Officers involved in confrontations with criminal suspect(s) are engaged by more than one person as much as 40 percent of the time, according to the FBI's latest statistics. This should not be surprising as criminals have a certain "wolf pack" mentality in which their nerve or courage is greater when in the company of other like-minded individuals. Criminals are well aware that officers patrol alone (with the exception of a few large cities) and that backup can be minutes away. A lot can happen in a few minutes.
Law officers who face multiple (potential) opponents are in a perilous, if not deadly, situation. The proper response to multiple offender confrontations can be summed up as follows: avoid, evade, and counter.
Avoid and Evade
The best way to deal with multiple-offender situations is to avoid them completely. To do so, a high level of situational awareness is required, with the lone officer staying "switched on" to what is going on around him or her. Awareness can be compared to the common light switch. When it's turned on, you can easily see all that goes on around you and more easily make decisions and responses. When the light switch is off, it is dark, making decisions difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at. While officers should always have their awareness switched on whenever they are on duty, it is particularly critical when dealing with multiple offenders.
Avoiding situations involving multiple persons will be difficult while involved in police operations. This being said, however, officers can go a long way toward avoidance by gathering as much information as possible before placing themselves in such situations. Information is gathered from many sources and should not be ignored or "sloughed off." Dispatchers need to be made aware of the dangers involving multiple suspects and provide this information to patrol crews whenever possible.
If circumstances are such that a lone officer has entered a multiple person situation, the next step is to evade the problem. Evasion will normally take the form of disengagement. While many officers do not like the word "retreat," doing so is the wisest course of action when entering a situation where the officer's ability to prevail is in question. While this may bruise a few readers' egos, the probability of a lone officer prevailing against multiple offenders is certainly low, regardless of the officer's ability or level of training.
Don't Confuse Courage with Stupidity
I know an officer who placed himself in a very dangerous situation. He was on patrol when he noticed a lone male in an alley behind a local business. The alley was a dead end, so the only way for the suspect to leave was to travel past his position. He pulled his patrol car to the end of the alley, got out, and walked down the alley, confronting the suspect. About this time, an unseen aggressor stepped from the shadows and started to yell obscenities at the officer.
At this point, the proper response would have been for the officer to retreat-oh, excuse me, disengage-to his vehicle and avoid the confrontation until backup could arrive. Instead, by his own admission, he puffed out his chest and told both suspects, " Both you ****ers are going to jail!"[PAGEBREAK]
What happened next? Well, let's call it what it really was. They kicked his butt. He spent a week in the hospital while the suspects spent 30 days in jail. Not a good trade off. Like the sniper who must know that some shots just cannot be made, patrol officers need to know that there are situations in which they just cannot win. This would certainly be one of them.
Making the Best of a Bad Situation
If getting involved in a confrontation with multiple offenders turns out to be inevitable, the proper response is to counter the attack with as much violence of action as can be mustered. Multiple offenders facing a lone officer justifies rapid escalation on the force continuum. Don't be afraid to do so. This will not be a situation in which "only enough force to effect an arrest" will be appropriate.
Multiple offenders will likely cause serious physical harm to a lone officer, whether they intended to at the beginning of a confrontation or not. Multiple suspects tend to draw power off of one another and, before they realize it, they have gone too far in their "little roughing up of the cop." I have interviewed numerous officer assault suspects who told me they didn't intend to really harm the officer. It was just that "the situation got a little out of control." This is not the time to find out whether or not the suspects are just going to have a little harmless fun at the officer's expense.
Dealing with multiple suspects will require a great deal of aggressive movement on the part of the officer, so being in good physical condition is certainly an asset. Regardless of what type of weapon(s) are involved, a moving target is hard to hit, so keep moving. Avoid the tendency to stand and fight.
Use Your Weapons
The use of any weapon will require a bit of time and space to deploy. Getting this time and space will require the lone officer to use aggressive hand-to-hand skills. This is not the time to try that nifty arm-bar takedown you learned in the gym. Moves like that are intended to gain compliance and take offenders into custody. This is a fight. And fighting requires strikes to the soft areas of the body.
Strikes to the face and neck can be very effective, even if they do not land solidly on flesh. Any time something is directed at the face area, there is an uncontrolled reflex to flinch and protect this region. Even if contact is not made with the eyes, this flinch may produce enough time for you to draw a better weapon.
Remember, no one can strike something he cannot see. Move quickly and with full aggression. To deal with multiple attackers, you need to be in more than one place very quickly. You may very well need to deliver multiple blows on multiple persons within 1.5 seconds. A superior fighting attitude will win the day.
Using a baton can keep multiple suspects at bay, as long as they do not have a superior weapon like a firearm. An impact weapon is only as good as its reach and a gun nullifies this advantage. I interviewed an officer who fought off three suspects with his ASP expandable baton by "swinging the thing back and forth as fast and as hard as I could," he said. "Oh yeah, I also screamed, yelled, and generally acted like a crazy man. It's kinda' interesting how suspects will give someone they think is crazy a wide berth." Doing the unexpected can have fantastic results.
If firearms are involved, using cover may mean the difference
between life and death. Taking note of possible cover, as well as escape routes prior to making contact, is a good idea when responding to any situation. Keep in mind that when dealing with multiple suspects the closest cover may be one of the suspects themselves.
Very seldom do potential attackers line up side by side like targets on the range. People who are preparing to attack separate and stagger themselves. Moving in such a way as to put the suspects in each other's line of fire may delay their attack, or, as in the case of one situation I am aware of, result in one suspect actually shooting the other. This is certainly one way to reduce the odds against the lone officer.
Regardless of what counter response is chosen, do something! Even if your course of action turns out to be wrong, you have to do something. Just don't stand there flat footed (no pun intended) and let your fate rest in the hands of a violent criminal offender who likely lacks the compassion that you possess. Never make the mistake of applying your thoughts or feelings to those of the criminal. Trust me, they are not the same. Stay alert, stay in shape, and practice with your personal weapons. Do the unexpected. And remember, constantly "check your 360."
Dave Spaulding is a lieutenant and 27-year veteran with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Dayton, Ohio. He is a member of the Police Advisory Board and the author of "Defensive Living" and "Handgun Combativces," both available from Looseleaf Law Publications (www.looseleaflaw.com).