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Departments : Officer Survival

Watch Your 6

Prevent tragedy by erring on the side of caution in every aspect of your job.

January 01, 2002  |  by Gerald Garner

Never Stop Seeking the Next Threat

That includes both suspects and weapons. If you locate one suspect, start looking immediately for possible accomplices, even if you do not really think he has any. If you find and secure one weapon during a search of your subject, start looking for the next one. Crooks sometimes carry backups, too!

Wear your body armor

Vests have saved more than a few peace officers’ lives. If you are an officer working on the street or in a detention facility, there is no rational reason for not wearing body armor. Buy it yourself if you have to, but wear it.

Control Your Surroundings as Best You Can

In most cases, make a quiet approach to a scene where trouble is afoot. You want to surprise the bad guys, not get surprised yourself. Let them guess where you’re coming from. At night, try to stay in the dark while you illuminate your potential adversaries from behind cover. While handling a disturbance or other problem situation, try to keep your subjects from wandering in and out of your sight. One just might return with a nasty surprise for you. Attempt to remove uninvolved but potentially troublesome parties from the immediate scene. Rely on a cover officer to help you.

Take Control and Act Decisively

Command the situation without crossing the line into arrogance or provocation. You must make a decision about a course of action, so communicate it to those involved (including your backup) and then carry it out. Don’t forget that if you fail to take control of the situation, you surrender control to someone else, most likely the offender.

Back Off as Required

It sounds odd, coming right after advice to "take control," but sometimes events dictate it. Tactical withdrawal simply means holding back on police action until you have sufficient help on hand to carry it out in relative safety. It means not getting in over your head and at a serious tactical disadvantage. Backing off also means getting out of a high-speed vehicle pursuit that is getting faster and more reckless. Ask yourself: "Is this worth dying for?" Act on the answer you come up with. There will almost always be another day to catch the bad guy with less risk, assuming you are still alive to do so.

Handcuff and Search Properly

If you don’t, you stand a very good chance of becoming a victim, as far too many of your peers have before you. Proper handcuffing means the suspect’s hands are cuffed behind his back, with the handcuffs double-locked and snug, but not circulation-stopping tight. (Remember that handcuffs are a temporary and fallible restraint device.)

Proper searching means searching systematically, thoroughly and as many times as necessary until you are convinced the subject has nothing on him with which to hurt you or anyone else, including himself. Both cuffing and searching should be done from the subject’s rear with him off-balance and at a disadvantage. Whenever possible, handcuffing and searching alike should be done under the watchful eye of a cover officer.

Stay in Good Shape

By maintaining your physical and emotional health, you make it less likely that an adversary will overpower and kill you. Maintain a balanced diet and a decent sleep schedule. Do not smoke. Work out to build your aerobic endurance and upper body strength. Take reasonably good care of your body and one day it may take care of you when your life literally hangs in the balance. Doing so will also improve your overall quality of life.

Physical fitness might seem like a minor concern, but strength and agility could give you the upperhand in a struggle with a criminal.

Follow Good Weapon Retention Practices

When a criminal disarms a peace officer, in the majority of cases he then kills or attempts to kill that officer. Keep your sidearm snapped securely into a good safety holster unless you are justified in having it in your hand. Be aware of your weapon’s location in relation to all other persons around you. Keep your weapon well-covered with your arm in a crowd. Keep your gun side turned away from and beyond the reach of parties you are contacting. Do not take a firearm into a "secure" detention area. And practice your weapon retention moves using a "dud" weapon and a partner.

Do Some Contingency Planning

In those occasional "slow" moments, think about how you would handle specific threats to your survival. Visualize the threat and what you would do about it. Determine to maintain a winning mindset that, in essence, says, "I will survive to go home at the end of the day. I will NEVER lose." Mean it and live by that code.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You already know that a lot of the physical skills called for in your profession are perishable ones that will degrade unless used and practiced on a regular basis. They include firearms skills, handcuffing, baton use, even structure searches. You must stay proficient with all the tools of your potentially dangerous business.


  • Missing the danger signs
  • Failing to get (and use) needed help.
  • Making dangerous assumptions.
  • Following poor weapon retention practices.
  • Failing to watch their hands.
  • Poor handcuffing practices.
  • Poor searching techniques.
  • Being out of shape.
  • Poor approach or positioning.
  • Failing to maintain proficiency with equipment.
  • Relaxing before the threat has passed.
  • Being apathetic, preoccupied or careless on the job.
  • Rushing when the situation does not require speed. Being a "cowboy" or"cowgirl" cop.
  • Poor use of cover.
  • Failing to wear body armor.

Gerald W. Garner, a member of the POLICE advisory board, is a 31-year veteran of law enforcement. He is the patrol division commander for the Lakewood (Colo.) PD and has authored seven books on law enforcement topics, two on officer survival. Garner holds a Master’s Degree in Administration of Justice and instructs widely on officer safety.

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