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Command & Tactical Situational Awareness

Written by French, Glenn

When I started my career, I was broke in by veteran cops of the Vietnam era. Their advice was, “always be ready, no matter what your doing.” They taught me that sometimes any situation we are dealing with could go south faster than we can react to it and that puts us behind in the response curve.

 

They taught me that to be a safe cop you had to anticipate your adversary’s actions before he acted upon them. They called it “instincts” and “gut feeling”. Today officers with 20 or more years on the job refer to these cops as “old school”. Twenty years later I ask myself why did we leave this style of tactical awareness?  

 

Recognition of a threat and the resulting course of action are the keys to survival in law enforcement. The course of action will come from the officer’s knowledge, training and experience. Time and time again, officers involved in lethal force encounters frequently say “all I remember is that my training kicked and then it was over”. The tactical response we choose and the time it takes to “recognize” the threat may make the difference in surviving an encounter or neutralizing our adversary. This reinforces the need for “tactical situational awareness” training.  

 

We have trained officers to work in different conditions pre-determined by various different techniques such as color codes or different levels of awareness. This common set of “abstract evaluation dimensions” work great for pilots and other professions and may have some value to law enforcement. However, I wonder if we aren’t conditioning our officers to work in a state of situational awareness that slightly slows their response to an ambush or any encounter for that matter. Why can’t street cops work in the same situational awareness state that tactical officers do?

 

Training provides the skills cops need for a successful response to an ambush or any encounter for that matter. If we train and condition officers to work and remain at different levels or codes of situational awareness they may have to cycle through second or third choices of these awareness levels to find the proper tactical response. This concept isn’t flawed but is it time consuming?    

 

Working the streets, talking with citizens, making traffic stops, eating lunch, refueling your car or speaking with co-workers in the coffee shop all require the same tactical state of situational awareness. When confronted with an ambush while doing any of these typical duties Cops also have to process through the OODA loop.

 

Keeping that in mind, as some police trainers teach and condition officers to work in a pre-specified awareness level. As these officers processes the OODA loop they also must recognized their next awareness level or code in response. The time it takes you to navigate through these different threat levels may cost you your life. That’s one reason why the use of the “force continuum” is no longer taught. 

 

Time for Change

Where these various systems that condition officer’s levels of situational awareness with different codes can fail the uniform officer is “reaction time” while recognizing and moving through the various levels or codes. Many ambushes don’t allow for time to move from condition to condition, code to code, level to level.

 

What we don’t have are stats on the many ambush’s that occur daily across the United States that don’t end up with the taking of an officer’s life. What makes these officers successful when ambushed? I am sure that these various techniques can contribute to their success. However, my experience with being ambushed in a hotel was that my “tactical situational awareness” kept me alive. That incident left me thanking all of my Army squad leaders that stressed the importance of “tactical situational awareness” in combat.  

 

Perhaps what cops need to understand is when you leave roll call you have entered a battlefield. There aren’t tanks and infantry units fighting on this battlefield. Cops and criminals fight for peace on the battlefield of law enforcement. Don’t take that lightly, the battlefield we work in can be the donut shop as we meet for coffee with our comrades or responding to a barking dog disturbance.        

 

It Can Happen To You

June 5th 2004, a day that affected many in my agency, a day that changed most officers to think tactically even when writing reports. A day that would heighten officer’s states of situational awareness in all they do.

 

One of our officers had just finished investigating a traffic accident and parked his patrol car in the parking lot of a Target department store in our city. While the officer was completing the paperwork for the accident, a vehicle pulled up next to his patrol car and a male armed with a shotgun-opened fire, striking the officer in the head. The suspect then stole his service weapon and fled. The officer was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his wounds the following morning.



The suspect's motive in the killing was to acquire a handgun so he could continue his bank robberies. On July 25, 2004, the suspect was located in Jacksonville, Florida, after being featured on the television show America's Most Wanted. As a SWAT team and U.S. marshals stormed the house the suspect committed suicide using the officers stolen service weapon.

 

We will never know what happened in that exact moment that the officer was shot and murdered. However, we know that he was ambushed and the suspect planned his actions. The officer’s legacy further cemented one thing in my mind, no matter what we are doing after we leave roll call, we are on the battlefield of law enforcement. The officer in this case didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t think there is anything he could have done to recognize the ambush and react before the gunman shot at him.

 

However, what I did learn from that day forward was to be mindful of my surroundings even when completing reports in my cruiser. All of a sudden I had to be tactical in the most mundane part of police work. All of a sudden my situational awareness was at the highest state no matter what I did when I had that uniform on.      

 

Seeing Red, Always Ready for the Fight

The smallest of actions from an officer can possibly change the outcome of an ambush. I have never allowed any person to approach my squad car without my handgun getting drawn out of my holster and positioned at the ready without the person ever detecting that my gun was drawn and available to battle.

 

I have had many encounters with ordinary people asking the most simplest of questions on the street and my professional demeanor responded as I sit in the car speaking with them through the window, with my gun out of sight and ready in anticipation of a threat. Usually, I will get a polite “thank you officer” as they walk away but what they didn’t observe was my tactical situational awareness provided me the ability to anticipate an ambush.

 

I understand that many of you are thinking “I will never allow people to approach my patrol car” but I can say first hand that in urban areas that’s not always practical and sometimes you will get approached before you have enough time to exit the vehicle. 

 

Furthermore, when a middle aged non threatening person comes along side your cruiser asking for directions you may be in a certain phase, level or code as taught in the past that may require you to move to the next phase. Once you realize you’re in an ambush whatever time it takes for you to transition to different phases, codes or levels dictates the outcome of the ambush. Don’t make that mistake, learn to maintain a tactical state of situational awareness in all you do after you leave roll call and enter the battlefield of law enforcement.     

 

Tactical Situational Awareness

Tactical situational awareness as it applies to law enforcement is defined as the “Knowledge and understanding of the current situation which promotes timely, relevant and accurate assessment of surroundings, threats and the tactical environment which the officer is working in that facilitates quick decisive decision making and provides an informational perspective & skill that fosters an ability to determine quickly the context and relevance of events that are unfolding.”

 

Understanding the various philosophies of different systems that condition officers to maintain certain levels of awareness may help to improve the officer’s threat recognition in tactical environments and active threat situations. However, I am a firm believer that we need to anticipate and recognize our adversary’s next move, quickly, so that we are not slowed to respond to a deadly threat. 

 

Train As You Will Fight and Master Your Response

Training provides opportunities to develop proficiency by simulating conditions that reflect a full spectrum of threat environments. Training supervisors should develop creative training plans that train officers in situational awareness in various tactical threat environments.

 

“Train” means training for the fight under conditions of expected, and anticipated threat environments where combat is likely. It also means changing the threats & environments during training to better prepare the officers for adaptability on the streets when faced with varying tactical challenges. This will prepare the officer for the unexpected and unanticipated threat environments, which officers work in every day.

 

Mastering the “Fight” requires the officer to train in lethal and non-lethal skills, through various stressful conditions, until failure is achieved. Then analyzing the failures through critiques and then suggest favorable changes to the failures to the point of mastering the training objective. Once the proper response is achieved through repetitive attempts then focus on the response time.   

 

Tactical situational awareness training will challenge officers with various uncertain conditions, requiring them to adapt to evolving tactical challenges. Command staff and Trainers should create training conditions that force officers to assess situations quickly and use critical and creative thinking to develop innovative and creative solutions to these tactical challenges. Officers should learn to anticipate various levels of threats. 

 

Training Never Gets Old

The profile of the average officer feloniously assaulted in the period of 2001-2010 may surprise you. According to LEOKA the average age of the victim officer was 38 years old with 11 years on the job.

 

Time on the job and experience with tactical threats builds experience but not necessarily effectiveness. Nobody is exempt from being ambushed so nobody should be exempt from training. Training cadre should prepare all officers for any contingency they may face on the street.

 

Train Fundamentals First 

Fundamentals that include mindset preparation, threat anticipation & recognition and combat drills establish the officers training foundation for tactical situational awareness. Focus on the officers individual skills such as basic response to various tactical situations, defensive tactics drills, marksmanship, fitness, and situational awareness proficiency. Officers proficient in the fundamentals can more easily master the more complex tasks in law enforcement and will be better prepared as they respond to all calls for service and the unexpected ambush.

 

Share the Knowledge

As command staff and trainers the best way to improve individual officers knowledge is to task them with developing and teaching various training objectives. Giving subordinates the responsibility for developing training builds capable and effective officers and trainers. Task them outside their comfort zone, so that with your guidance and oversight they will become leaders. Good leaders develop a sense of stewardship in subordinates. Good stewardship is learned during tough training in which individuals learn to respect and trust themselves and their leaders.

 

Commanders must invest in their officer’s future, mentor them so that they too gain the valuable experience that is needed to stay alive as they work the streets.

 

Sergeant Glenn French, with the Sterling Heights Police Department (Metro Detroit), currently serves as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team and supervisor of the Training Bureau. Glenn is the author of the "Police Tactical Life Saver" and President of www.tacticallifesaver.org.


Published in Law and Order, Jul 2013

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