In this article I’d like to discuss a few of the most common critical incident calls where understanding the priority of life is critical to making a proper police response, especially for the initial patrol officers on scene.
This is probably one of the most frequent calls police receive, and also one of the most dangerous. Patrol officers should understand that it is the priority of life, along with the exigency exemption to the 4th Amendment, that allows officers to force their way into a residence to investigate a domestic violence report should someone refuse their entry. The courts are saying that the “victim” is more important than any privacy rights a suspect might want to enjoy, even in his own home. Understanding the priority of life gives patrol officers the confidence to act and to act quickly to properly handle domestic violence calls, and provide assistance to victims.
If entry cannot be obtained then officers should determine the situation’s facts. Is this a hostage situation? Is this a barricade? Are there innocent lives present? Answers to these questions will determine the most appropriate response of the patrol officers on scene. If you know people are inside and not answering, perhaps the best course of action is to surround the house and call them out to you. If the suspect refuses to exit, then perhaps a breach & hold (kicking in the door, but waiting outside the threshold) could be attempted. However, absent evidence of an assault in progress, treat it as a barricade and perform the “Four C’s” of patrol response to critical incidents (contain, control, communicate, call SWAT). Remember though, just because SWAT is called does not alleviate patrol’s responsibility to have an immediate action plan to enter and save hostages should that contingency occur.
If the victim meets you at the door and there are no innocents in the house, officers shouldn’t feel compelled to walk right into the residence to contact the suspect. How about calling the suspect to you where you can be in a position of advantage instead of walking into his.
If there are innocents in the house (children, other family, neighbors, etc.) patrol should try to separate the victim and suspect as quickly as possible. If the suspect has fled to a deep part of the residence then have the victim and innocents leave the danger area, and when they are secure, attempt to call-out the suspect. During this time an arrest team should be ready in case the suspect decides to exit.
BARRICADED SUBJECTS (SUICIDAL)
This is probably the most misinterpreted and mishandled call that police respond to today. However, if you use the priorities of life scale, the understanding of how to properly handle these calls should be more clear.
The first consideration should be to determine if any innocent people are close to the suicidal subject. If yes, than we must act to deprive the suicidal subject the opportunity to turn those people into hostages, or victims. If the answer is no, then we have to determine if the person is in a capacity to endanger innocents.
If the suicidal is armed in a public place we have to do something, which is the protection of innocents. This does not mean we rush the subject or expose ourselves needlessly to danger, violating the priority of life scale. Officers who approach suicidal subjects unnecessarily, were threatened and as a result killed the suspect, have been found civilly liable for “creating” a deadly force situation. Instead, we need to contain them and use less lethal intervention as quickly as possible.
However, if the suicidal is alone at home we need to completely re-evaluate our response tactics. What happens if the suicidal subject refuses to come outside? Should we force entry because they’re threatening suicide? Should we make this a prolonged “barricaded” subject call? I think the answer is no to both questions, and the National Tactical Officer’s Association (N.T.O.A.) seems to support that idea.
The reasoning goes back to the priorities of life scale. Being alone in his house, the suicidal poses only a threat to himself. I understand that “suicidal = homicidal” but in this particular situation the subject is in their own home and not posing a risk to anyone other than themselves. That’s the key to our decision making. A homicidal person poses a risk to the innocents living around them so our tactics have to protect the innocents by removing the threat.
Recent court decisions look unfavorably on police when they burst into the homes of suicidal subjects to “save” them and end up killing them instead. If the subject commits suicide than they made that choice in the privacy of their own home. Perhaps a call from a C.I.T. officer, or a local mental health provider would be appropriate, but a full-scale S.W.A.T. operation will probably only end badly for the police. If “negotiations” fail, notify neighbors to call if something changes and have mental health personnel continue attempts at phone follow-up.
Leaving may seem impossible, but the 4th Amendment is the 4th Amendment. Any breaching or entry tactic is going to be seen as an escalation of the danger created by the police, which may result in an unconstitutional seizure by the police. Handling it like a barricade may result in a successful outcome, but how many extended suicidal barricades can your agency afford to conduct.
BARRICADED SUBJECT (CRIMINAL)
This type of incident really bring into focus the priority of life scale. If there are hostages or innocents in the residence, then our response is dictated by those facts. In a hostage situation information should be gathered to determine if there is an immediate threat to the hostage. If the answer is yes, then an immediate action plan should be executed including distractions, gas, and perhaps multiple entry points. All of this should be committed with the singular goal of getting to the hostage as quickly as possible to ensure their safety. Obviously one of the ways to ensure this goal is to eliminate the hostage taker if immediate compliance is not gained.
If there are innocents inside that are not hostages then we need to begin procedures to surround, contain and call-out. This is the more frequent case as we go to serve a search or arrest warrant and the wanted party refuses to come out. We need to separate the innocents from the suspect, and then evaluate our options.
I just attended the S.W.A.T. Team Leader course offered by the N.T.O.A. Several scenarios were debriefed where officers forgot the priorities of life scale and went in on a criminal barricaded subject. Officers were killed or injured. We have other tactics to resolve those situations safely – gas, gas, and more gas into the house.
Back in 2003 my S.W.A.T. team responded to assist a neighboring agency on a barricaded suspect that had engaged officers and firefighters in a gunfight. The Vietnam-vet had a history of mental illness. He lived with his 80-year old mother, and apparently got mad at her and stabbed her on the neck and arms. When she left to call for help the first officers and firefighters came under rifle fire from the house almost immediately. Having one of the first Lenco Bear Cat’s delivered to police, we responded and began evacuating the pinned-down patrol officers, firefighters and then neighbors. Eventually we saturated the house with gas and the suspect committed suicide. Before that happened about 150-200 rounds had been fired at responders. This guy had a plan and knew his tactics because our snipers never saw him in the house. When we were relatively certain the suspect was dead we still didn’t rush in. We used the Bear Cat as a battering ram. We pushed a car through and out the back of the garage to open up an exterior wall of the house and allow our E.O.D. unit to send in a robot. Only after the robot found the suspect laying in a bathtub did an Entry Team enter and confirm he was dead. Had we conducted a “dynamic” entry while the suspect was alive I’m quite sure that one or more of my teammates would have been wounded or killed.
The concept of “dynamic entry” was around in the beginning of S.W.A.T. The concept was that if S.W.A.T. entered a house with surprise (usually early morning) and diversion (flash bangs) that they could rush through the house and seize everyone before they could catch up in their O.O.D.A. cycle and respond. I’ve been a part of dozens of raids that conformed to this flawed ideology. Sadly, it has taken multiple failed attempts at dynamic entry for the police community to realize that there are better tactics to accomplish the same goal.
Much of what drove that push to rush was the desire to save evidence from destruction. Are you kidding me? Property and evidence are even lower on the priority of life list than the suspect! In essence the law enforcement community (especially S.W.A.T.) was placing the need for evidence or seizing the suspect, above the need to protect officers. For nearly 15 years now the N.T.O.A. has NOT endorsed a dynamic entry method except for hostage-rescue or active shooter situations where there are hostages or innocents in harm’s way.
By now the law enforcement community is pretty well-versed in the appropriate response to active shooters: get there, get in, respond to the sounds of the shooter, and rescue the hostages/innocents by capturing or eliminating the threat. Often times, however, active shooter training only emphasizes getting to the shooter and killing the shooter(s). The real goal is to protect hostages/innocents. They are the reason we are rushing in, not for the shooter, because we definitely don’t lower ourselves any further on the priority of life scale.
However, we need to remember that the overall police mission in critical incidents is to save lives, including the suspects. The choice to eliminate the suspect must be made only when saving him can not be accomplished without unduly risking harm to a person higher on the priority of life scale. And yes, that decision may literally be made in micro-seconds, but overall our mindset must be on the priority of life – we went in there to rescue hostages/innocents. Understand that I am not advocating officers to stop and help injured along the way. In a hostage taker situation we must advance as rapidly as possible to the hostages, even overstepping wounded or innocents seeking help.
Remember “why” we do what we do, and it will guide you on the “how” to do what we do right.
In the event of a hostage taker several considerations must be made before action is taken. To successfully weigh our options we need to consider the definition of “Immediate threat” and “Imminent threat”.
Immediate threat – the suspect’s actions are currently causing a serious threat of death or serious physical injury to the hostage.
Imminent threat – the suspect is capable of lethal action and is in close proximity to the hostage creating a jeopardy that the hostage could at any moment be at risk of death or serious physical injury.
At first glance that might seem to be splitting hairs, but it really is not. The important concept for law enforcement to understand (supported by the “reasonable” test of Graham vs. Connor) is that hostages are always in “imminent” danger as long as they are in close proximity to the hostage taker. This means that if we can establish separation of the hostage taker from the hostages, and the hostage taker is not negotiating or surrendering, than police should seriously consider deploying lethal force to end the threat imposed on the hostages.
If the hostage-taker shows “immediate” threat to the hostages than an emergency action plan must be executed to enter and quickly rescue the hostages – often by eliminating the hostage taker. Patrol officers may have to act based on the circumstances presented to them, so it is critically important for the initial patrol officers on scene to correctly assess just what type of situation that they are dealing with.
If however, the hostage taker is negotiating and not presenting an “immediate” threat to the hostages, than perhaps the best course of action is to allow negotiators to work on a planned release of hostages and surrender of the suspect. This must still be done with an Emergency Action entry team ready to go on a moment’s notice.
Hopefully this review of some common critical incidents that patrol officers respond to, along with understanding the priority of life scale, will allow patrol officers to have the understanding to make the proper assessments at the scene, decide on the best course of action, and have the confidence to act.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.