In any given year when we are willing to celebrate the fact that only 50 or so of our brothers and sisters were murdered in the line of duty, it is readily apparent that too many of us are still messing up — fatally — on far too many occasions.
Nevertheless, we are doing a much better job of recognizing the fatal errors. And in many cases we are counteracting them. From studying what led up to the deaths of hundreds of American peace officers we have amassed a roster of deadly sins to be avoided at all costs. From countless hours of academy and in-service training, many of us can recite these fatal errors.
None of the victim officers killed by these errors were bad people. It’s safe to say virtually all were good cops with good training. They knew what officer safety was about. But, like most of us, they were capable of occasional carelessness, complacency or poor safety habits ingrained by sometimes doing it the quick-and-easy way — and getting away with it.
These officers did not kill themselves. They were murdered by criminals. But some may have given the criminal an opportunity because of a momentary lapse in good safety practices. For a criminal looking for an opening to attack, that momentary lapse was enough.
By reinforcing and practicing what we already know about officer safety, we can almost certainly avoid fatal mistakes. That means reinforcing and practicing the basics.
Watch for the Danger Signs
Every veteran officer has his or her own set of experience-based red flags that say "change your tactics, use extra caution, something’s not right here."
A few of these hazard warnings include:
• Subject under the influence of alcohol or drugs
• Weapons present
• Subject emotionally disturbed
• Furtive movements
• Hands not visible
• Subject tensing up; defensive or attack posture displayed
• Subject ignoring or disobeying instructions
• Subject trying to move in close
• Evidence of crime present
• Threats indicating possible "suicide by cop" scenario
• Threats directed at police
• Extreme nervousness evident in the subject
• Suspicious bulges in the individual’s clothing
• Subjects outnumber officers
Get Your Information Early
Whenever possible, pause, look and listen before committing yourself to action. Make use of your own senses and the observations of others (dispatch, victims, witnesses) to tell you more about the situation you are facing. Then, form a plan of action for confronting it.
Don’t Make Dangerous Assumptions
All alarms are NOT false. All drunks are NOT harmless. (Actually, many of them assault officers.) Take nothing for granted beyond the assumption that your job is potentially dangerous.
Be Careful With Your Approach and Positioning
Don’t get too close too soon to an individual you are contacting. Maintain a "reactionary gap" of several feet between the two of you so you have time to respond if attacked. Stay alert during your approach to a subject, vehicle or address. Do not make yourself an easy target by standing in front of a door or between two vehicles.
Keep Watching Their Hands
Your subject’s hands or what he puts in them are your greatest threat during any call or contact. If you cannot see them, be cautious. Tell the individual to bring them very slowly into view if you are prepared to defend yourself. Remain supremely alert.
Don’t Be a Cowboy or a Cowgirl
It means just what it sounds like. Do not ignore danger signs, wave off backups, go on calls alone when you should not or otherwise try to be a hero. Doing so tends to make for a lot of unnecessary blood. Instead, work as part of a team and rely on sound tactics as opposed to false courage.
Think About Good Cover
Every time you answer a call or make a contact, keep a sharp eye out for your cover possibilities should things unexpectedly go downhill and a gun battle ensue. Think about where you could get to in a hurry. Remember that cover is relative, however, and you want the most solid barrier you can quickly reach.
Stay Alert at All Times
Law enforcement is not the profession for complacency, apathy or daydreaming on the job. Being sleepy on-duty can get you killed, too. To stay safe, you must keep your senses attuned for danger the entire time you are wearing that uniform. Remember it has an invisible target on the front and back.
Use Backup Help Wisely
Having a partner or a backup officer is an incredible advantage. Never throw it away by not calling for help when you need it. Be a careful and watchful backup yourself. Practice "contact and cover" tactics in which one officer handles the primary business of the contact while the cover officer serves as the ever-vigilant lifeguard for the first officer.[PAGEBREAK]
Never Stop Seeking the Next Threat
That includes both suspects and weapons. If you locate one suspect, start looking immediately for possible accomplices, even if you do not really think he has any. If you find and secure one weapon during a search of your subject, start looking for the next one. Crooks sometimes carry backups, too!
Wear your body armor
Vests have saved more than a few peace officers’ lives. If you are an officer working on the street or in a detention facility, there is no rational reason for not wearing body armor. Buy it yourself if you have to, but wear it.
Control Your Surroundings as Best You Can
In most cases, make a quiet approach to a scene where trouble is afoot. You want to surprise the bad guys, not get surprised yourself. Let them guess where you’re coming from. At night, try to stay in the dark while you illuminate your potential adversaries from behind cover. While handling a disturbance or other problem situation, try to keep your subjects from wandering in and out of your sight. One just might return with a nasty surprise for you. Attempt to remove uninvolved but potentially troublesome parties from the immediate scene. Rely on a cover officer to help you.
Take Control and Act Decisively
Command the situation without crossing the line into arrogance or provocation. You must make a decision about a course of action, so communicate it to those involved (including your backup) and then carry it out. Don’t forget that if you fail to take control of the situation, you surrender control to someone else, most likely the offender.
Back Off as Required
It sounds odd, coming right after advice to "take control," but sometimes events dictate it. Tactical withdrawal simply means holding back on police action until you have sufficient help on hand to carry it out in relative safety. It means not getting in over your head and at a serious tactical disadvantage. Backing off also means getting out of a high-speed vehicle pursuit that is getting faster and more reckless. Ask yourself: "Is this worth dying for?" Act on the answer you come up with. There will almost always be another day to catch the bad guy with less risk, assuming you are still alive to do so.
Handcuff and Search Properly
If you don’t, you stand a very good chance of becoming a victim, as far too many of your peers have before you. Proper handcuffing means the suspect’s hands are cuffed behind his back, with the handcuffs double-locked and snug, but not circulation-stopping tight. (Remember that handcuffs are a temporary and fallible restraint device.)
Proper searching means searching systematically, thoroughly and as many times as necessary until you are convinced the subject has nothing on him with which to hurt you or anyone else, including himself. Both cuffing and searching should be done from the subject’s rear with him off-balance and at a disadvantage. Whenever possible, handcuffing and searching alike should be done under the watchful eye of a cover officer.
Stay in Good Shape
By maintaining your physical and emotional health, you make it less likely that an adversary will overpower and kill you. Maintain a balanced diet and a decent sleep schedule. Do not smoke. Work out to build your aerobic endurance and upper body strength. Take reasonably good care of your body and one day it may take care of you when your life literally hangs in the balance. Doing so will also improve your overall quality of life.
Follow Good Weapon Retention Practices
When a criminal disarms a peace officer, in the majority of cases he then kills or attempts to kill that officer. Keep your sidearm snapped securely into a good safety holster unless you are justified in having it in your hand. Be aware of your weapon’s location in relation to all other persons around you. Keep your weapon well-covered with your arm in a crowd. Keep your gun side turned away from and beyond the reach of parties you are contacting. Do not take a firearm into a "secure" detention area. And practice your weapon retention moves using a "dud" weapon and a partner.
Do Some Contingency Planning
In those occasional "slow" moments, think about how you would handle specific threats to your survival. Visualize the threat and what you would do about it. Determine to maintain a winning mindset that, in essence, says, "I will survive to go home at the end of the day. I will NEVER lose." Mean it and live by that code.
Practice, Practice, Practice
You already know that a lot of the physical skills called for in your profession are perishable ones that will degrade unless used and practiced on a regular basis. They include firearms skills, handcuffing, baton use, even structure searches. You must stay proficient with all the tools of your potentially dangerous business.
- Missing the danger signs
- Failing to get (and use) needed help.
- Making dangerous assumptions.
- Following poor weapon retention practices.
- Failing to watch their hands.
- Poor handcuffing practices.
- Poor searching techniques.
- Being out of shape.
- Poor approach or positioning.
- Failing to maintain proficiency with equipment.
- Relaxing before the threat has passed.
- Being apathetic, preoccupied or careless on the job.
- Rushing when the situation does not require speed. Being a "cowboy" or"cowgirl" cop.
- Poor use of cover.
- Failing to wear body armor.
Gerald W. Garner, a member of the POLICE advisory board, is a 31-year veteran of law enforcement. He is the patrol division commander for the Lakewood (Colo.) PD and has authored seven books on law enforcement topics, two on officer survival. Garner holds a Master’s Degree in Administration of Justice and instructs widely on officer safety.