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Line-of-Duty Deaths: Managing Risk

Six months into 2011, the body count keeps climbing, but better tactics, training, and equipment can save police lives.

August 12, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Once faced with a deadly confrontation, officers must be trained to respect the speed with which suspects can launch an assault with a gun, according to Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. He cites a number of cases in which officers were gunned down in less than one second.

"The average suspect can present a gun-from a pocket, from a waistband, from a vehicle console, from his side, from under his body-and fire in any direction in just one-quarter of a second," Lewinski says. "That's faster than the average officer can shoot, even if his weapon is on target, his finger is on the trigger, and he has already decided to fire. That's because of the time it takes to mentally process and impel a reaction to the suspect's action."

Lewinski argues that keeping the one-quarter-second figure in mind during training exercises will affect officers' behavior in approaching and contacting a suspect, choosing cover, and using verbal commands. He adds that officers who learn to effectively read and react to a suspect's behavior have the best chances of coming out on top when the suspect decides to attack.

"The most skilled officers, using their training and experience, tend to know where, when, and how a threat situation is going to unfold," Lewinski explains. "If you're attentive to physical movements and verbal cues, which are sometimes subtle, you often can detect and then defuse or suppress potential threats before you get caught behind the reactionary curve."

Officer Selection

One controversial question that many law enforcement trainers and tactical experts are beginning to raise is whether some of the current generation of officers are really suited to the job. 

Just as some officers display different degrees of proficiency with their weapons and tactics, so, too, do they exhibit varying degrees of enthusiasm in deploying them. Police agencies thus find themselves alternately trying to encourage some officers to display greater initiative in using necessary force and reining in the more assertive types.

The press and the courts keep the public aware of officers who abuse their position with violence. What the public and even other officers are less likely to hear about are those officers who routinely use too little force because they are either not capable or not so inclined.

The officer who fails to deploy force when it is necessary is every bit a threat to the profession and the public as the one hell-bent on getting notches on his gun. Such officers ultimately prove to be liabilities, leaving not only themselves unnecessarily vulnerable to a violent assault, but their fellow officers, as well.

Whether it is a religious influence or a fundamental philosophical posture against the taking of a human life, otherwise worthy candidates may lack the fortitude to engage an adversary with all necessary force. This phenomenon has seen officers with names like Kyle Dinkheller and Ken Wrede added to the Memorial Wall. One might be tempted to say they failed themselves. But in the case of some—like West Covina (Calif.) PD Officer Ken Wrede, who was killed in the line of duty in 1983—reticence to take a human life had been well established. And the failure of supervisors to address these concerns leave them also to blame.

"Not much can be done during the hiring process to weed out potential officers who are reticent to fire a gun," notes LASD's Muller. "However, once the officer is hired and it becomes known that he doesn't carry a bullet in the chamber or he says that he can't use deadly force, it becomes the responsibility of people in higher ranking positions to put this guy on the desk or give him a reevaluation of why he joined law enforcement to begin with. To enforce the law sometimes we have to use deadly force. If he's said that he can't use deadly force, then you can't rely on this guy to do what he has sworn to do to uphold the law. To uphold the law, you may have to take a life to save a life."

Whether due to lack of training or personal conviction, officers often find themselves unable to pull the trigger when absolutely necessary.

"We've all seen dash-cam videos of officers standing in the open and repeatedly yelling commands like: Drop the gun!" at noncompliant, threatening offenders," points out Lewinski. "The officers are not using the deadly force that they're legally justified in using, and they're not doing anything else-like moving to cover or withdrawing-to gain a tactical advantage. These officers get caught in a repetitive verbal loop because they perceive they are losing control of the situation and they can't figure a way out. They are tactically frozen."

Lewinski calls on officers to prepare themselves for such events long before they happen. Toward that end, departments can improve training, provide an abundance of realistic force-on-force scenarios, evaluate and mentor officers who may be reticent to use deadly force when necessary, and supply and enforce the wearing of efficient body armor. However, when department funding and manpower is not sufficient to provide these activities, officers need to step up to the plate, even on their own time.

Conventional wisdom says that there's only so much that an agency can do to protect its officers. Individuals and organizations that work alongside law enforcement continue to advance officer safety studies and training techniques. Some even believe the profession stands on the cusp of a new era in which spider-silk vests and nano-wear will afford officers even safer and more comfortable protection. Such innovations will help officers survive more assaults and perhaps staunch the flow of the blood bath.

Technological innovation is only one part of mitigating the deadly hazards faced by American law enforcement officers. Selecting the best candidates and providing them with an environment-both physically and politically-in which they can perform their jobs more safely may be even more critical to officer survival.


Line-of-Duty Deaths and the War on Cops

Law Enforcement Fatalities by Gunfire Reaches 20-Year High

Is Law Enforcement Entering a Deadly New Era?

Fighting the Wrong Battle

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Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Morning Eagle @ 8/15/2011 11:26 PM

Take it from an old Trooper that served through the turbulent 60's and 70's Dean referred to in this very timely article, anyone serving today that will not take advantage of the technological innovations to enhance officer safety is beyond being merely foolish. We didn't even have ballistic vests that could be worn under the uniform shirt until the early 70's. So what if they are uncomfortable in hot weather or make you look “bulky” - would you rather be dead? Any hesitancy to wear the vest because it might indicate you are afraid or because some of your peers might be stupid enough to laugh at you is inexcusable. I have always been against more federal control of state, county and local departments but in the case of the body armor being funded at least in part by the DOJ, it is understandable that they expect it to be worn. Trouble with that is department heads should not sit around waiting to be told what to do by the feds. Take the responsibility of caring about the safety of your officers and don’t wait for the feds to do it for you. Or would you rather preside over the funeral of an officer that could have been saved by wearing that hot vest against his will but because you ordered him or her to? Lead or get out of the way.

Any person that cannot make up their mind before ever accepting a commission to unhesitatingly use justifiable deadly force is in the wrong profession. Simple as that and it is a potential disservice to fellow officers that might need assistance in a deadly situation. If you are being assaulted by someone that tries to take your service weapon then pulls a knife (considered to be a deadly weapon by the way) and starts slashing you and those attempting to assist you, that is a definite clue it is past TAZER time, it is deadly force time. Put him down and out as much for yourself as for anyone that will have to confront that subject after the courts or parole boards turn him loose on society again. You know they will.

Davesam25G @ 8/16/2011 12:07 AM

Excellent-Very well done indeed...We have come a long way from the 70's W/Gun and my first book read was the patrol operation by IACP 1970 - Then Officer Down Code Three - "The Ten Deadly Sins" hard read on a 6pm to 6am but time was there and damn near read the whole book in one night a hard to put down, by LAPD Detective Pierce Brooks - major factor in development of VICAP also!! I rather be hot and alive... And I might add don't allow the Politically correct syndrome hit you... I am concerned with the current climate in (Both Media and Citizen Concerns many times unfounded and based on emotions vice fact)...May cause hesitation when action is needed and the results to officer could be far-reaching up major injuries and or death. Thank You Sgt Dean Scoville.

Jim-Bob @ 8/16/2011 3:27 PM

Chief Monroe - don't contemplate mandating body armor - JUST DO IT! Other than environmental reasons (which still don't make it right), you have NO excuse to not wear body armor. And if you have that much of an "oh well" attitude, get the hell out of law enforcement! I don't want that attitude backing up me or one of my guys and gals.
Attitude is everything to staying alive today, as our society once again starts its slide back into the volcano. All of you young guys need to become more prepared (not just tactically but just as importantly, MENTALLY prepared) for what you face out there, not just buying more toys.
From one of the old(er) dogs who is still kicking and fighting, STAY SAFE (and wear that damn vest)!

Ima Leprechaun @ 8/16/2011 11:24 PM

There are some things you can do but there is no way to be prepared for every possible contingent while working the street. A vest is nice but in extreme heat climates that vest is just as dangerous to have on as off. I prefer the option of wearing one rather than a departmental requirement based on the following statement "You will always wear your vest because we bought it for you and we don't care how hot it gets outside." I have had some dangerous staph infections caused by vest rashes. I would wear it until the vest is more of a threat than a bullet. Administrations and some cops have no understanding of this. God made me hairy and I can't help it I get a greenhouse effect under my vest. Cool shirts don't work either I have tried them all. I will bet that anyone that doesn't understand this has never had a staph infection from a vest rash or is an administrator.

Also If one Cop dies that is one too many. I don't care if it was statistically more dangerous in the 1960's because its pretty darn dangerous now too. Something is going terribly wrong in the last few years and it appears to be in Basic Officer Training. Ethical Police Behavioral Training seems to be lacking these days.

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