If you don’t watch your back, a suspect just might put a bullet in it.
In any given year when we are willing to celebrate the fact that only 50 or so of our brothers and sisters were murdered in the line of duty, it is readily apparent that too many of us are still messing up — fatally — on far too many occasions.
Nevertheless, we are doing a much better job of recognizing the fatal errors. And in many cases we are counteracting them. From studying what led up to the deaths of hundreds of American peace officers we have amassed a roster of deadly sins to be avoided at all costs. From countless hours of academy and in-service training, many of us can recite these fatal errors.
None of the victim officers killed by these errors were bad people. It’s safe to say virtually all were good cops with good training. They knew what officer safety was about. But, like most of us, they were capable of occasional carelessness, complacency or poor safety habits ingrained by sometimes doing it the quick-and-easy way — and getting away with it.
These officers did not kill themselves. They were murdered by criminals. But some may have given the criminal an opportunity because of a momentary lapse in good safety practices. For a criminal looking for an opening to attack, that momentary lapse was enough.
By reinforcing and practicing what we already know about officer safety, we can almost certainly avoid fatal mistakes. That means reinforcing and practicing the basics.
Watch for the Danger Signs
Every veteran officer has his or her own set of experience-based red flags that say "change your tactics, use extra caution, something’s not right here."
A few of these hazard warnings include:
• Subject under the influence of alcohol or drugs
• Weapons present
• Subject emotionally disturbed
• Furtive movements
• Hands not visible
• Subject tensing up; defensive or attack posture displayed
• Subject ignoring or disobeying instructions
• Subject trying to move in close
• Evidence of crime present
• Threats indicating possible "suicide by cop" scenario
• Threats directed at police
• Extreme nervousness evident in the subject
• Suspicious bulges in the individual’s clothing
• Subjects outnumber officers
Get Your Information Early
Whenever possible, pause, look and listen before committing yourself to action. Make use of your own senses and the observations of others (dispatch, victims, witnesses) to tell you more about the situation you are facing. Then, form a plan of action for confronting it.
Don’t Make Dangerous Assumptions
All alarms are NOT false. All drunks are NOT harmless. (Actually, many of them assault officers.) Take nothing for granted beyond the assumption that your job is potentially dangerous.
Be Careful With Your Approach and Positioning
Don’t get too close too soon to an individual you are contacting. Maintain a "reactionary gap" of several feet between the two of you so you have time to respond if attacked. Stay alert during your approach to a subject, vehicle or address. Do not make yourself an easy target by standing in front of a door or between two vehicles.
Keep Watching Their Hands
Your subject’s hands or what he puts in them are your greatest threat during any call or contact. If you cannot see them, be cautious. Tell the individual to bring them very slowly into view if you are prepared to defend yourself. Remain supremely alert.
If you don’t properly search a victim, handcuffing won’t be enough to save you.
Don’t Be a Cowboy or a Cowgirl
It means just what it sounds like. Do not ignore danger signs, wave off backups, go on calls alone when you should not or otherwise try to be a hero. Doing so tends to make for a lot of unnecessary blood. Instead, work as part of a team and rely on sound tactics as opposed to false courage.
Think About Good Cover
Every time you answer a call or make a contact, keep a sharp eye out for your cover possibilities should things unexpectedly go downhill and a gun battle ensue. Think about where you could get to in a hurry. Remember that cover is relative, however, and you want the most solid barrier you can quickly reach.
Stay Alert at All Times
Law enforcement is not the profession for complacency, apathy or daydreaming on the job. Being sleepy on-duty can get you killed, too. To stay safe, you must keep your senses attuned for danger the entire time you are wearing that uniform. Remember it has an invisible target on the front and back.
Use Backup Help Wisely
Having a partner or a backup officer is an incredible advantage. Never throw it away by not calling for help when you need it. Be a careful and watchful backup yourself. Practice "contact and cover" tactics in which one officer handles the primary business of the contact while the cover officer serves as the ever-vigilant lifeguard for the first officer.