When did you last have a detailed discussion with your unit partners, other personnel on the shift or your subordinates as to how you’ll respond during different types of calls? Such discussions and planning will get everyone on the same page. (Photo Rick Roach)
FEATURED IN BELOW 100
Every day, officers are on the street depending on each other for protection and assistance. Yet there’s a problem that lies hidden in plain view, and I believe many of us are unaware of either its significance or danger. Simply said, we believe we know what each other thinks and believes, and therefore also know how we’ll act and react in emergencies.
In one event, I played the part of a bombing suspect and had taken two patrol officers hostage. As part of the plan, I attached simulated explosives to us in a move to escape. Holding a dead-man’s switch, I took the officers toward a police van to be used in the escape. I shouted that we were leaving, that no one would be harmed and to let us drive away. I loudly informed the inner perimeter officers, who were close by, that if they shot, the switch would close and the devices would detonate. We slowly moved toward the van and, as we closed, a shot was fired and the scenario stopped.
Who Fired & Why?
One officer approached and said he fired. His reason, he stated, was that he wasn’t going to let us get away. As we broke this down, it was clear that no one else expected this response. An explosion would have killed the hostages and likely the nearby officers. There were other tactics and opportunities, and surely no reason to brute force the ending. Such a shot would have been a disaster. On that day, the officer’s mindset and actions weren’t in sync with the other team members. Nor were his actions in any way acceptable. These men had been together for a long time, yet clearly there had been no discussion on such events and actions. This has led to a dialogue that has carried forward to this day.
I ask each of you: When did you last have a detailed discussion with your partners, other officers on the shift and your supervisors as to how you’ll respond in different types of calls? Most tell me it isn’t necessary. They’ve seen enough of each other to know. Based on what I’ve seen in training and street actions, I must respectfully disagree. To every officer, no matter what job assignment, the time of crisis isn’t the time to take this test.
From the top down, such discussions and planning should be mandatory. Bosses must understand the capabilities and capacity of SWAT, patrol, investigations, etc. How many bad endings have we collectively experienced when decision-makers were out of tune and out of touch with the operations side of the incident? After-action review of such failures often demonstrates that there was little to no previous coordination among decision-makers, because all parties said they already knew what to do.
Example: A gunman fired shots in and around a house and was seen by responding officers walking away on the sidewalk, gun in hand. Officers ordered him to drop the gun. He refused to comply and continued to walk away. A K-9 officer was then ordered by a supervisor to release his dog on the gunman. The K-9 officer told the supervisor it was wrong but was again ordered to do so.
Does this type of order make any sense from a safety/tactical perspective? The K-9 officer vigorously disagreed but in the end did as ordered. The K-9 wasn’t fired on and didn’t aggress the offender. The dog returned on command to the handler and the gunman escaped the area. He returned to the original location where a SWAT team later took him into custody.
Fortunately, neither the officers nor the dog were shot, but the whole event was full of lessons learned. What policy existed as to K-9 deployment and was it flawed? Did the supervisor have any discussion with the K-9 officer as to the use of the K-9 previously? What did officers on scene understand as use-of-force issues and the escape of an armed offender? Again, if we aren’t up to speed when the event occurs, then bad things are coming.
I was taught early on that we don’t control the events around us, only our response to them. We can’t stop criminals from carrying out their actions; they’re doing so before we’re aware. In most matters, we’re purely reactive in the beginning. But we can’t succeed simply by reacting to an offender. At some point—and it better be sooner rather than later—we have to move the response to a proactive plan. In doing so, seconds can make the difference. We’ve either both planned and trained to the mission, or we’re in free fall.
Unlike the public, which cares only about how incidents end (i.e., was it good or bad), we must be focused on the process. As police officers we can’t control every ending, no matter how skilled and prepared we are. We can, however, have strong control over the processes, which include clear understanding of law, policy and tactics. Beyond understanding, there must be continued practice in which book work is joined with practical exercises.
How do we do we make this happen, and what do we do?
1. Table-top discussions done at roll call are a means to gather the shift in one place and time to test their thinking on responses from bank alarms to 9-1-1 hang-ups. Include discussions on use of force, both legal and practical, as it applies to armed or escaping dangerous felons. You name it and test it.
2. Field training exercises (FTXs) that can be as simple as a sergeant and officers meeting at various bank parking lots to discuss approach tactics or schools to review active shooter planning. Note: In-field discussions and practice approaches are excellent training opportunities, particularly during slow periods. However, these must never be permitted to turn into scenarios where weapons might be deployed because of the potential for series injury or death. There have been instances of well-intentioned training that turned deadly when an officer reacted to a training situation with a duty weapon.
3. Command exercises involving the chief or sheriff on down. These must include both table-top and short-duration exercises to test thinking on matters from road closures to hostage negations and rescues.
4. Conduct full-scale exercises that bring together the entire agency.
Following is a set of scenarios I include at the end of my training outline. I offer these for you to use as a starting point for your discussions and exercises. Identify the applicable law and policy, and then formulate your tactical plans.
1. Domestic call: A husband threatens his wife with a butcher’s knife. Arriving officers are met by an enraged offender on the front porch who shouts that he will kill his wife. As he turns to go inside the house, a revolver can be seen in his back waist band.
2. A bank robbery in progress: An escaping offender armed with a sawed-off shotgun moves to re-enter the bank as officers arrive.
3. Disgruntled ex-employee: An employee who was fired that same day enters the office with a pistol and holds the manager hostage, threatening to kill him. The offender can be seen by a responding officer through an open window.
4. Escaped homicide suspect: Warrant service officers observe the offender walking down a residential street. Officers identify and order the suspect to “stop—don’t move.” The suspect turns and runs.
Variation: The offender has a pistol in hand as he runs.
5. Foot chase in hot pursuit: A bank robber with a rifle runs from officers toward a building corner and an alley where he’ll be out of sight.
6. Call of abduction in progress at grade-school playground: Responding officer observes a middle-age, white male forcing a screaming child into a vehicle. The officer hears a child shout that the man isn’t his father.
7. On patrol: An officer observes a man about to throw a flaming Molotov cocktail into a crowded night club. Variation: The offender has already thrown the incendiary device and runs from the scene.
Variation: SWAT officers protecting the mobile field force officers in a civil disturbance see offenders preparing to throw flaming Molotov cocktails at MFF officers.
8. The covered pile: An armed robber moves from a store using a covered pile to attempt his escape. Only the lower legs of those under the cover can be seen. The offender is wearing black combat boots. Only one black boot can be seen.
9. Tip-off: Information is received that a male subject will attack a synagogue in your town. A man claiming to have a bomb strapped to his body walks toward officers.
10. Breaking through a roadblock: An individual drives through a police roadblock at a secured, pharmaceutical stockpile location.
11. Hostage situation: A terrorist takes hostages and loops detonator cord around each person’s neck. He attempts to move the hostages toward a waiting bus.
There’s an old proverb that says we only know each other when we’ve eaten a bag of salt together. Like all things of value, this takes time. A bit of information and understanding gained here and there over a career is a book full of knowledge. By establishing and formalizing those here-and-there moments as a daily part of our efforts, we’re certain to know our fellow officers far better. The only limitation is our imagination and willingness to do so.
In the end, we stand or fall on how we prepared. What have you and your team done today?