In the Southwestern U.S., a patrolman with about a year on the job was shot twice in the back of the head while transporting two robbery suspects in the back seat of his patrol car. The officer had failed to find a .380 caliber handgun concealed on one of the robbers. The officer died of the wounds he received in the 3:30 a.m. incident.
According to the “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” statistics published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, making a full-custody arrest is often the most dangerous thing an American law enforcement officer can do. It really doesn’t matter if the arrest is for a dog-at-large warrant or murder.
Offenders wanted for seemingly every law violation under the sun have, at one time or another, killed or attempted to kill the peace officer trying to take them into custody. The survival-savvy officer realizes that taking virtually anyone into custody represents a point of potentially high personal danger. You must realize it, too.
Getting Too Close, Too Soon
This potentially fatal error is related to the “rushing when speed is not required” mistake. Leaving cover and moving within arm’s reach of an offender before you have him at a physical disadvantage is yet another way of becoming a casualty.
Once more, in most cases there is really no need to rush to complete the arrest process. Even if there is a risk that the offender may flee while you are waiting, try to wait for a cover officer to arrive before you move in to secure and search your subject. If he escapes for the moment, there will always be another day to bring him to justice. The good news is that you will be alive and able to participate in the apprehension.
Don’t rush. Stop, look, listen, and plan first. You just might ferret out something that will alter your approach to the situation.
Taking on Too Much
More than a couple of police officers have died while trying to arrest a drunk driver who just happened to have a nasty and equally intoxicated passenger aboard. Other officers have met a bad end by trying to corral or question a group of several subjects on their own. Yet other colleagues of yours have been successfully attacked after trying to make an arrest, search a vehicle, gather information for a report, and perhaps referee a continuing dispute, all by themselves.
Your common sense should tell you that you can only do so many things at once and still do any of them well. Your attention can only be safely focused in a finite number of directions at once. Try to do more and you risk losing track of something or someone that could bring you to grief. It really is OK to ask for help. The best street cops do it all the time. There’s no better way to ensure that you go home at the end of your shift.
Arresting Without Backup
Every year in the United States, law enforcement officers die violently after making this mistake. Every year offenders size up their opposition and decide to attack after noting that the cop trying to arrest them is all alone and thereby vulnerable. Perhaps most tragically of all, almost certainly next year more cops will die after making the same mistake that helped kill their colleagues.
No one is suggesting that every arrest you ever make must have a backup officer on scene to make sure you won’t perish violently. The realities of police work preclude that a backup will be there every time you take someone into custody.
What good officer safety sense does dictate, however, is that you fully use your good judgment and common sense to guarantee that you have got help when there appears to be the slightest chance that you will need it. Situations will always develop unexpectedly that require you to make an arrest while you are alone. But you must do everything within reason to keep those scenarios to an absolute minimum. The prime directive of a safe arrest is also a very simple one: Whenever and wherever possible, make an arrest under the protection of an observant cover officer.
Misjudging Subject’s Intentions
You already know that you can ill afford to make dangerous assumptions about anything you don’t know for a rock-solid fact, at least when it comes to your safety. At the same time, it is just human to be put at ease by a pleasant, cooperative, even submissive demeanor on the part of someone you are about to take into custody. It is only natural to let down your guard a little around somebody who is going along with the program. Unlike the screaming, cursing, outwardly threatening character who makes it clear you’ll have to fight him to take him, the apparently cooperative subject is what virtually every cop wants to encounter when it comes custody time.
The problem is, of course, that the apparently cooperative offender may simply be wise enough to try to get you to drop your guard so he can escape or attack.
If he is drunk or drugged enough, he may not even know what he’s going to do until it comes time for the bracelets to go on. Then, the apparently docile offender is transformed without warning into a violent, would-be cop killer. Don’t make assumptions where your life is concerned. Assume every potential arrestee is dangerous until and unless you prove otherwise.
Not Keeping A Subject Off Balance
The purpose of the physical tactics and techniques you utilize on an arrest is to take back the advantage that the subject to be arrested would otherwise have once you move in close to effect custody. One way you do that is to keep him or her at a physical disadvantage throughout the arrest process.
Keep him facing away so that he can’t monitor your every move. Use a cuffing and searching position that keeps him physically off-balance while you handcuff and search from his rear. Put him into a prone or kneeling position with ankles crossed and fingers interlaced behind his head if the situation demands it. Don’t reach too far around when you are searching from behind him. You don’t want to lose your balance by extending too far. If he’s standing or kneeling, have him bent backward to the extent that you can easily pull him over and to the ground as you move away if he starts to resist.
While you must clearly tell the person you are arresting what you want him to do, it’s OK to play with his mind by talking to more backups than you actually have. Directions to a nonexistent canine handler (“Hold that dog, Joe.”) are guaranteed to get his attention. Keep moving so that he has trouble locating your exact position. Once he is in custody, make sure he cannot overhear your conversations with your partner(s).
Poor Handcuffing, Searching
Every year peace officers die after committing these cardinal mistakes. Sometimes they got in too much of a hurry or were simply too careless. They handcuffed sloppily or searched incompletely. Other times, for whatever reason, they failed to handcuff or search at all. And too many times, a tragedy resulted that never had to happen.
As a safety-smart officer, you know that handcuffs, even when applied properly, are only a temporary and very fallible form of restraint. Given an offender with enough time and ingenuity, they can be defeated. Properly applied, of course, means with hands back to back behind the arrestee, and cuffs double-locked and checked to be sure they are neither too loose nor circulation-stopping tight.[PAGEBREAK]
For safety’s sake, a prisoner search must be done right, too. That means the search is repeated as many times and in as much detail as necessary to ensure that the subject possesses nothing with which to hurt himself or anyone else. It means always searching for the next threat even after the last one has been found and removed.
A grizzled old salt summed up the best handcuffing and searching advice I’ve heard: “It really doesn’t matter to me if they’re 14 or 80. If they’re legally in custody, they’re gonna get cuffed and searched. Every time.”
Relaxing Too Soon
It’s an unusual year when a law enforcement officer is not killed somewhere in this country while sitting in his police car with a prisoner somewhere nearby.
Not infrequently, the killer produces a weapon while sitting in the vehicle’s back seat. Other years, one or more officers are slain within the confines of a police station or jail after delivering a prisoner there. Sometimes the officer dies after losing his own weapon. Other times, the offender brings his own or uses his personal weapons, such as hands and feet.
What some officers may fail to realize is that basic psychology is at work here. As the peacekeeper returns to his own, familiar turf, whether it’s his car or station, if he’s not careful his level of alertness drops a little. He’s now more comfortable than he was on the bad guy’s ground. Unfortunately, the offender is likely reacting in just the opposite way. It’s now clear to him he’s getting locked up. If he’s going to do something to prevent it, the time is at hand.
You truly cannot afford to relax until a suspect or arrestee is totally removed from your presence. Until that time, constant vigilance is your best guarantee of staying alive.
How to Stay Safe
Regardless of what you do for a living, mistakes are obviously not a good thing in the work world. It is equally obvious that some mistakes are a lot worse than others. Some can be career-ending. In your often-hazardous workplace, others can be life-ending. They are that bad.
As a law enforcement officer, arrest scenarios make up a huge part of what you do. As in the other things you do on your very vital job, mistakes made in the handling of any of these duties can be extremely hazardous to your health. Put another way, they can kill you quickly. Fortunately, you can largely control your own destiny in seeing to it that really bad things never happen to you. Applying all of your knowledge of good officer safety and survival techniques can help ensure that you never experience the tragic consequences that have already taken too many of your colleagues who slipped up at the worst possible moment. In doing so you truly do determine your own fate.
That’s what avoiding arrest scenario mistakes can do for you and yours.
Officer Safety Checklist
• Stop, look, and listen; gather information before you act.
• Do not rush when the situation doesn’t really require speed.
• Get plenty of assistance.
• Stay alert for the danger signs.
• Wear your body armor.
• Maintain a reactionary gap; don’t get too close, too soon.
• Watch your approach and positioning.
• Always watch their hands.
• Don’t make dangerous assumptions.
• Use cover properly.
• Use backup wisely; follow good contact and cover tactics.
• Follow careful weapon retention practices.
• Never stop looking for the next threat.
• Expect the unexpected.
• Make some contingency plans for surprises.
• Never use “cowboy” tactics.
• Never daydream on the job; stay alert.
• Maintain proficiency with all your equipment through regular practice.
• Realize that all equipment has limitations, and so do you.
• In a crisis situation, make a decision, even if it’s imperfect.
• Stay in good physical and emotional condition.
• Handcuff properly.
• Search correctly.
• Be aware of who and what is present in your immediate environment.
• Practice tactical withdrawal, as
• Count on your good common sense.
• Maintain a winning mindset.
• Avoid carelessness and complacency at all costs.
• Never stop learning your job.
• Remember to survive mentally, too.