When I started my career, I was broke in by veteran cops of
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
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
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
Training Never Gets
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.