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Alone Against All Odds

Sometimes officers have no choice but to act alone, but all too often they fail to call for backup when it's needed because of the deadly fear of looking weak.

June 24, 2014  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Cops are accustomed to answering calls for help. They expect them, respond accordingly, and generally think no less of those who ask for assistance. But when it comes to the prospect of asking for help themselves, these same officers can be curiously silent.

There is no shortage of reasons why officers are hesitant to ask for help, even help from fellow officers. They don't want to impose. They don't want to send anyone on a wild goose chase. They don't want to embarrass themselves.

While such inhibitions may be understandable, they may prove impractical—even costly—when factored in with the realities of the job.

In an effort to locate a suicidal male, Oconee County (S.C.) Sheriff's deputy William Schuck turned down a dirt road only to find his patrol vehicle stuck in the muddy soil. Using his cell phone, Schuck advised his wife of his predicament saying that he was too embarrassed to ask for assistance. He'd gotten himself into his predicament; he'd get himself out.

Hours went by without communication between Schuck and his dispatch, then a secondary search was initiated. An officer spotted the lightbar of Schuck's patrol vehicle and investigated. He found the deputy's lifeless body. An investigation determined that in Schuck's attempts to free his vehicle it'd rolled forward and pinned him against the tree. The 26-year-old deputy was survived by his wife and unborn child.

Fear of Being "Weak"

The very term "first responders" connotes a degree of initiative. The same mindset that allows officers to be self-starters makes them tend to be self-finishers, too. Routinely accustomed to taking risks in other solitary endeavors—pursuits, code three roles, etc.—officers may not only become accustomed to not seeking assistance, but reticent to do so.

Perhaps this accounts for the rise of romantic sobriquets like the Texas Rangers' "one ranger, one riot." Unfortunately, such rhetoric fosters mythic notions that, in turn, create unrealistic expectations that cops have of themselves and other officers. Small wonder that when it comes to such peer pressure, cops could do worse than adhere to the "Just Say No" rhetoric of their DARE peers.

Unfortunately, many don't. Life coach Linda Maglionico cites a peculiar belief at the root of many a problem: People will think I'm weak if I ask for help. "In the U.S., we glorify self-made people," notes Maglionico. "You never hear about people who asked for assistance while pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve the American Dream. As such, we view accepting help as a sign of weakness, especially for those who believe that seeking help undermines our sense of independence, abilities, and ability to cope."

Combine that with societal expectations of cops and you have an even bigger problem.

"Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you're an officer," says John Violanti, a research professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions, "but you fear asking for help."

That fear may prove ironic, prompting undue initiative that will not immunize the officer from harm, or the judgments of others.

These verdicts may be rendered in-house such as that given to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police officer Jason Hersh in the aftermath of his on-duty shooting of stolen check suspect Tra'don Johnson at the drive-thru of a National City Bank. Hersh's internal affairs investigation concluded that he mishandled the call and should have awaited backup.

"A lone officer should not have attempted to contact three suspects occupying a running vehicle attempting to cash a stolen check," said Capt. Rick Maglione of the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department's Office of Internal Affairs in evaluating Hersh's actions. "The safety of the civilians in the immediate area and the safety of [the officers] were unnecessarily compromised."

Criticisms can also come from citizens. Fort Bragg, Calif., officer Craig Guydan found himself criticized by the community for what it perceived was precipitous behavior on Guydan's part, including his failing to wait for backup when he drew his gun and approached the scene of what was reported as a fight and turned out to be a simple game of football involving 15 to 20 juveniles.

In both instances there was a perception that an officer's solitary enterprise had precipitated or escalated threats to the community at large.

Such independent action may even have consequences for the unwary bystander. When a Wood River, Ill., officer failed to wait for backup before attempting the arrest of a felony suspect, he found himself in a one-on-one struggle with a suspected car thief. When his order for a citizen to assist him was allegedly refused, the bystander was subsequently arrested for failing to help the officer.

Is Backup Available?

These problems come at a time when a degree of lone officer initiative is expected—and even encouraged. With fewer cops to go around and everyone doing more with less, some officers hesitate to ask for assistance.

Gainesville, Fla., Officer Scott Baird was obligated to remove an obstruction from a roadway, a batting cage that had been placed in the road behind a high school as a prank. While moving the cage, which weighed as much as 300 pounds, Baird was struck and killed by early morning traffic. In a similar incident, Officer Bruce Jacob of the Jackson (Miss.) Police Department was attempting to remove a barbeque grill that had fallen from another vehicle and was blocking a travel lane. Having retrieved the item, Jacob was placing it in the trunk of his patrol car when he was struck from behind. He was pronounced dead at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

"It's hard for me to sometimes drop whatever I'm doing and roll to a backup request," notes one West Coast officer. "Unless the other guy's a slapdick, he's got his hands full, too. So we try to be respectful of one another's time. Besides, the less I ask for assistance, the more likely I am to get it when I need it. You can't be Chicken Little out here."

Dep. Mike Siegfried with the San Bernardino (Calif.) Sheriff's Office notes that the problem of solo officers trying to bite off more than they can chew has worsened in recent years, as agencies have thinned their sworn ranks.

"With the economy and the cuts that have been made to so many of our agencies, we're having to do more with less," says Siegfried. "You see situations in which you know that the backup is not readily there. Agencies are just now starting to hire to fill vacancies, and they started off in the recession below their optimal manpower strength. You've got less boots on the street in many of our areas. You've got longer responses for a backup."

"A Man's Got to Know His Limitations"

The diminished officer population is partially responsible for a concurrent emphasis on preparing to engage active shooters without waiting for assistance—a posture that only encourages the one-man warrior mindset. Indeed, instructors say things in training like: "You are the first and only line of defense when you arrive." While that mentality is both laudable and needed, it can become a liability in less emergent situations, with officers initiating actions that should be shared with others, particularly when time affords the assistance.

Presented as a dig in the 1973 Dirty Harry film "Magnum Force," the wisdom of the sentiment "A Man's Got to Know His Limitations" is nonetheless unassailable. And yet some officers are tempted to exceed those limitations even if they recognize them.

And recognize them they often do. The same cops who caution citizens of the dangers of working alone late at night and conducting transactions away from the company of others also know the amplitude of cautionary parables that would theoretically prevent them from taking risks that have proven fateful for others.

Despite this, there is a replication of deadly error in the law enforcement community, one that accounts for general rules and guidelines such as the profession's "Ten Deadly Sins." (Go to www.policemag.com/10deadly to read this Web exclusive).

One of the greatest dangers facing officers is not recognizing that their limitations may vary from one day to the next. The inherent danger of shift work illustrates the point. Saddled with poor sleep and questionable dietary habits, ordered to work overtime for days on end behind some civil protest, officers may find themselves mentally and physically taxed. The resulting impaired judgment may find them susceptible to actions they would normally refrain from doing.

Addressing the Problem

Federal and State offices of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publish all manner of literature addressing the concerns of the lone employee, with some states imposing specific regulations for public sector employees. While the acknowledgment of a problem can come late in the game—with change agents lagging still further behind—once our profession recognizes a problem, more often than not we address it.

In the aftermath of Dep. William Schuck's tragedy, his South Carolina agency implemented changes designed to minimize the likelihood of such a recurrence.

"At the time, our radio equipment didn't have any GPS capability, nor did we do roll call on the hour for the night shifts. After that, both have been implemented," explains Oconee County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jeff Underwood.

For most lone officers, the MDT or radio will be the primary source of contact, but carrying a cellular phone should be encouraged. If a cellular phone is unreliable in the area, be sure to have alternative methods of communication available (such as use of public telephones, site visits, or satellite technology).

The need for dispatchers to recognize the physical limitations of officers is paramount when it comes to their assigning calls. Supervisors must also understand the effects of shift work on individual officers. Scheduling high-risk tasks when field deployments are at optimum levels—in terms of both manpower and alertness—will assure a higher rate of success.

Training always plays an important role in the ability of officers to adopt new mindsets and strategies. The idea of overcoming assistance resistance must be embraced by everyone within an agency.

"Cops are always the tough guys," notes Underwood. "They think: 'We don't need any help. We're big and bad and we can do it ourselves.' But that's not what we want them to think. We started drilling it into our guys' heads that any time you get that feeling on the back of your neck you call for help. No one is to ridicule anyone else for asking for help. They'll be on my carpet if they're making fun of anybody that asks for help. Departmentwide, that's the mindset that nothing is too small to ask for help on. I've always said that I'd rather have too many doing too easy a job than too few doing too hard of a job."

Maglionico points out that the focus for law enforcement is to project an image that their operations are running smoothly and situations are under control. In reality, she notes that no one person or organization has everything that could possibly be needed to do the job.

"It actually takes a strong person to admit you need help. For example, when I'm stubbornly refusing to ask for help, I tell myself it's because I'm strong. But that's not true. It's because I'm scared. I'm scared to be vulnerable. I'm scared to admit that I can't do it all on my own. I'm scared the people I ask for help won't help me. In reality, asking for help is the brave thing to do."

Recognizing another's need for help is important, as well. Whether that is predicated upon individual or environmental limitations, co-workers need to have honest appraisals of who is going up against what.

As Wess Roberts notes in his book "Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun," "You do the best you can in all aspects of your work. You don't get in your colleague's way. And when you need help, you ask for it; when you're asked for help, you give it."

Officers should regard it as the proverbial preventive ounce that saves a lot of grief on the back end, particularly as the inherent threats are implicitly acknowledged given the nature of their mission. If people can't or won't help, then you can help yourself by making wise decisions.

A realist, Siegfried knows that some officers are inclined to do "what they gotta do."

"If I know my backup is 45 minutes away and I feel an urgency to do something, then am I going to extend myself knowing that it's probably not the best idea, or am I going to wait until it's a more practical time to do it officer-safety-wise? Ninety-nine % of the time the officer decides he's just going to do it and it turns out fine, but 1% of the time it turns out horrible."

Sgt. Dave Lawler of the Linn County (Ore.) Sheriff's Office, and an NRA Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, makes a case for pulling the reins on yourself.

"I'm not one for stopping every suspicious car," notes Lawler. "If you get a hinkey feeling, don't make the stop. It's not worth it. Being in the middle of nowhere with your backup 45 minutes away and a carload of people with time to make plans…I don't like it."

Siegfried agrees. "There's very little in this world that's time sensitive. Even a shooting, you've got to control the scene, but very rarely do we have to run in guns ablazing," he says. "The more experienced officer will slow things down and wait for backup and secure the area. The younger officer, being more proactively minded and probably more aggressively minded, is apt to go in and take care of business. That's a maturity level thing. The older officer isn't going to jeopardize officer safety."

Forewarned is forearmed. An officer who routinely fails to ask for assistance or wait for that assistance to arrive may find himself dealing with a less desirable peer: The expert witness who testifies against him for failing to take appropriate precautions. The lynchpin of many a defense or civil attorney's case is that the officer needlessly escalated things or allowed them to worsen by not getting adequate support on hand.

 

Tags: Calling for Backup


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

tedb @ 6/25/2014 8:11 AM

Well said Dean. And welcome back! For whatever reason your articles have not appeared recently, hopefully just a long relaxing vacation, your absence was noted and missed by your readers.

John57 @ 7/4/2014 10:40 AM

This hit home in so many ways. Retired now (32yrs) I still listen to a scanner and listen to my old dept and the one in the area I live now. I hear it. Dispatcher sends the call, then asks "Do you want back up unit" You can feel the conflict in the decision process going on, I notice the delay in response by the officer. You know what's going on in his/her head. I feel motivated to make a copy of this article and send it to both Sheriff's in both counties with a cover letter. Train this out.

Jeff Underwood @ 9/25/2014 1:29 PM

This was my officer. We still miss him and that night still lives with us all, but thank you for sharing this article with your readers, Dean. If only one officer remembers this article when they need help, they will ask and it will save their life. Thanks again.

Mike @ 9/30/2014 11:26 AM

Having worked in law enforcement for 25 years, in the past it was expected of you to go it alone. When I worked 3rd shift, there was only 3 officers working on some nights to include the supervisor. I can remember many calls that you handled on your own, it did not matter what it was, but I believe that it was a different time. Officers were more respected back then not all, but the great majority did. In today's atmosphere officers must evaluate each situation as best that they can and should not be too hesitant to have back up. I have told younger officers that this is one of the few jobs today that you can do everything right and still not go home. In my career I have attended way to may Law Enforcement funerals. I have never seen the amount of negative stories presented about law enforcement officers. Today's criminals are becoming more violent, the criminal justice system in my opinion, has become a big part of the problem. Be safe out there my Brother's and Sister's.

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