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Departments : The Winning Edge

Five Things That Can Get You Killed or Sued

Thinking things through and taking just a little care can save you a world of hurt.

June 06, 2012  |  by Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried


With the tax base shrinking in many of our jurisdictions and that depleting our budgets, all of us have been told to do more with less.

Consequently, many cops are overworked, sometimes being asked to take on the responsibilities once shared by two or three people. There is also a strong incentive to cut corners. We have all done it. The trick is to know what corners to cut and what corners might cut you back. With this in mind, here's a look at five things you absolutely positively don't want to do on the job.

1. Reacting Too Slowly

With lawsuits abounding, many officers spend more time worrying about how a use of force will be perceived by their agencies and communities rather than what they need to do to survive it. This can cause officers to hesitate.

The hesitation problem is exacerbated when the individual officers do not have a clear understanding of when they are legally allowed to use force.

There is a famous maxim that says, "He who hesitates is lost." The decision to use force should never be taken lightly, but once the decision is made, appropriate force should be used without fear of what could or might happen after.

The United States Supreme Court gave us clear direction in the landmark case Graham v Connor in 1989. The court expects the force used by police to be "objectively reasonable." If you use "objectively reasonable force," you will have the full weight of federal law behind you.

Using tactical communication is great. "Be nice," like Patrick Swayze said in the movie "Roadhouse." Don't let your mouth write a check other more delicate parts of your body might have to cash. Showing respect to arrestees, their families, and friends doesn’t cost anything, but it can pay off with increased officer safety and cooperation. Good cops turn arrestees into informants.

A key element in Dr. George Thompson's "Verbal Judo" is "When words fail, act." When it comes time to act, act! Use force. Too many cops are killed with their weapons still in their holsters because they were talking when they should have been shooting.

2. Driving Too Fast

Any good traffic cop knows the primary cause of traffic fatalities is usually speeding. We are going too fast and it is killing us.

For those of us in cars, many times we do not have our seat belt fastened and we crash. I never understood why so many cops don't fasten their seat belts. The excuse I hear most of the time is, "I don't want to have my seat belt on in case I get into a shooting or have to exit the vehicle in a hurry." OK, when was the last time you heard of a cop getting out of a vehicle traveling 40 to 100 miles per hour? How about shooting at another vehicle or a person while driving at those speeds? Most cops do not get 100% on their qualification when they are shooting at a stationary target just a few yards away.

I, like most cops, take off my seat belt as I am approaching a vehicle, house, or a person. But at that point, I am going at a very low speed, usually 10 miles per hour or less. If I get into a collision at that speed, I have an excellent chance of being OK. If I get into a collision at 100 miles per hour without a seat belt, I probably won't be going home at the end of shift. In 2011, we lost 45 officers to collision-related deaths.

3. Being Too Proud

Pride goes before a fall. Call for backup. It is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of tactical awareness. Ask yourself how much sense would it make for the SWAT team to respond to a call and say, "Oh there is only one suspect in the house. Well we will just send in one officer. There is no way the suspect in the house is better trained or equipped than our guy." Ridiculous. Right?

I have heard this mantra from more than one SWAT team: "Surprise, speed, and overwhelming force overcome a myriad of tactical problems." When SWAT teams engage, the whole entry team goes in. So remember, you do not have to go it alone.

Comments (16)

Displaying 1 - 16 of 16

Serena Booth @ 6/6/2012 6:16 PM

Excellent reading.
I will make sure my officers read this article.
Good for ANYbody of ANY rank. In other words: If you wear a badge, you need to read.

tmhunt @ 6/7/2012 3:55 AM

Great article, a good reminder of the things we don't think much about that can come back to haunt us.

starrman69 @ 6/7/2012 6:05 PM

They can't stress enough the importance of a well written, detailed report. I didn't go to court as often as the other deputies and several assistant prosecutors told me it was the completeness of my's not surprising that when you deal with the same dirtbags day in and day out, that you forget little details of every can't bring it up in court if it isn't in your report.

Russ @ 6/8/2012 5:59 AM

Excellent article all around! I was glad to see report writing covered because the importance of good report writing is so often overlooked by many officers. Another benefit of writing a good, detailed report that wasn't mentioned is that it can be the deciding factor when admin is looking at promotional candidates and detective assignments - especially when the competition is about even on all other counts. When I taught report writing in the academies in a prior life, I told them on day one that regardless of what they had read, seen on tv or heard from friends and relatives about police work, by the end of their first year they would realize we are actually the best armed secretaries in the county because they would spend more time writing reports than any other single activity. I agree with Serena Booth: this article is good for anybody of any rank. Thank you.

Brad @ 6/8/2012 11:49 AM

Excellent read. Things we all have told ,but always need reminded of.

Chuck McKenzie @ 6/8/2012 5:40 PM

I wish I had had a training officer of your caliber. You're a .45 in a world of .22s. I rarely had to go to court because my reports were written according to your rules. My downfall was pursuits; no one was getting away. It is truly sad that you will probably never be a chief; you are far too intelligent for the caliber of individuals I worked for. Great article.

Rev. Lowrey @ 6/9/2012 4:01 PM

Excellent article. It seems your comments about reports really hit home with officers. There was something you brought up near the conclusion of your first point about being nice that I think should be expanded on. Compliant individuals will be just as compliant and perhaps remember details better if they don't feel intimidated. You never know when a less compliant personality will mirror an officers aggressive posture and end up in an unnecessary altercation. Taking a calm approach also lets the officer be more aware to the details of their situation and in a position of defusing rather than encouraging or aggravating a potentially dangerous engagement. The better PR can't be bad either. It pays to be nice.

Capt David-Ret LA County @ 6/9/2012 5:07 PM

Well said. Don't take things personal, keep as level headed as possible, keep good records and reports, make a copy of everything for your own files if possible, don't cover, lie, cheat, file false reports. Read and learn from it.

irmomarshal1 @ 6/10/2012 5:47 AM

I taught one of my classes last week entitled 'Leadership, Ethics & Egos' and this article is a perfect fit. I only hope those officers in management that need to give this some thought, take time to do so. Be safe.

sheriffbob @ 6/11/2012 3:47 PM

I had a Captain who once told me about writing a report, " Remember, your name will be at the bottom of this report". Great info. Stay safe.

Joe S @ 6/15/2012 12:10 PM

Great read! I'll make sure to pass it on.

Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried @ 7/2/2012 1:17 PM

Thank you so much for the very kind words. Writing is a solitary adventure and you never know how it will be received. I hope the suggestions I shared will help. We are all her to learn from each other.

Donnie Tinnell @ 7/18/2012 4:51 AM

I agree with everything you discussed but i'm afraid our academys can't instill some of these things,report writing you can, a lot of agencies control pursuits with policy and procedure,but young officers normally react quicker than they should. they seldom don't think things out. experience teaches us your statements are correct but how do we instill that in our young officers who have no real street experience,I don't believe our F.T.O. programs can fix this in such a short period only practical experience proves to us these things are correct. I salute you for your words, I pray they become part of our training culture. Thanks Chief of Police Donnie Tinnell Lebanon Junction Police dept.

Al Andrews @ 8/8/2012 7:30 AM

Exceptional piece! I've been very long retired but would have made this an issue handout for all my officers. Especially appreciate the wisdom and emphasis on report writing. In my career, a huge portion of the cases of occider actions on which I had to sit in judgment were obviously attributable to poor report writing. And, you can absolutely bet on the important influence report writing quality (or lack thereof) has on (not only) promotions but even more influence on duty assignments, etc.

In speaking to officers, I often tried to emphasize a "rule" I learned from my first chief and my first sergeant as a young patrol officer. Loosely (and a little carelessly and confusingly) stated as "When in doubt, don't!"

An officer who hinks about the "What if (such and such happened right now? and what he'd do about it and is a keen observer and thinker about the experiences of himself and other officers and understands where the courts are coming from, will generally find that if he has doubts about the course of action to take, he is probably being signalled by his professional subconscious that he is on tricky or dangerous ground and needs to rein in and take a look at the way events are moving. A corollary of the "rule" is "When you're angry, you have very good reason to be in doubt but probably aren't because you're angry. Whoa, boy, slow down!"

Thanks from an old chief who saw way too many officers in trouble because they were off the mark on one or more of your points. This is an exceptionally comprehnsive, and short, and well written piece of advice.

And the comments about applicability to the upper ranks are right on!

Good luck and I hope your chosen career path for the next years includes influencing police executives and writing for officer self-improvement.

J Hailey @ 9/10/2012 11:55 PM

I dont like the comment.....Too many innocent people have been killed by "OFFICERS" who engaged in vehicle pursuits when they shouldn’t have..... It's real simple, If YOU ! The "VIOLATOR" flee from Law enformencement, Police, Deputy, Troopers and you make them chase you, YOU ALONE SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR YOUR ACTION !! NOT EVERYONE ELSE, DOING THE RIGHT THING THERE JOBS!!!


Mike "Ziggy" Siegfried @ 4/25/2013 2:21 PM

J Hailey, I appreciate your point. There are situations when an officer must pursue. I understand that. But the suspect should not be leading the officer by the nose. In most cases, it is the officer that will have to make the determination to end a pursuit that is getting too dangerous for all involved. As I wrote, "Just because someone runs, does not mean you have to chase him or her. Sometimes patience is the better part of valor". The intent of this article and every one I have ever written, is to help cops not blame them. I sorry you missed that and the other points I was trying to make. I do thank you for the feedback. I tend to learn more from the people that do not agree with me. Be safe!

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