in them, can kill you. Keep them in sight before, during and after the contact, until you and your subject have distance between you. Treat any hand that is out of sight as a red flag.
Do not order anyone to remove their hands from their pockets unless you are ready to instantly respond to any threat that appears. Depending upon the circumstances that may mean confronting him from cover with your weapon drawn as he slowly brings his hands into view. Once a subject's hands are visible, politely let him know that they are to stay that way throughout the contact.
- Stay alert for changes-Keep looking for situational changes, like an alteration in your previously cooperative subject's attitude, a crowd gathering, companions of the pedestrian showing up, or the discovery of a warrant or weapon.
If you are alone, get help on the way immediately. If you already have help standing by, but don't feel it's sufficient to handle a growing problem, summon more while there is time. Don't be bashful about asking for assistance. Pedestrian contacts are potentially risky endeavors and are no place for a display of tombstone courage.
There are also your own human limitations to deal with. It's very difficult for one person to keep track of more than a couple of subjects at the same time, particularly if those subjects are not overly cooperative. Play it smart and get help.
- Maintain control-Let your pedestrian know you will treat him fairly, but make sure he knows you are in control.
Tell him, courteously, where you want him and what you want him to do and refrain from doing. Watch for any failure to comply with your directions. Again, get help on the way if he flaunts your instructions-you may have a problem. Also, use polite but firm oral instructions to back off others who persist in trying to get too close to the subject. If you lose control of your immediate surroundings, your danger risk rises significantly-so don't let it happen.
- Make a clean break-Once you have released your pedestrian, watch him until he has departed the area. Don't turn your back or lower your guard. And do not get too engrossed in filling out your paperwork. Your subject just might return to get in the last word or something else. Stay sharp.
If Your Suspect Flees ...
If, instead of obeying your instructions, your pedestrian decides to run. New, challenges and threats will come up. More than a few officers have been killed or injured during foot pursuits, both accidentally and on purpose by the suspect. There are ways to make your foot chase safer, however. For example:
- Ask yourself some questions -Why is he running? Does he appear armed? Is he alone? Am I? What don't I know about this situation that could hurt me? Act cautiously after you figure out the answers.
- Take your communications along-You'll need your radio to call for backup and update your assist units with the direction and progress of the chase. Don't forget your portable radio.
- Take your keys-It will take a second, but remove and pocket your car keys before you begin a foot chase. More than one officer has returned from a foot pursuit to find his squad car miss mg.
- Keep everyone advised-Let your dispatcher and area units know what's going on before you begin your foot chase. Also give them periodic updates.
- Get sufficient help-It's not smart to continue a foot pursuit alone, particularly if you are after multiple suspects. Recently, a lone officer who pursued four burglary suspects into a wooded area was ambushed and murdered. Get plenty of assistance. If you believe your party is armed, don't pursue at all. Get help, set up a perimeter and then search in force.
- Don't do stupid things- Throwing pieces of your equipment, like a flashlight or handcuffs, at a fleeing suspect is just plain dumb. You may need them shortly. Firing warning shots is even dumber and is prohibited in most jurisdictions. Either stunt is ineffective and dangerous.
- Don't get ambushed-If you even temporarily lose sight of your subject, do not run blindly past anyplace he might have hidden. Slow down; peek before you round a blind corner; stop and listen-he may betray his location. Don't overlook a possibility of an attack from behind.
- Let him make mistakes-You only have to finish second. Let him dash blindly into uncharted territory and find the clotheslines, sprinkler heads, holes and vicious dogs for you.
- Push him down-When you catch your fleeing subject, don't tackle him and end up rolling around on the ground in what could turn into a fight for your weapon. Instead, push him down hard from behind and cover him with whatever weapon is appropriate for the circumstances while you remain on your feet and issue compliance orders.
Consider leaving him proned out until a backup can arrive and cover as you cuff and search. While you are waiting, stay alert for additional dangers, such as an accomplice.
Pedestrian contacts are an inherent part of a front-line law enforcement officer's daily business. They cannot be made risk-free. But by combining these techniques and tactics with an ample supply of common sense and good judgment, you definitely can reduce the risk to an acceptable level. That's what safe handling of pedestrian contacts really means.
Gerald W. Garner is a lieutenant with the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department. He writes and lectures on officer safety, and has written five books and more than 100 magazine articles.