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Staying Alive

Despite increased training and high-tech equipment in police work, law officers are still making the same fatal errors. Here are a few tips on how cops can work smarter and safer.

April 01, 1996  |  by Gerald W. Garner

The bottom-line truth is as simple and direct as it is bloody: There is nothing new about how and why American peace officers are being murdered today. Instead, officers are still dying from the same causes that killed them at the turn of the century. As the year 2000 approaches, there is every reason to believe the same factors will be responsible for law enforcement deaths well into the future. Why then, are these police tragedies still happening at least 70 times a year?

Today's officer safety and survival training can trace its roots back some years when Det. Pierce R. Brooks of the Los Angeles Police Department formulated the idea for a book on how cops die — and why. the veteran homicide detective had been to enough scenes of police killings to recognize that when peace officers were murdered in the line of duty, most often they had committed one or more of a handful of critical errors. Often, they missed the danger signs indicating a subject was about to attack. Sometimes, they failed to handcuff or search the suspect properly, were sleepy or asleep on the job, or made dangerous assumptions. These lapses and others formed the core of Brooks' book, "Officer Down, Code Three."

Published in the mid-1970s, it remains a part of officer safety and training today. A mini-industry of officer survival texts, articles, videotapes and seminars has followed it. Still, officers continue to die in the crowded streets, lonely back alleys and rural roadways of the country. If so much is known, written about, taped and taught about why and how officers die, why are so many continuing to perish in 1996? What's going on here?

Fatal Mistakes Continue

Again, the answer is not complicated. In spite of all that is known about officer deaths — despite what officers have been taught in the academy and in-service training — all too often good cops are still killed because they forgot, they took a shortcut, they took an unnecessary chance or they were just plain lazy.

When these errors are made on a regular basis and, out of sheet luck, no negative consequences ensue, bad practices can become ingrained as bad habits. Otherwise smart cops are set up to die tragically. For instance:

In a large Southern city, a patrol officer was shot fatally in the back of the head by a subject he was transporting in the rear seat of his patrol car.

Poor handcuffing or searching practices-Every year, officers are killed by weapons they missed during an inadequate search. Sometimes, they have made no search at all. In yet other instances, prisoners have attacked after being handcuffed improperly, such as with their hands in front of their bodies. In a few cases, the attackers had been arrested but were never cuffed at all.

In another instance, a young officer died from gunshot wounds to the jaw and head after contacting several subjects in a commercial area parking lot. The officer was still seated in his car talking with the subjects outside when he was shot.

Poor approach or positioning-By allowing an uncontrolled subject to approach too closely, or by allowing suspects to gain positions of advantage, peace officers are murdered on an almost routine basis. As one veteran officer safety instructor put it: "Get out of your vehicle if you are going to contact someone. Is it going to be your car or your coffin?"

Another officer in a metropolitan area died when he intervened, alone, unarmed and off-duty, in an armed robbery in progress at a commercial establishment. The robber escaped after shooting the officer fatally in the chest.

Cowboy courage — "Brave but stupid is not something you want inscribed on a headstone with your name on it. law enforcement officers want to catch crooks and help people. That's why they are law enforcement officers. But when they misjudge the odds and intervene in highly dangerous situations without proper equipment or assistance, they too often become casualties themselves. It happens virtually every year.

Consider the case of a veteran officer who responded to a call of a disorderly patron at a lounge. Confronting the man, the officer ordered him to produce his identification. Instead, the subject came out with a  .45 caliber handgun and killed the officer with one round to the chest.

In a similar case, a rookie patrolman effected a traffic stop and requested that the driver show his license. The man drew a 9 m semi-automatic and shot the officer five times. The officer returned fire and both men died.

Failure to watch the hands — Street cops become accustomed to requesting documents from those they contact. Many are quick to tell a subject to bring his hands into view. But not all are ready for what those hands may produce. Worse, some may never have detected the potential danger telegraphed by hands not in view in the first place.

CONTINUED: Staying Alive «   Page 1 of 4   »

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