Of course the bad guys know that many officers are wearing armor. In fact, a majority of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty in the last decade succumbed to head wounds.
To better protect its personnel from such threats, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has purchased all of its patrol deputies Level III ballistic helmets. Unfortunately, Sgt. Brian Muller notes that some deputies display a reticence to wear the gear, even when bullets are likely to fly.
"I would like to have seen people wearing helmets more when I was working as a field sergeant," says Muller. "But time and again I would respond to high-risk events where deputies felt the need to have their guns out but wouldn't wear their helmets. Why wouldn't you wear a ballistic helmet when you needed me as a field sergeant to show up with a ballistic shield?"
Muller speculates that part of the problem may be a perceived peer pressure, not unlike that experienced by the first generation of officers given "barrier vests." They believe such protective gear might be an acknowledgment of fear. Regardless of the impetus, it frustrates Muller.
"You'll always have people who don't want to wear something because their peers may laugh at them. If you have a piece of safety equipment, what good is it if you don't use it?" Muller asks.
Despite textbook compliance with good officer safety protocol, an officer can still come up short in bad guy confrontations. For example, there is little an officer can do to prevent an assassin's ambush. Judgment calls come with the job, as well, and there are instances where officers must consciously place themselves in harm's way in a bid to protect other human beings. One deputy summed up the reality bluntly: "There are times when you have to load your balls in a wheelbarrow and go in."
"Going in" may be in response to an active shooter, a burning structure, or an in-progress domestic dispute. In the 2009 case of Pennsylvania Trooper Joshua Miller, it was a courageous attempt to prevent a kidnapped 9-year-old boy from being executed. Miller was one of several troopers who rushed toward a suspect's car at the end of a vehicle pursuit. A shootout between troopers and the kidnapper ensued and Trooper Miller and Trooper Robert Lombardo succeeded in killing the kidnapper. Unfortunately, Miller was shot in the neck and killed. The National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall is filled with names of thousands of similarly heroic officers whose lives were lost in the protection of others.
But even though there are many occasions where officers must take risks, there are just as many where officers take needless chances that place their own lives-as well as others'-in jeopardy. Whether it is standing in the middle of a doorway (the "fatal funnel") or backlighting one's self to a suspect, officers continue to make tactical mistakes. The same adrenaline that enhances one's senses may cloud one's faculties; officers may fail to respond appropriately to threats even as they are apt to pick them up more quickly.
Earlier this year an officer in New York state responded to a garage where negotiators were attempting to deal with a suicidal man who'd barricaded himself with a shotgun after a domestic dispute. After the subject was momentarily incapacitated, the officer approached the man with a TASER in an apparent effort to ensure the man remained so. But the gunman was able to regain control of his shotgun, which he discharged, striking the officer in the neck and killing him. This officer clearly put himself in a very dangerous situation when other options were available.
It's hard for fellow officers to criticize deceased colleagues, but clearly some murdered officers make tactical errors that should not be repeated. Howard Webb, executive director of the American Council on Criminal Justice Training, argues that the critical examination of officers' deaths is vital to preventing needless police deaths.
"When you look at the officers killed in the last few months, you find several that made general technical errors," notes Webb. "I ask myself, Why is this? When I know that I shouldn't pull up next to a suspect on the street and talk to him from my patrol car because I'm allowing him to pull a gun and blow my head off, then why is this happening?"
Webb's question is largely rhetorical: He believes he knows where much of the blame lies.
"It's because of an attitude that starts from the top and works its way down that we are a kinder, gentler profession," Webb states. "And then when something bad does happen, everybody claims victim status."
As Webb notes, staff instructors are conscientious in providing personnel with the necessary training and information. Quartermasters do the best they can to issue needed supplies. However, he and other experts worry that many cops are receiving mixed messages in their training.
Webb's concern is that role play scenarios inevitably have officers insinuating themselves into dangerous situations. A primary purpose is to ensure that safe tactics and sound communication techniques are employed by the trainee. Often, such scenarios drive home the fact that you can only do so much to prevent getting shot. But is enough emphasis being placed on teaching officers that there are often times when they need not make entry? That if a threat is effectively isolated and poses no danger to anyone but himself that time is on the good guys' side? Street officers, in particular, need to recognize that there are times when they need to abstain from entering into a problem and escalating it.