As America comes to terms with the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., police agencies and officers are looking at what happened there and in other active-shooter incidents for important lessons that will save lives in the future. Significantly, press statements and some media accounts took note that officers, consistent with the latest active-shooter training given around the U.S., teamed up and entered the building almost immediately upon arrival.
At Newtown, we saw responding officers from multiple agencies at the local, county and federal level. More importantly, we saw on-duty officers in a range of uniforms, as well as plain-clothed off-duty officers, all acting on the consistent philosophy that’s been engrained in our active-shooter response training over the past decade: group up, get in fast, assess, clear the building and find the shooter to stop the incident.
The lessons that led to these tactics have come at the ultimate price and mustn’t be squandered.
Less well-documented in the law enforcement community is the escalated danger at times like these of blue-on-blue shooting—when one officer shoots another, mistaking that officer for the enemy. We, as a community, are already in need of some review to reduce these dangers under “normal” law enforcement conditions—there were four blue-on-blue shootings in November 2012 alone—deadly incidents in Colorado and Texas and serious injuries in Chicago and Memphis. It’s reasonable to suppose that, at a time of great confusion and multi-agency convergence, the dangers are raised commensurately.
When Sgt. Ward Smith of the Kansas City (Mo.) Police Department (KCPD) began to look at this issue in 2010, he and his team of instructors developed a methodology that’s produced an extremely inexpensive, repeatable and internationally relevant program that can save lives. He also documented some unexpectedly remarkable conclusions.
It seems obvious as soon as you hear it, but according to Smith, there are profound consequences to where off-duty or undercover officers in plain clothes wear their badge.
Smith’s conclusions, after two years of study, are that, when you wear your badge strung from a lanyard around your neck, you’re significantly safer than when you wear your badge clipped to your belt. In fact, the difference is so significant that Ward concludes that the badge placement transcends lighting conditions.
“We found that you’re safer wearing the badge around your neck in low-light conditions than you are in normal light conditions with a badge clipped to your belt,” says Smith.
Smith’s experiment has turned into one of the nation’s most innovative training programs in blue-on-blue shootings.
“We spent about 80 bucks,” says Smith.
Smith says that the agency had been aware of the risks of blue-on-blue shootings for a long time, but there was something of a tendency to downplay the local danger. “This-happens-on-the-coast” syndrome prevailed. Then KCPD had its own blue-on-blue incident. The officer survived, but it was a wake-up call for the department.
It happened like this. Two KCPD officers, in uniform, were converging from different positions on an armed suspect. One officer, carrying a patrol rifle, made his way toward the suspect, while another, armed with a shotgun loaded with slug, saw in the low-light environment just what he’d been looking for—a man with a rifle. He fired, striking the foregrip of the first officer’s rifle. The slug shattered, the rifle was destroyed, and the first officer lost part of his thumb.
KCPD had come close to losing someone. Even with body armor, a slug is going to cause serious injury or death. To its eternal credit, the agency recognized how close it had come to catastrophe and, even more laudably, set to doing something to ensure it would be much less likely in the future.
As a supervisor in the agency’s firearms training section, Smith designed drills that brought together some of the most common elements in blue-on-blue events. He had his officers shoot in low light, with visual barriers, physical barricades and props.
Because Smith and his colleagues were so methodical in their approach and so meticulous in documenting their methods, agencies across the country and around the world can address this issue at no cost, with the very real promise of saving lives.
Sgt. Ward Smith
Smith joined a small suburban department in the Kansas City area at 21, in the 1980s, and there was no firearms trainer. But Smith was a shooter, and so he took some time to educate himself on training techniques. After he began studying moving and shooting, as well as low-light combat shooting, his agency allowed him to take over the firearms training program. He moved to KCPD, eventually joined SWAT, and then became a supervisor. In 2006 he got to where he says he always wanted to be: the range.
Soon after, he introduced new training to KCPD, including moving and shooting, and effective use of cover. Smith and his team had already been working on lots of advanced tactical training: low light, shoot/don’t shoot, targets with props and other excellent practices.
One day, Smith and his team decided to put a badge on a target. The idea: to simulate, perhaps, an undercover officer at the scene.
“The first time we put it up there,” Smith said, “we riddled that target with bullets.”
Smith’s team analyzed the performance. “Hell,” they thought, “there’s a badge there, why didn’t they see it?”
This led them to experiment with placement—placing it on a string, making it wiggle and trying to see if there was a way that they could make their officers hold back on the trigger.
By watching what people did during training, it became clear that the neck-badge thing was a good thing. But Smith and his team wanted to prove it empirically. So they used annual range tests for their experimental platform.
The range was divided, using tarpaulin, into eight shooting bays with two photo-realistic targets in each bay. The exercises involved movement, movement to cover, and engagement of multiple targets. Each officer was briefed to “expect the unexpected” and to think carefully. About half the exercises were conducted in low light. Targets were programmed to turn and face the officers for a variable length of time between one and three seconds. One of the targets was wearing a badge.
The trainers shuffled the order after each evolution. This way, when an observer is behind a participant during one evolution, the badge is going to be in a different place next time round to prevent the shooters from memorizing the course. After each officer completed a bay, they move two bays to the right to a fresh group of targets.
The team decided that this made for a realistic blend of fresh and unknown targets with a good ratio of “shoot” to “don’t-shoot” targets. It also provided a good accounting of people’s real reaction to an unknown stimulus. Bottom line: It kept people as off-balance as they would be in the field.
The experiment sought to demonstrate:
1. How low light affected officers’ ability to discern a “don’t-shoot” target; and
2. How the placement of a badge on a target affected an officer’s ability to not shoot fellow officers.
When the experiment was first run, “the number of rounds that we saw hit the badge targets week after week was staggering,” says Smith. “The average was 132 per session. But on some days it looked as if those targets had been hit by shotgun fire. From up close.”
From the initial results in 2011, the team’s analysis had clear and compelling lessons: you are much safer with a badge hanging from a lanyard around your neck than you are with a badge on your belt under all circumstances. As it turns out, you’re significantly safer wearing the badge around your neck at night than you are wearing your badge on your belt in broad daylight.
Most importantly, the team did thorough debriefs and drove the point home that this was something that would have to improve. Smith’s team felt strongly that other agencies should seek to replicate or refute KCPD’s results.
The good news is that, when the experiment was repeated in 2012, the numbers improved.
Dramatically. It’s as if the training worked!
It’s still substantially safer to wear the badge around your neck, but KCPD saw an 82% improvement in officers shooting at a target wearing a badge on its belt in full light, and a 90% improvement in low light. Those numbers for neck badges were 88% and 92%, respectively, but the raw numbers are perhaps more telling.
Even with a year’s worth of formal training and two full qualifications, you’re still more than nine times more likely to be shot by a fellow officer in broad daylight, and eight times more likely to be shot by a fellow officer in low light, when you wear your badge clipped to your belt than strung round your neck.
Smith recommended a policy change that all plainclothes officers—on or off duty—wear their badge from a lanyard around their neck.
“We wanted to get the information out,” says Smith. “If you disagree with it, at least there’s thinking behind the issue. And, by all means: disprove what we did, if you can!”
To that end, Smith said he will happily share methodology and setup with any interested agency on how to replicate the experiment and the training.
For more information about the program and the results, contact us (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll pass your request to KCPD.
KCPD Badge Placement Experiement by the Numbers
• Shots fired per participant: 125
• Average participants per session: 23
• Sessions: 40
• Total Rounds: 117,500 (approximate)
• 1,272 hits (31.8 per session) in full light
• 5,288 hits (132.2 per session) in low light
• 196 hits (4.9 per session) in full light
• 843 hits (21.07 per session) in low light
Identical Sampling, Setup & Methodology
Percentage Reduction per Category
• 240 hits (6 per session) in full light — 82%
• 525 hits (13.1 per session) in low light — 90%
• 25 hits (0.6 per session) in full light — 88%
• 71 hits (1.8 per session) in low light — 92%