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Fatal Errors: Surviving Arrest and Control

Officers are especially vulnerable to attack once they get close enough to handcuff and arrest a suspect.

January 01, 2005  |  by Gerald W. Garner

In the Southwestern U.S., a patrolman with about a year on the job was shot twice in the back of the head while transporting two robbery suspects in the back seat of his patrol car. The officer had failed to find a .380 caliber handgun concealed on one of the robbers. The officer died of the wounds he received in the 3:30 a.m. incident.

According to the “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” statistics published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, making a full-custody arrest is often the most dangerous thing an American law enforcement officer can do. It really doesn’t matter if the arrest is for a dog-at-large warrant or murder.

Offenders wanted for seemingly every law violation under the sun have, at one time or another, killed or attempted to kill the peace officer trying to take them into custody. The survival-savvy officer realizes that taking virtually anyone into custody represents a point of potentially high personal danger. You must realize it, too.

Getting Too Close, Too Soon

This potentially fatal error is related to the “rushing when speed is not required” mistake. Leaving cover and moving within arm’s reach of an offender before you have him at a physical disadvantage is yet another way of becoming a casualty.

Once more, in most cases there is really no need to rush to complete the arrest process. Even if there is a risk that the offender may flee while you are waiting, try to wait for a cover officer to arrive before you move in to secure and search your subject. If he escapes for the moment, there will always be another day to bring him to justice. The good news is that you will be alive and able to participate in the apprehension.

Don’t rush. Stop, look, listen, and plan first. You just might ferret out something that will alter your approach to the situation.

Taking on Too Much

More than a couple of police officers have died while trying to arrest a drunk driver who just happened to have a nasty and equally intoxicated passenger aboard. Other officers have met a bad end by trying to corral or question a group of several subjects on their own. Yet other colleagues of yours have been successfully attacked after trying to make an arrest, search a vehicle, gather information for a report, and perhaps referee a continuing dispute, all by themselves.

 Your common sense should tell you that you can only do so many things at once and still do any of them well. Your attention can only be safely focused in a finite number of directions at once. Try to do more and you risk losing track of something or someone that could bring you to grief. It really is OK to ask for help. The best street cops do it all the time. There’s no better way to ensure that you go home at the end of your shift.

Arresting Without Backup

Every year in the United States, law enforcement officers die violently after making this mistake. Every year offenders size up their opposition and decide to attack after noting that the cop trying to arrest them is all alone and thereby vulnerable. Perhaps most tragically of all, almost certainly next year more cops will die after making the same mistake that helped kill their colleagues.

 No one is suggesting that every arrest you ever make must have a backup officer on scene to make sure you won’t perish violently. The realities of police work preclude that a backup will be there every time you take someone into custody.

What good officer safety sense does dictate, however, is that you fully use your good judgment and common sense to guarantee that you have got help when there appears to be the slightest chance that you will need it. Situations will always develop unexpectedly that require you to make an arrest while you are alone. But you must do everything within reason to keep those scenarios to an absolute minimum. The prime directive of a safe arrest is also a very simple one: Whenever and wherever possible, make an arrest under the protection of an observant cover officer.

Misjudging Subject’s Intentions

You already know that you can ill afford to make dangerous assumptions about anything you don’t know for a rock-solid fact, at least when it comes to your safety. At the same time, it is just human to be put at ease by a pleasant, cooperative, even submissive demeanor on the part of someone you are about to take into custody. It is only natural to let down your guard a little around somebody who is going along with the program. Unlike the screaming, cursing, outwardly threatening character who makes it clear you’ll have to fight him to take him, the apparently cooperative subject is what virtually every cop wants to encounter when it comes custody time.

 The problem is, of course, that the apparently cooperative offender may simply be wise enough to try to get you to drop your guard so he can escape or attack.

If he is drunk or drugged enough, he may not even know what he’s going to do until it comes time for the bracelets to go on. Then, the apparently docile offender is transformed without warning into a violent, would-be cop killer. Don’t make assumptions where your life is concerned. Assume every potential arrestee is dangerous until and unless you prove otherwise.

Not Keeping A Subject Off Balance

The purpose of the physical tactics and techniques you utilize on an arrest is to take back the advantage that the subject to be arrested would otherwise have once you move in close to effect custody. One way you do that is to keep him or her at a physical disadvantage throughout the arrest process.

Keep him facing away so that he can’t monitor your every move. Use a cuffing and searching position that keeps him physically off-balance while you handcuff and search from his rear. Put him into a prone or kneeling position with ankles crossed and fingers interlaced behind his head if the situation demands it. Don’t reach too far around when you are searching from behind him. You don’t want to lose your balance by extending too far. If he’s standing or kneeling, have him bent backward to the extent that you can easily pull him over and to the ground as you move away if he starts to resist.

 While you must clearly tell the person you are arresting what you want him to do, it’s OK to play with his mind by talking to more backups than you actually have. Directions to a nonexistent canine handler (“Hold that dog, Joe.”) are guaranteed to get his attention. Keep moving so that he has trouble locating your exact position. Once he is in custody, make sure he cannot overhear your conversations with your partner(s).

Poor Handcuffing, Searching

Every year peace officers die after committing these cardinal mistakes. Sometimes they got in too much of a hurry or were simply too careless. They handcuffed sloppily or searched incompletely. Other times, for whatever reason, they failed to handcuff or search at all. And too many times, a tragedy resulted that never had to happen.

 As a safety-smart officer, you know that handcuffs, even when applied properly, are only a temporary and very fallible form of restraint. Given an offender with enough time and ingenuity, they can be defeated. Properly applied, of course, means with hands back to back behind the arrestee, and cuffs double-locked and checked to be sure they are neither too loose nor circulation-stopping tight.

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