The Slippery Slope of Complacency
Let’s be honest. A law enforcement officer’s job is about 90% routine and about 10% highly dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations. This is almost universally true across the spectrum of American law enforcement, whether you work for a major metropolitan agency, or the small, rural hometown. It’s just the nature of the job. And it is the root of complacency.
Big city cops answer false alarms, accidental 911 hang-ups, non-injury crashes, and take a bunch of reports on past crimes. Yet, when the events turn nasty, the big city cop can see the absolute worst that society can dish up on themselves, and plenty of it. In the same light, a small town cop may be bored to tears for most of the week, but have to go fist-to-cuffs almost every weekend at the bars. The lack of entertainment and outlets can lead even the decent, hard-working people to get excessive to express themselves.
It is this nearly universal reality of police work that sets so many officers up for failure. Lulled to relax their guard from days of monotonous activities, the appearance of resistance or a deadly threat can overwhelm the senses of even the most veteran officers.
In the video above, the officer was conducting “routine” paperwork in the booking of an arrested suspect. Most of the time, once a suspect is taken into the jail, it’s just a matter of booking, photographs, and waiting for bail or a court hearing. I’m actually glad that our Detention Facility requires detainees to be handcuffed to a rail while seated before the Detention officers for booking or phone calls. They are either secured to the rail or locked in a cell.
As the officer is focused on the computer he fails to recognize the aggressive preparation and body language as the suspect prepares to attack. Thankfully, the officer is able to recover quickly, but his fight of well over a minute goes back and forth before he is able to obtain a position of advantage. It could have just as easily gone the other way, and had tragic results.
Maintaining a State of Readiness
This killer complacency mindset occurs even with officers who work permanent dangerous duty assignments like drug interdiction, fugitive apprehension teams, and even SWAT. The news over the last few years of U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Forces that ended in officers and Deputy Marshals being killed is a tragic reminder of this reality.
To overcome this reality, an officer must be diligent in keeping their mindset focused on task in the dangerous game that law enforcement boils down to. That game is keeping a mental edge on our opponents, being keenly aware of the subtle indicators of assault or danger, and having rehearsed potential confrontations dozens of times in our mind before they actually happen.
Maintaining a state of readiness is a daily, and even hourly, discipline that officers must recognize and master. A part of that process is to constantly consider what is available to them, and not necessarily what is on their duty belt. If an officer is rolling around on the ground with a combative person, they may not be able to get to a Taser, baton, or O.C. spray. However, a fallen branch may be laying nearby, or a potted plant. Something that an officer can get to strike the combatant off of them.
In addition, some things that officers do have with them frequently can also be tools and techniques they use in an unorthodox manner that still complies with department policy and Constitutional law on the reasonable amount of force. Flashlights, ticket books, pens, and even vehicles, etc. are all “tools” that can be used as an impromptu weapon in the heat of a fight.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some agencies have very strict policies about what tools, weapons, and techniques that may be used to subdue a combative person. The BlueSheepDog Crew does not advocate violating your policies. Each officer must have a firm understanding of what their department policies will allow, and what their state and local laws will allow.
The United States Supreme Court established the “reasonableness” standard in Graham v. Connor (1989) to determine if an officer’s use of force is appropriate for the threat faced in light of Constitutional protections. Though this case may protect an officer from criminal charges, a violation of policy can lead to severe consequences with your job, including termination.
Col. Cooper’s Color Code of Readiness
Anyone who is a serious student of the art and science of shooting firearms should know Col. Jeff Cooper and his instrumental instruction techniques that are still being taught today. In his famous book Principles of Personal Defense Col. Cooper clearly states that the most important factor in winning a fight is not the weapon or martial skills possessed by the participant. It is a critical mindset to win!
To further express his beliefs he established the now well-versed color code to indicate a person’s readiness level to confront a violent situation or threat.
CONDITION WHITE – A state of mental unpreparedness. This is the condition that the vast majority of civilians are in as they go about their daily business. However, they are typically completely oblivious to the potential dangers in their immediate surroundings.
Col. Cooper stated that people seriously intent on being prepared should only be in this condition when asleep. When officers allow their guard down and settle into the “routine”, they have entered into the dangerous territory of Condition White.
CONDITION YELLOW – A state of relaxed alertness. This is the condition police officers should maintain at all times, both on and off duty. At Condition Yellow officers are keenly aware that the opportunity for a threat to present itself is always present. Disciplined officers will stay alert before, during, and after shift.
Condition Yellow is the ideal time for officers to conduct scenario training in their minds. The classic “if this, then that” type of problem solving. Officers should take time to consider how they would handle a variety of stressful and threatening scenarios. Mentally rehearsing action plans, alternative options, and exigency plans (because the bad guys have a say too) are just as critical as working out and going to the range for trigger time.
Officers who perform this easy mind exercise are much more prepared to handle rapidly evolving threat situations. The process of routinely thinking about threatening situations will give the officer’s subconscious mind a wealth of options to choose from when an actual threat presents itself.
CONDITION ORANGE – Here the officer is at specific alert after focusing on a particular potential threat. The officer has observed or sensed something that just isn’t right. This is a police officer’s “sixth sense” kicking in and alerting the officer to potential danger.
Being able to recognize the subtle clues of pending assault, flight, or furtive movements indicating criminal activity is absolutely an essential skill of a good officer. When officers become complacent, the obvious becomes oblivious – and all too often that ends with an officer injured or murdered.
CONDITION RED – The threat is real, and it is time to act! The officer has positively identified the problem, focused their attention to addressing the threat, and hopefully is executing pre-planned actions to overcome and defeat the threat.
The critical component in Condition Red is that the officer has already decided a course of action, and is taking that action. Officer’s may go from Condition Yellow to Condition Red in literal fractions of a second. That is why pre-threat mental preparations and scenario solutions are so critical.
When a threat presents itself, the sub-conscious mind scans your library of responses at the speed of light. If the officer has already played out a similar situation in their mental preparation, the mind can very quickly carry out action plans to meet the unexpected threat.
In this video, we see a great example of a Florida K-9 deputy transitioning from Condition Orange to Condition Red. His verbal commands, defensive actions, and radio transmissions clearly show that he is able to maintain his tactical thinking and bearing despite an attack on his life. However, he is distracted enough by the driver to miss the approaching passenger moving in for the ambush.
There are clear signs of danger from the beginning. The driver doesn’t stop on the roadway and then drives about 100 yards down the drive before stopping. This places the vehicle in a position that will not be easily seen by witnesses. The deputy is immediately confronted with an uncooperative driver who has exited the truck. Allowing occupants to get out on their own is a huge red flag, and should immediately be addressed and corrected by officers.
The driver says he doesn’t have a driver’s license (red flag) and then wants to get back into the truck (red flag). When told to come to the back of the truck the driver does not comply, and instead places his left hand behind his back and refuses to show it after repeated commands (huge red flag).
Realizing the threat just in time, the deputy releases his K-9 remotely, but it appears that he is completely unaware of the approaching passenger moving in to ambush him. Thankfully the dog attacks the ambushing passenger, just as the deputy just realizes his presence on his six. The deputy then shoots the driver who has suddenly produced a knife in his left hand.
Had the deputy not been in the proper mental mindset he could have easily have been overwhelmed by the two attackers. Performing what must have been rehearsed dozens of times, he hit the release for the K-9, and withdrew his sidearm to confront the driver. That’s the power of being mentally prepared.
CONDITION BLACK – Though not a part of Col. Cooper’s original color code index, there are many who recognize another condition that an officer can face in a high-stress and rapidly evolving threat scenarios. Condition Black is where the mind and body shut down from an overload of external stimuli that is in direct threat to the officer perceiving them.
Condition Black is an actual scientific phenomenon called the Acetylcholine Effect. Normally, Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that promotes attention and focus. However, in a life-threatening situation that is rapidly evolving with multiple stimuli, a person or officer can have their autonomic nervous system overwhelmed to the point they cannot function in response.
In this effect, the officer literally freezes and cannot respond. Tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, lack of fine and gross motor skills are all a result of the Acetylcholine Effect, and the result is often that the officer sees black (sometimes in finality). The Aceytlcholine Effect can be very closely aligned and viewed in forms of shock, where an officer is conscious, but mentally and physically not there.
In this famous scene from Saving Private Ryan, Corporal Upham is confronted with the overwhelming fear of combat, with German soldiers advancing directly on his position. Though he can hear the hand-to-hand fight in the upstairs room, he freezes on the stairway, unable to move or respond when the German soldier finally appears.
Standard Training and Qualifications
However, the ability of an officer to focus on and remember their training and experience may not be enough to win the battle of your life. Standard training too often covers just the basics and all too often is a once a year training opportunity. The mastery of highly technical skills requires constant repetition, and firearms, defensive tactics, and fighting survival all require repeated practice.
The majority of officers in this country get just enough training in firearms to pass a very basic State-mandated qualification. In essence, their “qualification” shows they can hit paper more often than not. The same goes for defensive tactics where all too often a few techniques are taught in a cursory manner that in no way allows the officer to develop a mastery of the skill or muscle memory.
The result of once-a-year training and qualification is that officers will lose their memory and comfort level on certain techniques, and they will then resort to what feels good to them. This fall back may result in a technique that is not even a police trained method. As the saying goes, “you will not rise to the occasion, you will fall to the level of your training”.
All professionals must practice their art and skills continually, yet police officers are often robbed of this necessity. Professional sports players must practice for weeks and months before and during their seasons, to be able to perform at the highest levels. Musicians and actors must train long hours to get to a perfect performance. Doctors and scientists require years of instruction and hands-on training before they are given the reins of their practice to go alone. Yet, police officers are often fed an appetizer, and expected to somehow make the right decision every time, without excessive force, and with pinpoint precision in all things.
Thinking Outside the Box!
In addition to the standard use of force considerations trained into officers’ minds at the Academy and through in-service training, officers need to be able to look and think outside that box to recognize tactical advantages that are not a part of the common solution. Even the mental preparation of working through how you would handle threats in your mind must be supplemented with solutions that go outside of the typical methods found on the officer’s duty belt.
In the video above an Independence, Missouri Police (a suburb of Kansas City) patrol Sergeant came upon the second stolen vehicle from a double car-jacking crashed in a yard. As he exited to confront the suspect who was walking away, the suspect suddenly turned and began firing on the Sergeant. The Sergeant retreated across the street but lost his footing at the curb falling into another yard while withdrawing his sidearm.
Arriving just at the right time, another patrol Sergeant observed the suspect advancing on the fallen Sergeant while continuing to fire his handgun. Instead of getting out of his patrol car, the Sergeant quickly decides to use his 2500 pound cruiser as both a weapon and a distraction against the suspect. Just before reaching the suspect, the original Sergeant, now firing back, is able to strike the suspect in the chest with a round. The suspect falls to the pavement and the second Sergeant runs him over with his patrol cruiser.
That line of thinking was critical in resolving this life-threatening situation with the suspect in custody and both officers alive and safe.
In another famous use of a vehicle as an appropriate weapon and distraction, an Arkansas State Fish & Wildlife officer rams the van occupied by two suspects who had just recently murdered two West Memphis Police officers. This action, along with firing his AR-15 through his windshield and into the van, were critical “outside-the-box” mental decisions that helped resolve that shootout with two dead offenders, and no more injured or killed officers.
Also, do you consider what equipment you might need that the department does not issue?
Yes, the department should issue you everything you might need, but the reality is it does not.
The majority of American law enforcement officers are not properly trained in facing the real-life dangers that can confront any officer at any time. From big city boredom to small-town simplicity, complacency can strike any officer with deadly results.
Take a measure of your current skills with the critical lens of a violent attacker. Where you find deficiencies look for ways to enhance your own skills through personal dedication and training. Budgets will always be tight, and your agency may not physically be able to train you properly. Accept that reality, but refuse to succumb to its deadly premonition.
Training can be very inexpensive, yet yield incredibly valuable results. Simply running, doing push-ups, stretching, punching a bag, and carrying heavy objects can provide you a better physical condition to confront your adversaries. Spending time conducting draws from your holster (both strong hand and support hand), can create the muscle memory that will shave critical time off in a deadly force encounter. And, performing dry-fire drills with a focus on smooth and consistent trigger pulls, can greatly improve accuracy and times in firing multiple shots.
Kill complacency … or it WILL kill you!