Almost every year American law enforcement officers are slain because they stood dead-center in front of a door they were knocking at, let someone get to close to their gun side, marched right up the front sidewalk to site where a violent crime or criminal was believed present, positioned themselves between two suspects, allowed a suspect to get behind them, or pulled alongside to address a suspicious pedestrian while still seated in their patrol cars, or put an unsecured suspect or violator in the front seat of the police car next to them while they asked questions or filled out a ticket.
Rushing When Speed is Not Required
True, a life or death situation may be at hand the very instant an officer arrives on-scene. But in reality, that scenario is a rare one. Much more often, the first responder has time to stop, look, listen, assess and wait for his cover to arrive before committing himself to a confrontation.
Failing to Handcuff Properly
As one veteran street cop put it, "if they're worth arresting, they're worth cuffing." To that safety-smart officer, it doesn't really matter if "they" are age 15 or 80. Improper handcuffing can mean the cuffs are too loose, too tight, or a prisoner is cuffed in front of his body, without a transport belt or other device that secures the cuffs to his waist.
Doing a Poor Search
The only thing worse? Failing to do one at all when you have a legal right to do so. Not surprisingly, virtually every year in the U.S. good cops are killed with weapons they failed to find on a prisoner or suspect.
Relaxing Before the Threat Has Passed
The only way to stay safe on the street is to remain alert for sudden danger for the entire time that you are in the presence of a potentially threatening situation or individual.
Practicing Poor Weapon Retention
Every year, cops are killed with their own firearms. Experience has taught that once an offender gains control of an officer's weapon, most often he uses it not to bluff or gain compliance but to attempt to kill its former owner. All too often, the attempt is successful. Failing to maintain a "reactionary gap" of several feet between officer and subject us one fatal error. Other officers are disarmed because they failed to keep their weapons snapped securely into adequate safety holsters or failed to remain alert to the proximity of other persons to themselves and their sidearm.
Making Poor or No Use of Cover
Facing a potentially armed and dangerous offender out in the open when adequate cover is available makes no sense at all. Yet, otherwise sharp cops do it all the time. Thinking about cover possibilities and exactly where they are located is a good habit to practice on the way into every single call and contact you make.
Neglecting to Maintain Proficiency with Survival Equipment
It could be a firearm, baton, set of handcuffs or even a police vehicle. The reality is that no matter how fancy or capable it is, it amounts to little more than a paperweight if you cannot use it successfully at crunch time.
Being a "Cowboy" (or "Cowgirl") Cop
Cowboy cops routinely and needlessly go on calls without backup, make arrests alone when safety sense dictates the presence of a cover officer, start unnecessary fights and provoke otherwise unresisting subjects. Cowboys, in a few words, do stupid police work.
Do It Right
Staying alive is not all that complicated. Most of the time- and experience- proven survival advice is simple, direct and to the point. Be prepared to make a decision where a threat to your safety is concerned. Your decision does not have to be perfect in order to save your bacon. Keep a winning mindset always, but be willing and able to practice tactical withdrawal. After all, you're in it for a whole career. If that career is to have a good ending, you will have to practice excellent officer safety throughout.
By remembering the basics today, you might just avoid being memorialized yourself tomorrow.
Capt. Gerald W. Garner, a member of the Advisory Board for POLICE, is patrol division commander for the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department. The 30-year veteran holds a master's degree in administration of justice and has written several books on law enforcement.