Remember the Basics

If officer safety education is so prevalent and well-accepted today, how does one explain the bloody fact that between 50 and 75 officers still perish at the hands of criminals in any given year?

As American law enforcement enters a new century, surely there can be few practitioners of the profession who have not learned about officer safety and the basics of surviving on the street.  But if officer safety education is so prevalent and well-accepted today, how does one explain the bloody fact that between 50 and 75 officers still perish at the hands of criminals in any given year?  If cops know how to do the job right today, what, then, helps to explain tragic scenes like these:

A 32-year old officer was killed after responding to a robbery in progress call at a financial institution.  While other officers maintained a perimeter around the building's exterior, the soon-to-be-victim officer entered alone and approached a male subject standing inside.  After the officer ordered the man to remove his hand from his pocket, the two men began struggling and both fell through a plate glass window. During the fight the offender pulled a 9 mm handgun and shot the officer several times.  The officer died of his wounds.

Two officers were found dead in their police vehicle shortly after noon.  The officers had been transporting two inmates to a prison facility when each was struck by .357 rounds fired from the back seat of the car.  The 21-year old killer is believed to have been searched prior to being placed in the car.

At around 4 a.m. an officer was murdered while on a traffic stop.  The officer radioed for a license check on the male adult driver.  Standing by the door of his patrol car, the officer apparently did not notice the driver get out with a .357-caliber revolver in hand.  The subject shot the officer once, causing him to fall.  He then walked over and shot the fallen officer four more times.

So, if skilled, competent peacekeepers are still making all of these fatal mistakes even after years and years of officer safety and survival training, what's wrong with that training?  Quite possibly, very little.  Rather, the problem may lie in the reality that too many officers KNOW what to do and HOW to do it.  But for whatever reason, they get lazy, get careless, take shortcuts.  And because most people they contact have no intention of killing a law enforcement officer, they get away with it, time and time again.  Over time, bad practice becomes ingrained as bad habit.  When luck runs out and an opportunist cop killer is finally encountered, the result can be tragic.

The fact is that in the vast majority of officer killings, one or more of the so-called deadly sins are committed by the victim peacekeeper.  The truth is, that's how most cops get killed.

While not necessarily a complete listing, here is a collection of some of the worst (and the most deadly) errors regularly made by good, normally conscientious peace officers:

Being Apathetic, Complacent or Generally Careless

Law enforcement is a calling that requires 100 percent of the practitioner's attention and focus, 100 percent of the time.  It's worth thinking about for the officer who may be tempted to approach a fulltime job with a part time brain.

Failure to Obtain Necessary Assistance

Failure to wait for use of backups is an error that kills law enforcement officers with terrible regularity.  Having help present from the outset decreases the likelihood that anyone will be seriously injured in overcoming resistance to arrest.

Missing or Ignoring the Danger Signs

In most murders of law enforcement officers, an investigation of the circumstances of the killing reveals that almost always one or more warning signals were in evidence.

A partial listing of these blood-red flags of danger ahead might include the following:

• Subjects under the influence of drugs or alcohol;
• Weapons present or suspected;
• Subject extremely emotionally disturbed or irrational;
• Hands not visible;
• History of violence or attacks on officers;
• Furtive movements; hiding;
• Defensive posture or fighting stance;
• Threats of self-destruction;
• Verbal threats against officers;
• Subject disobeying instructions and trying to get in close;
• Suspects outnumber officer(s).

Making Dangerous Assumptions

Where your safety is concerned, assume nothing other than the fact that virtually EVERY call and contact contains the potential for danger.

For instance, the officer who assumes that he cannot get hurt by a juvenile who is, after all, "just a kid," is asking for trouble.

Failing to Watch Their Hands

As any veteran cop knows, it is most frequently the party's hands (or what he puts in them, like a gun) that will meet out death or injury to the unwary officer.  The individual who appears to be making extra effort to keep one or both of his hands out of your sight should be raising a warning for you.

Being in Poor Physical Condition

Each year officers are murdered after being overpowered and disarmed by people they went up against who turned out to be stronger and more fit than they were.  Law enforcement professionals who show total disregard for a healthy diet and even a moderate amount of aerobic conditioning and upper body strength are unwittingly preparing themselves to play the role of victim.

Failing to Wear Soft Body Armor On the Job

Vest has saved over 2,000 law enforcement lives.  They have reduced the injury severity for other officers involved in accidents or assaults by criminals.  But the best armor in the world won't help you if it's carried in the back seat or trunk of the squad car "in case of emergency."

Taking a Poor Approach or Positioning[PAGEBREAK]

Almost every year American law enforcement officers are slain because they stood dead-center in front of a door they were knocking at, let someone get to close to their gun side, marched right up the front sidewalk to site where a violent crime or criminal was believed present, positioned themselves between two suspects, allowed a suspect to get behind them, or pulled alongside to address a suspicious pedestrian while still seated in their patrol cars, or put an unsecured suspect or violator in the front seat of the police car next to them while they asked questions or filled out a ticket.

Rushing When Speed is Not Required

True, a life or death situation may be at hand the very instant an officer arrives on-scene.  But in reality, that scenario is a rare one.  Much more often, the first responder has time to stop, look, listen, assess and wait for his cover to arrive before committing himself to a confrontation.

Failing to Handcuff Properly

As one veteran street cop put it, "if they're worth arresting, they're worth cuffing."  To that safety-smart officer, it doesn't really matter if "they" are age 15 or 80.  Improper handcuffing can mean the cuffs are too loose, too tight, or a prisoner is cuffed in front of his body, without a transport belt or other device that secures the cuffs to his waist.

Doing a Poor Search

The only thing worse?  Failing to do one at all when you have a legal right to do so.  Not surprisingly, virtually every year in the U.S. good cops are killed with weapons they failed to find on a prisoner or suspect.

Relaxing Before the Threat Has Passed

The only way to stay safe on the street is to remain alert for sudden danger for the entire time that you are in the presence of a potentially threatening situation or individual.

Practicing Poor Weapon Retention

Every year, cops are killed with their own firearms.  Experience has taught that once an offender gains control of an officer's weapon, most often he uses it not to bluff or gain compliance but to attempt to kill its former owner.  All too often, the attempt is successful.  Failing to maintain a "reactionary gap" of several feet between officer and subject us one fatal error.  Other officers are disarmed because they failed to keep their weapons snapped securely into adequate safety holsters or failed to remain alert to the proximity of other persons to themselves and their sidearm.

Making Poor or No Use of Cover

Facing a potentially armed and dangerous offender out in the open when adequate cover is available makes no sense at all. Yet, otherwise sharp cops do it all the time.  Thinking about cover possibilities and exactly where they are located is a good habit to practice on the way into every single call and contact you make.

Neglecting to Maintain Proficiency with Survival Equipment

It could be a firearm, baton, set of handcuffs or even a police vehicle.  The reality is that no matter how fancy or capable it is, it amounts to little more than a paperweight if you cannot use it successfully at crunch time.

Being a "Cowboy" (or "Cowgirl") Cop

Cowboy cops routinely and needlessly go on calls without backup, make arrests alone when safety sense dictates the presence of a cover officer, start unnecessary fights and provoke otherwise unresisting subjects.  Cowboys, in a few words, do stupid police work.

Do It Right

Staying alive is not all that complicated.  Most of the time- and experience- proven survival advice is simple, direct and to the point.  Be prepared to make a decision where a threat to your safety is concerned.  Your decision does not have to be perfect in order to save your bacon.  Keep a winning mindset always, but be willing and able to practice tactical withdrawal.  After all, you're in it for a whole career.  If that career is to have a good ending, you will have to practice excellent officer safety throughout.

By remembering the basics today, you might just avoid being memorialized yourself tomorrow.

Capt. Gerald W. Garner, a member of the Advisory Board for POLICE, is patrol division commander for the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department.  The 30-year veteran holds a master's degree in administration of justice and has written several books on law enforcement.

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