Editor's note: Below is an in-depth analysis of the Lakewood shootings. It's advised that you read Brian McKenna's Officer Down: Legacy of Lakewood before you continue.
We will never know if Clemmons displayed any pre-assault indicators as he entered the coffee shop and approached the officers. Neither the baristas nor the couple next to the door noticed anything unusual about him, but since ordinary citizens aren't usually well attuned to danger signs, it’s possible that they missed some hint of his intentions. He may have shown some signs of nervousness, hostility or intense focus, such as sweating, nervous glances, a vacant stare, tense features, a rapid or rigid gait, etc., that weren't obvious enough for them to detect at a glance.
It’s also possible that one or both of Clemmons’ guns weighed down the pockets of his sweat shirt, or that he displayed some of the other behaviors typical of armed individuals, such as walking with his arm(s) held close to his waist to keep his gun(s) in place, touching one or both weapons briefly, or holding one arm straight down along his side (typical of gang members, who often carry a gun under their armpit when approaching an intended target). Similarly, he may have approached the officers with one or both hands behind his back or thigh, or, more subtly, in his pockets, which although not especially threatening, should always be considered a potential danger sign. On the other hand, it’s also possible that he displayed no outward danger signs of his intentions at all.
The crucial point here isn't what anyone noticed or should have noticed about Clemmons. Rather, it's that most people who intend to attack officers telegraph their intentions at least in subtle way, and that armed individuals tend to exhibit behaviors indicative of that fact even when they aren't aware of it. While some of these behaviors are rather obvious, others are not; therefore, officers should learn to recognize them. Furthermore, since there's no way to learn all of them, any unusual behaviors should be viewed as a sign of possible danger. All officers should get into the habit of watching human behavior for subtle signs of what people are thinking and feeling, especially when it comes to dangerous intentions.
Like any other habit, this can be developed over time through repetition, and the way to develop it is by starting with seemingly routine low-risk situations and then focusing on continuing that level of awareness in everything you do. When done long enough on a continuous basis, it eventually becomes something that stays with you all the time. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be practiced at the conscious level, but once developed the habit will remain in the back of your mind even when you aren’t consciously aware of it.
This habit is especially important when we're engaged casual, non-law enforcement activities like dining, taking a coffee break or even traveling to and from work. Because of their comfortable familiarity, these kinds of activities can quickly lull us into thinking that, since we aren't doing any actual police work, we can let out guard down. By developing the habit of looking for behavioral danger signs, we become less prone to falling into this trap.
If the Lakewood tragedy doesn’t do anything else, it should at least make us fiercely aware of the fact that sudden, brutal violence can come from anywhere. Every time we take a dinner break, stop to use the rest room, make a casual PR contact with a store employee, etc., the word “Lakewood” should ring in our ears to remind us to stay alert. By doing so, we can stay safer, thereby bringing meaning to the otherwise senseless deaths of these four noble officers.
While situational awareness is crucial to officer safety, it's limited by how much of our environment we can see and how accurately we see it. This presents a problem, because observation skills aren't instinctive. They must be learned, and despite the fact that we like to think of ourselves as trained observers, how many of us have ever been taught how to be better observers? The danger here lies in the fact that the first step in responding to any threat is to detect its presence—and the sooner the better. This is why ambushes are so dangerous, and why it's so important to develop our observation skills to their highest potential.
Fortunately, training is now available that expands the ability to see and accurately process more of our surroundings, even when engaged in focused activities. Although the eyes capture images of everything within their field of view just as a camera does with everything in its viewfinder, they don’t actually see anything. Rather, the images are sent to the brain, which identifies and interprets them. However, since the brain can only process a small amount of visual input at a time, it misses much of what the eyes pick up, especially when focused on something that it perceives as very important.
John Demand, of Observation On Demand makes a good point regarding how the images from the eyes are interpreted by the brain: “A common misconception is that our eyes work like a camera or video recorder. Current scientific research in neuroscience has determined that the eyes project images to the brain and it is our brain that attempts to make sense of what we see. We can be fooled by our brains to believe what we expect to see. This is called perceptual blindness. For example, when we get a call with a man with a gun, that is what we expect to see upon our arrival. The man may be actually holding a cell phone or other object, yet we will believe we see a gun and it is here that fatal mistakes can be made, like shooting an innocent person or fellow officer.”
The good news is that through training and awareness we can improve our perceptual speed and become more accurate in our recognition of actual threats in order to outperform our adversaries.”
The aforementioned training consists of a series of various visual exercises that train the brain to process more of this visual input, and with better recall and clarity. Originally developed for the military in World War II, these exercises have recently been adopted and modified for use by law enforcement, and have proven to be very effective in increasing the ability to perceive and process visual input, thereby improving threat identification. However, since the skills thus developed are perishable ones, significant long-term retention of them requires a commitment to practice the exercises frequently (at least twice a week for no less than 15 minutes per session) for several months, and then regular maintenance exercises afterwards. Still, the benefits can be very impressive. Officers who are committed to keeping themselves and others safe will do well to take the training (available through Observation On Demand,4 LLC and Snipercraft, Inc.) and follow through with the required practice.
Enhancing our observation skills also requires that we deal with the problem of tunnel vision. Although this phenomenon is most commonly discussed within the context of high-stress perceptual distortions, it is actually occurring to some extent all the time, even when we are relaxed. This is because the human mind can only focus on one thing at a time. Even when we think we are scanning our environment, what we are really doing is briefly focusing on one thing at a time and then rapidly moving to the next. This happens so quickly that it seems like a single smooth process, but can more accurately be described as a series of snapshots blending together.
However, this doesn’t mean that we can't reduce the effects of tunnel vision. It isn’t easy and we can never eliminate tunnel vision completely, but we can train ourselves to minimize it. Like the body, the mind can be trained to perform various tasks with greater speed and proficiency through guided practice and repetition. In the case of tunnel vision during downtime and other low stress activities, the best place to start is to develop the habit of scanning for peripheral threats at all times. Like the habit of putting safety first, this habit should be developed by consciously practicing it during low-stress activities until it becomes second nature.
Another good way to lessen tunnel vision is to develop greater flexibility in our attention control, or how we focus our attention on the things around us. This is done through a series of mental exercises that teach us how to broaden our focus on our immediate environment while also concentrating more effectively on individual items within it. Although this takes considerable time, effort and commitment, it’s not as hard as it sounds and it can pay big dividends in enhancing our ability to quickly detect and react to threats on the street. These exercises are explained in detail by Dr. Laurence Miller in his excellent book, METTLE: Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement (Looseleaf Law Publications),6 a must read book for officers interested in developing winning mindset.
In an ambush like the one that took the lives of the Lakewood officers improved observation skills can give officers a valuable edge when it comes to threat recognition, thereby greatly improving their chances of defeating the threat. It is time that police trainers focus on developing these skills on their officers, and that individual officers seek out such training if it isn’t provided by their department.