On Halloween night 1995, a police officer in the Greater Vancouver, Canada area was dispatched to a call involving a citizen who was being assaulted by a group of youths. Upon arrival, the uniformed officer moved to intervene and protect the victim, when he was blindsided with a punch to the head and knocked to the ground.

Suddenly, the officer was surrounded by an aggressive, hostile group of youths more closely resembling a "wolf pack' than a group of local high school kids. This time the officer was lucky; cover showed up in time to successfully disperse the pack and make the arrest.

All too often, however, the results are not so favorable. Officers have been severely beaten, disarmed and shot with their own weapon. In this day and age, multiple-assailant are the rule rather then the exception.  Incidents in which groups of assailants have attacked and seriously injured or killed their victim are on the rise and causing fear among law-abiding citizens.

The assault usually grows out of a minor confrontation or criminal plan that rapidly escalates out of control, leaving the victim maimed or even dead.

Police officers should command enough respect to deter a group of individuals from spontaneously attacking. But statistics tell a different story. In fact, 40 percent of all assaults against police officers are by two or more assailants. Bad guys are willing to roll the dice and gang up on cops more than ever before.

Use-of-force context

Probably one of the most vivid images of a multiple-assailant attack was captured on a dash-mounted video camera in Garrison, Texas, in January 1991. Constable Darrell Lunsford was questioning three individuals at a roadside stop when he was suddenly and viciously attacked. He was taken to the ground in three seconds and killed with his own weapon 11 seconds later. Lunsford stood 6-feet-5-inches tall and weighed 280 pounds. Clearly, a multiple-assailant situation is a potentially deadly encounter and one you cannot afford to lose.

Could those assailants have fled the scene without killing the officer?  Was it easier for them to achieve their short-term goal by killing him? Are you justified in rapidly escalating your force response in dealing with multiple assailants? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Because a multiple-assailant situation is a deadly force encounter, it is essential to consider the amount of force you are willing to use. You must understand your force-response justification and be prepared to articulate this justification before the courts.

There is considerable empirical evidence to support the fact that multiple-assailant attacks arise out of seemingly routine situations to encounters. They escalate rapidly and if not successfully contained, can result in serious bodily injury or death. The federal statutes relating to the use of force specifically authorize you to protect yourself from this type of attack. There is no time for a guarded, measured response when dealing with a "wolf pack". As little as 14 seconds can make the difference between life and death.  

The pack mentality 

Several things occur within a group that do not occur in one-on-one confrontations. In a group, there is an unstated pressure or agreement to support each other. There is also a feeling of reduced risk and greater anonymity within a group, and with that comes a reduced sense of accountabil­ity. Additionally, there is peer pressure to keep pace with the group and perform and participate equally.

People in groups are often said to descend several rungs on the evolutionary ladder and behave in a more crude, Neanderthal fashion.  Many of these dynamics suppport and explain the behavior of multiple assailants. This "pack" mentally is one of the factors that causes violence to escalate rapidly and in such an uncontrolled manner. This is also why seemingly "nice kids" turn into something quite different in a violent group dynamic.

When does a group become a potential "wolf Pack"? As police officers, it is part of our job to routinely deal with groups of people. While most of them could not be considered wolf packs, you should always be aware of what is going on around you.[PAGEBREAK]

It is absolutely critical to become an expert in reaching the verbal and nonverbal cues that people give off when you are dealing with them. Situations do not just happen. They develop because someone fails to accurately assess or recognize pre-assault cues. If you are tuned into these cues, a bad situation may be averted. Look for the following pre-assault cues:

  • Raspiness or change in the voice
  • Repeated words or phrases
  • Confrontational, aggressive or hos­tile language
  • Direct threats
  • Unusual or inappropriate sweating
  • Tightened jaw or clenched teeth
  • Resistive tension in body and face
  • Breathing through the mouth or audible breathing
  • Balling of fists
  • Trembling
  • I,000-yard stare (intimidation)
  • Target glancing (looking where they will attack)
  • Looking around furtively, possibly for witnesses or escape routes
  • Encroachment of space
  • Physical distraction
  • Reaction hand distraction
  • Blading body (turning sideways)
  • Shifting weight (ready to attack)
  • Rolling shoulders forward, tucking chin or bending knees

Usually these cues, which occur as a result of stress, are done to intimidate, prepare the body to fight or cause the intended victims to drop their guard. Be on the lookout for these cues, whether you are dealing with one subject or several. Specific multiple-assailant pre-­assault cues:

  • Positioning group members relative to each other
  • Positioning group members relative to you (adjusting to each other or to you in order to attack)
  • Assailants glancing at each other (silent communication)
  • U sing words or phrases that do not make sense or are out of con­text (used to confuse or as an attack signal)
  • Showing body language inconsis­tent with words or context
  • Secondary subject distraction (one person will attempt to divert atten­tion towards another)

These cues are strong indicators that you are dealing with a wolf pack.  These movements occur in the assailants' efforts to coordinate an effective attack or to lower an officer's awareness so that he or she is more susceptible to an attack.

If these cues are recognized and the opportunity exists, this may be the appropriate time to revise your priori­ties, turn into "Ofc. Friendly," curtail any investigative activities and grace­fully disengage from this imminent physical encounter. No arrest, ticket or check could possibly be worth your physical safety. It is better to return when the odds are more in your favor.[PAGEBREAK]

Multiple-assailant mentality

A multiple-assailant situation is not an arrest-and-control situation. It is quite simply a survival situa­tion. Your goals must change, and your techniques and tactics must change accordingly. But above all else, your mentality must be correct. You must be 100 percent committed to winning. You cannot afford to be mentally overwhelmed by the num­bers, nor can you simply take as many of them down with you as you can. These are both defeatist atti­tudes. First defeat multiple assailants in your mind, and then defeat them physically.

It is possible to win against mul­tiple assailants. As you know from trying to arrest a violent subject with too many cops, more is not neces­sarily better.

Officers have a number of advan­tages in a multiple-assailant situa­tion, and you must take advantage of them all. When the wolf pack thinks that you are the prey, you must become the predator.

Intermediate goals

In a multiple-assailant situation, the immediate goal is to survive. There is no shame in defeating a group of individuals committed to physically harming us and other innocent people.

Surviving the encounter does not simply mean getting out of it with a pulse; it means surviving physically, men­tally and legally intact. If winning or total survival is the primary goal, how can it be achieved?

Devastate the group psychologically

  • Take out the leader
  • Cause a psychologically devastating visible injury
  • Force a group retreat-most of the group probably does not really want to be there
  • Make a opportunity to escape in complete safety
  • Create a clear window to disengage in complete safety
  • Get to your vehicle
  • Get to a safe haven
  • Fight long enough for cover to arrive
  • Create a clear opportunity to disen­gage, draw and point your sidearm. It will likely take more time than you think, especially if you're wearing a security holster.
  • Use loud, repetitive verbal commands
  • Do not chance losing your weapon by attempting to acquire it at an inoppor­tune moment
  • Destroy the group physically (This is the most difficult course of action; however. you probably won't have to defeat each and every assailant.)
  • Use sound tactics of screening, crack­ing and redirecting (putting assailants between each other, moving between assailants at opportune moments, redi­recting assailants' momentum into each other or stationary objects).
  • Use assailants against each other
  • Strike to high-percentage targets
  • Use the environment favorably: Use door frames and hallways as protective funnels; and natural objects (cars, trees, mail boxes, etc.) as obstacles to assailants. Let those obstacles do dam­age to assailants
  • Always train with multiple assailants in mind

If multiple assailants are a potential problem for you or other members of your agency, it must be addressed in training. That means all operational personnel should be trained in how to effectively deal with the wolf pack.

This training should include identifi­cation and recognition, prevention and avoidance strategies and use-of-force context. It should also include justifi­cation and response, the winning mind-set, pre-assault cues, primary, intermediate and subsidiary goals, basic concepts and strategies, specific tactics and techniques for defeating multiple assailants.

This training should be primarily hands-on and, if possible, involve the use of dynamic simulation training so that officers get to experience some­thing resembling a real-world applica­tion.

You do not need to be a trained martial artist to defeat multiple assailants, but you do need to consider the possibility that this type of con­frontation could happen, so that you are not psychologically and emotion­ally overwhelmed if it does. You also need to be able to recognize the dan­ger signs, understand your goals and apply some basic strategies, tactics and techniques.

Train with multiple assailants in mind. When you do, one-on-one situations will become much easier, and you will know you are prepared to deal with one of the highest threat levels you may ever face. Train to win!

Joel Johnston Jr. is the Control Tactics Coordinator for the Vancouver (Canada) Police Department. Special thanks to Phillip J. Messina, president of Modern Warrior Inc.; George Demetriou, New York Police Department; and the International Shotokan Karate Federation.

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