What Skills Do I Really Need to Win a Violent Confrontation?

What does it take to really survive a violent confrontation? For all the tactical training and mental preparations, just how much does luck enter into the equation? And what can you do to shift the odds in your favor? These are weighty questions for even the most experienced of cops.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

What does it take to really survive a violent confrontation? For all the tactical training and mental preparations, just how much does luck enter into the equation? And what can you do to shift the odds in your favor?

These are weighty questions for even the most experienced of cops. For those of you just starting careers in law enforcement, the thought of violence can be downright intimidating or exhilarating. Either way, it's likely on your mind.

An officer can face the prospect of having to kill or be killed at any stage of his or her career. Those who anticipate such inevitabilities and prepare for them fare the best in the fight. But what are the most important things you can do to maximize the likelihood of you coming out on top in such situations?

Luck Favors the Prepared

Certainly bad breaks have played significant roles in the deaths of any number of peace officers. Inopportune visits to a fast food restaurant or Stop 'n Rob, or the unwitting and well-intentioned welfare checks of dangerously paranoid individuals, have resulted in the deaths of more than one officer.

Even in situations where you have time to respond to a threat, other factors can come into play: a bad ricochet, a round taken outside the protection of a bulletproof vest, or a freak severing of a femoral artery have all proven fatal. You can't account for them all because every violent confrontation is different.

Winning Is Mental

But good officer safety practices can minimize the odds of you getting seriously injured or killed. And it all starts with a proper mindset.

When you go out on the street, you will have at your disposal a sidearm, maybe a long gun, a baton, an OC canister, and maybe a Taser. You will learn how to use them all. But perhaps the most important tool in your arsenal will be a disciplined mindset.

Without a disciplined mindset an otherwise welltrained and well-equipped officer becomes a liability: The cop who shoots "distinguished expert" on the range can freeze up in stressful situations if he or she doesn't have the mindset to win. And the one-dimensional deputy who relies solely on ballistic intervention can needlessly escalate situations.

Sometimes your best call will be to defuse the situation before it escalates. In your career, you will be called on to play many roles: clergy, counselor, arbitrator, psychologist, and goodwill ambassador.

You also will have to be a warrior. And you will need to know when the time for talking ends and the time for fighting begins.

The possible confrontations that you might face today are far more varied than the ones your counterparts were facing 30 years ago. These include antisocial phenomena such as drive-by shootings, workplace violence, mass murders, and schoolyard massacres. Plus assault weapons are increasingly becoming the weapon of choice for gang members and other sociopaths.

As a result, active shooter protocols and rapid intervention techniques are relatively recent advents. The concept of the officer as first responder means that you will likely be called upon to take roles conventionally assumed by SWAT and crisis negotiators.

And even when the people you face appear relatively harmless, you must always be on your guard. Many cops are seriously injured or killed while making traffic stops or arrests of "non-violent" suspects. Be aware that pedophiles, vice suspects, white-collar criminals, and other suspects conventionally considered "lesser risks" have on occasion proven to be every bit as determined and successful in assaulting and killing officers as violent parolees and armed robbers.

Knowing that violence can erupt at any time on the street is part of having a disciplined mindset. Keep your guard up and remain alert at all times.[PAGEBREAK]

What Can I Do?

There are several things that you can do to ensure that you are ready to face the violence of the streets.

Avoid Fatal Errors: Learn the fatal workplace errors for officers-and avoid them (see "10 Deadly Sins" on page 46). By routinely performing good officer safety practices you can minimize the likelihood of putting yourself in vulnerable positions.

Tailor Your Response to the Suspect: Is he truly a threat? Do you need to confront her, or is the situation conducive for leaving her alone to cool down? Unless a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, your responsibility to confront an individual is minimal.

Know Yourself (and Your Fellow Officer): Your ability to avoid escalating a situation is precious. Your ability to deescalate or completely defuse a situation is priceless. Recognize your strengths, but don't be shy about taking advantage of what time is available to you in dealing with suspects. If the suspect is in a contained environment, you may be able to mitigate the prospect of having to use force by calling in resources ahead of time. Making the most of what you bring to the table can prove immediately profitable.

Learn Verbal Judo: For decades, many veteran officers consciously cultivated the gift of gab. Doing so not only allowed them to develop a rapport with locals and establish contact with informants, it also allowed them to develop the requisite rapport that helped them keep potentially agitated individuals from becoming violent. In recent years, the practice has been referred to as verbal judo and assigned its own nomenclature.

Many police agencies send their officers through verbal judo training programs. Some officers have displayed initiative in seeking the training on their own. In any event, you should work to develop excellent communication skills. When piggybacked onto your observational skills-that is, your ability to recognize when an offender is under the influence of stimulants or just raging emotions-verbal judo can be your best tool for preventing violence.

As rookies you will have ample opportunity to get your knuckles bruised or your nose bent without looking for it. Don't needlessly escalate situations. You need to be secure enough to not allow provocative remarks made by suspects to get the better of you. You should be professional enough to recognize that each situation is unique and sometimes a most violent confrontation can be avoided with just a little finesse.

At the same time, there are those for whom the extension of respect is seen as a sign of weakness. When it comes to dealing with such individuals, "Excuse me, sir, would you mind adopting a sedentary respite at curbside?" might sound nice, but "Sit your ass on the curb!" will get the job done.

In fact, recent psycholinguistic studies suggest that "Alpha" commands, those commands that are direct and unambiguous, are far more effective at keeping situations from escalating than "Beta" commands, those that are less clear cut or are imprecise. "Beta" commands tend to confuse situations, inadvertently encouraging suspects to take actions contrary to those desired by on-scene officers.[PAGEBREAK]

Stay Fit: Violent confrontations will happen and you will need strength, agility, and endurance to win.

Keep yourself in good physical condition. Weight training and running are excellent exercises to develop one's strength and cardiovascular conditioning.

Serious consideration should also be given toward studying some form of defensive tactics. Among the collateral benefits of arduous martial arts training is the opportunity to develop excellent physical and mental conditioning while acquiring skills that may prove invaluable in a life or death situation. A well-thrown punch or finely executed kick can come in handy in the absence of other lesslethal weaponry. And because it's likely that any fight will end up on the ground, you should consider learning ground fighting skills.

But remember, using your fists or feet is usually not your best option, and it can imperil you. Punching a suspect could break your hand, or tear open your skin over raked teeth and put you at risk of an infectious disease.

Know Your Weapons: You will have a veritable arsenal on your belt while on duty, including Tasers, pepper spray, chemical agents, striking instruments, and firearms. Know when to use each weapon. And as illustrated in the movie "The Untouchables," never bring a knife to a gunfight.

Using the right tool for the job can save your life. Using the wrong tool can get you killed. A few years ago, rookie El Paso Officer Angel Barcena attempted to incapacitate a suspect armed with a .38-caliber revolver by firing his Taser. The probes missed their target, and the suspect fired two shots, hitting Barcena once in the back of his leg near the buttocks. The shot severed an artery, eventually killing Barcena. The lesson here is plain: Never hesitate to use deadly force when deadly force is required. Always know what weapon to use in any given situation.

And know what that weapon is capable of. Know the range of your pistol. Know the effectiveness of your OC spray.

And always have a plan B when your weapon doesn't have the desired effect. Realize that as effective as a Taser can be that you always need a plan B when deploying it. The probes can miss their target; the batteries can have a weak charge, and you need a plan B. Realize that some people can fight through the effects of OC spray. Have a plan B.

Advice From the Past

The Chinese warrior philosopher Sun Tzu lived more than 400 years before Jesus Christ. But he summed up what it takes to win any violent conflict when he wrote: "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then try to win."

In other words, the best way to win a violent confrontation is to be prepared to win it.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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