Staying Alive

In spite of all that is known about officer deaths β€” despite what officers have been taught in the academy and in-service training β€” all too often good cops are still killed because they forgot, they took a shortcut, they took an unnecessary chance or they were just plain lazy.

The bottom-line truth is as simple and direct as it is bloody: There is nothing new about how and why American peace officers are being murdered today. Instead, officers are still dying from the same causes that killed them at the turn of the century. As the year 2000 approaches, there is every reason to believe the same factors will be responsible for law enforcement deaths well into the future. Why then, are these police tragedies still happening at least 70 times a year?

Today's officer safety and survival training can trace its roots back some years when Det. Pierce R. Brooks of the Los Angeles Police Department formulated the idea for a book on how cops die β€” and why. the veteran homicide detective had been to enough scenes of police killings to recognize that when peace officers were murdered in the line of duty, most often they had committed one or more of a handful of critical errors. Often, they missed the danger signs indicating a subject was about to attack. Sometimes, they failed to handcuff or search the suspect properly, were sleepy or asleep on the job, or made dangerous assumptions. These lapses and others formed the core of Brooks' book, "Officer Down, Code Three."

Published in the mid-1970s, it remains a part of officer safety and training today. A mini-industry of officer survival texts, articles, videotapes and seminars has followed it. Still, officers continue to die in the crowded streets, lonely back alleys and rural roadways of the country. If so much is known, written about, taped and taught about why and how officers die, why are so many continuing to perish in 1996? What's going on here?

Fatal Mistakes Continue

Again, the answer is not complicated. In spite of all that is known about officer deaths β€” despite what officers have been taught in the academy and in-service training β€” all too often good cops are still killed because they forgot, they took a shortcut, they took an unnecessary chance or they were just plain lazy.

When these errors are made on a regular basis and, out of sheet luck, no negative consequences ensue, bad practices can become ingrained as bad habits. Otherwise smart cops are set up to die tragically. For instance:

In a large Southern city, a patrol officer was shot fatally in the back of the head by a subject he was transporting in the rear seat of his patrol car.

Poor handcuffing or searching practices-Every year, officers are killed by weapons they missed during an inadequate search. Sometimes, they have made no search at all. In yet other instances, prisoners have attacked after being handcuffed improperly, such as with their hands in front of their bodies. In a few cases, the attackers had been arrested but were never cuffed at all.

In another instance, a young officer died from gunshot wounds to the jaw and head after contacting several subjects in a commercial area parking lot. The officer was still seated in his car talking with the subjects outside when he was shot.

Poor approach or positioning-By allowing an uncontrolled subject to approach too closely, or by allowing suspects to gain positions of advantage, peace officers are murdered on an almost routine basis. As one veteran officer safety instructor put it: "Get out of your vehicle if you are going to contact someone. Is it going to be your car or your coffin?"

Another officer in a metropolitan area died when he intervened, alone, unarmed and off-duty, in an armed robbery in progress at a commercial establishment. The robber escaped after shooting the officer fatally in the chest.

Cowboy courage β€” "Brave but stupid is not something you want inscribed on a headstone with your name on it. law enforcement officers want to catch crooks and help people. That's why they are law enforcement officers. But when they misjudge the odds and intervene in highly dangerous situations without proper equipment or assistance, they too often become casualties themselves. It happens virtually every year.

Consider the case of a veteran officer who responded to a call of a disorderly patron at a lounge. Confronting the man, the officer ordered him to produce his identification. Instead, the subject came out with a  .45 caliber handgun and killed the officer with one round to the chest.

In a similar case, a rookie patrolman effected a traffic stop and requested that the driver show his license. The man drew a 9 m semi-automatic and shot the officer five times. The officer returned fire and both men died.

Failure to watch the hands β€” Street cops become accustomed to requesting documents from those they contact. Many are quick to tell a subject to bring his hands into view. But not all are ready for what those hands may produce. Worse, some may never have detected the potential danger telegraphed by hands not in view in the first place.[PAGEBREAK]

In another fatal incident, a 16-year veteran was murdered by a suspect who was breaking into a commercial establishment. The adult male had attacked the officer in a parking lot, took away his service weapon and shot the officer twice in the head while the policeman was on the ground.

In a similar scenario, a 17-year law enforcement veteran was killed by a juvenile shoplifter. The officer was disarmed and shot during a struggle with the 17-year old male. A second officer was wounded by the fleeing subject.

Losing control of a weapon β€” At least a half dozen police officers are killed each year in the United States after losing their sidearm in a struggle with an offender. Sometimes officers are simply over-powered by an attacker who was stronger or had more aerobic endurance. Other times, they are undone by less-than-adequate weapon retention practices.

Inexperience may have contributed to the death of a rookie officer who was killed in the early morning hours during a traffic stop-not a felony stop. He knew that the vehicle contained burglary suspects. With back-up on-scene, the officer was shot fatally in the chest on his second approach to the driver's window.

Poor tactics β€” It's not enough to know how to make a safe stop, an effective approach or careful arrest. The right tactics, techniques and procedures must be followed every time, until they become habit β€” a good habit. Carelessness or apathy must not be allowed to become part of the safety-smart officer's routine.

Preventing the Bloodshed

Just as the factors resulting in officer fatalities have changed very little over the years, the practices designed to prevent the shedding of "blue" blood have not been much altered by time, either. These time-proven "tricks of the trade" include the following:

Gather data first-Use your senses to learn quickly as much as you can about the call or contact you are facing. Whenever you can, take the time to stop, look and listen before you commit yourself. What you learn in just a few seconds may prompt you to handle the situation differently to increase your safety margin.

Think threats β€” You will need a complete "threats troubleshooting" package to stay safe. It should address threat awareness (realizing your job contains dangers); threat recognition (spotting danger signs); and threat response (doing something to avoid or neutralize the threat). You must exercise all three elements in order to stay safe.

Look for danger signs β€” Every experienced police officer recognizes his or her own set of hazard flags. These are indicators that something is amiss, thereby requiring tactics or techniques to be altered to ensure safety. While danger signs will vary somewhat from one officer to the next, the following is a collection of potential danger flags any sharp officer would acknowledge:

  • Weapons present
  • Subject under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Subject emotionally disturbed
  • Furtive movements' hiding, for example
  • Hands not in view
  • History of violence by offender
  • Subject tensing up
  • Defensive or attack posture by subject
  • Subject trying to move in close
  • Subject indicates suicidal intent ("suicide by cop")
  • Suspicious bulges in clothing, which may indicate weapons
  • Evidence of crime present
  • Threats toward officers
  • "Targeting gaze" on the officer or his weapon.

It is no secret that officers have died after missing danger signs or bulldozing ahead with unchanged tactics-even after detecting them. Remember: You must act appropriately and in a timely manner when you sense the presence of potential danger.[PAGEBREAK]

Watch your approach and positioning β€” Do not stand immediately in front of the door you are knocking on. Stay constantly alert during your approach to a pedestrian or vehicle. Don't get too close to a subject you are in contact with. Maintain a "reactionary gap" of several feet that keeps your sidearm immune to a quick grab and gives you time to react if he launches a surprise attack.

Don't make risky assumptions β€” Drunks are not guaranteed harmless. Neither are women, juveniles or the elderly. All alarms are not false, either. The only safe assumption you can make about your difficult job is that virtually any call or contact holds the potential for real danger. Conduct yourself accordingly.

Wear your vest β€” There is no valid reason for not wearing your soft body armor. Vests have saved literally hundreds of police lives. A vest could save yours if bullets come your way. How much more of an argument is necessary?

Use backup help properly β€” Never throw away the huge advantage given to you by a partner or a backup officer. Call for help anytime and every time you think you may need it. also, be a good and alert backup officer yourself. Routinely practice contact and cover tactics where one officer "works" while the other watches and protects him.

Don't be a cowboy (or cowgirl) β€” Going out of your way to unnecessarily expose yourself to danger will only serve to get you hurt or killed. Do not ignore danger signs or otherwise try to be a hero. Call for cover when you need it. Don't act alone when waiting for help; it makes more safety sense. In short, avoid becoming a statistic. Rely instead on sound tactics and smart teamwork.

Keep watching their hands β€” Their hands (or what they have in them) remain your greatest dangers in any contact with a subject or offender. If you cannot see them, that fact in itself may signal potential danger. Increase your level of alertness and otherwise alter your tactics accordingly. Be prepared to defend yourself.

Stay sharp β€” Police work is no place for apathy or daydreaming on the job. You cannot afford to nod off while on-duty, either. Too many hazards await the officer who becomes careless or complacent. Keep your senses attuned for danger. "Alert" could well translate to mean "alive."

Stay fit β€” By eating and sleeping well and working out reasonably to maintain upper body strength and aerobic endurance, you bolster your chances of winning an on-the-job confrontation of the physical variety. Your attention to a reasonable level of personal fitness should simultaneously improve your overall quality of life.

Remember that off-duty can prove dangerous β€” Each year, officers are killed after intervening to stop unlawful acts while in an off-duty status. Recognize the equipment, backup, recognition and communication liabilities you may face when you elect to act as a law enforcement officer while you are off the job. Call on all of your best judgment and decision-making skills in determining whether you should act as anything more than an excellent witness.

Never stop looking for another threat β€” If you find one hidden suspect, secure him and start looking for his partner(s), even if you do not know for a fact that he has any. If you find a weapon concealed on the arrestee you are searching, take it and begin looking for the next one, and so on.

Practice makes perfect β€” You absolutely must maintain proficiency with all of your law enforcement tools-and skills. That includes firearms, batons and handguns. This includes building search techniques as well as arrest and control tactics. You already know that many of the physical skills required in your job are perishable ones. See to it you don't perish because you neglected them.[PAGEBREAK]

Handcuff and search properly β€” An incomplete or cursory search of a suspect is worse than useless-it adds to the danger by contributing to a false sense of security. Improper cuffing can have the same results. Both skills need to be practiced regularly under the supervision of a competent instructor.

"Proper" handcuffing means hands are cuffed behind the back with the handcuffs double-locked and snug but not so tight as to cut off circulation. A "correct" search is done in a systematic, detailed and thorough manner.

It should be repeated as many times as necessary until the searcher is convinced his or her subject is devoid of any items with which he could hurt himself or someone else. Both cuffing and searching are carried out with the offender off-balance and at a disadvantage while you remain to the subject's rear, on-balance and at a disadvantage while you remain to the subject's rear, on-balance and (preferably) covered by a backup officer.

Plan for contingencies β€” Your mental preparation for the job should include even more than your vital, "I will survive and win!" mindset. You also should run various threat scenarios and how you would respond to them through your mind before they happen for real. There is some evidence that you can improve your chances of surviving if you plan for potential threats beforehand.

Think cover β€” Be conscious of cover possibilities every time you go into a call or contact. Think about where you could go quickly if weapons suddenly appeared. But remember that cover is relative. Something that will stop a projectile from a "Saturday night special" may not even slow down a rifle round.

You naturally want to retreat to the best, solid cover you can find as quickly as possible.

Practice weapon retention β€” Using a "dud" weapon, practice with a competent instructor retaining your sidearm while an "opponent" tries to wrestle it away from you. Also, always keep your weapon snapped securely in its holster unless you have adequate and lawful cause to have it in your hand. Keep your gun and holster covered with your arm when you are in a crowd. Remain very conscious of your weapon's location in relation to other people at all times. While in contact with a subject on the street, be sure to keep your gun side turned well away from the individual.

Back off, when necessary β€” Practice "tactical withdrawal" when it becomes clear things are getting out of hand and adequate assistance is not available. In other words, do not jump in over your head and do something that is stupid.

Before you proceed with an out-of-control vehicle chase or enter a hostile crowd in pursuit of an offender, ask yourself: "Is this worth dying over? Is it worth hurting or killing an innocent person?" Then, act promptly on the answer you come up with. There will almost always be another day to catch a crook who gets away this time-provided you are still around to do so. Don't let your ego get you into trouble.

Make a decision β€” If you fail to do anything when faced with a crisis, you hand over control of the incident to someone else, most likely the offender. Neither your decision nor your response has to be perfect, bit do something when action is clearly necessary. It's all a part of maintaining control.

Control the environment β€” When you are in your "stealth" mode, avoid giving away your location by the noise you make. Arrive quietly minus the sound of racing engines and slamming car doors. Turn down the volume on your portable radio. Silence your jangling keys or banging nightstick. Don't get set up by light, either. At night, try to keep your adversary illuminated while you stay in darkness, behind the light source.

Rely on your common sense β€” Trust your own good judgment, experience and training. Some officers refer to that as plain common sense. In other words, realize that if a situation looks, sounds or smells bad to you, it probably is.

Adjust your tactics and handle the situation accordingly. Don't hesitate to slow things down, where possible, while you size up the incident and gather additional information. Proceed carefully. You just might save your life.

Living Happily Ever After

Make no mistake. Officers who contribute to the roster of peacekeepers slain each year did not kill themselves. They did not ask to be murdered. They were killed as a result of intentional violence and bloodthirsty acts committed by remorseless murderers. These inhumane killers bear the sole responsibility for the rising toll of law enforcement deaths.

At the same time it is equally true that all too often, peace officers continue to offer themselves up as potential victims for these criminal opportunists. They temporarily abandon proven safety tactics and procedures that they have been taught and likely have relied upon successfully many times before. But by cutting corners, taking shortcuts and otherwise "cheating" on doing things the right way, too many times these officers have set themselves up for disaster.

As a result of the painful experiences many cops have endured, they already know how to stay alive on an increasingly hazardous job. By practicing what they know on a consistent basis and refusing to make room for apathy, carelessness or bad habits, officers can overcome fatal errors and reach a healthy retirement.

Lt. Gerald W. Garner, a 26-year veteran of law enforcement, serves with the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department. The holder of a master's degree in the administration of justice, Garner writes and lectures widely on officer survival topics. He is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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