Updated: Jul 16
When you evaluate critical incidents whether it be a warrant service, felony stop, or responding to various calls for service, there are several (pretty easy in most cases) chances for the officer to place themselves in a more advantageous tactical position. Best case scenario the officer wins the encounter likely with his tactical skillset not being the reason. At worst the officer is seriously hurt or killed. One thing is certain, if the officer has the opportunity to use the concepts of time, distance, numbers and cover, the chances of serious injury are significantly reduced.
When we talk about "time" you might think that it is referring to the actual seconds and minutes that combine for the totality of an event. However, it refers more to a mentality than the actual ticks on a clock. Officers in high stress situations often feel like there is a need to be actively working towards an attempt to bring the situation to a resolution right now. Often times Officers involved in the incident will have a skewed perception of the time it took for things to transpire during an event, usually feeling like things took much longer than they really did. As a result, officers will fail to adequately utilize time to their advantage and often rush into an action that could have a detrimental outcome. For instance, most if not all agencies have shifted to training felony stop protocol so that officers remain at or near their vehicle and call suspects back to them. Apart from maintaining distance (which we will address shortly) it allows officers a chance to slow down. Slowing yourself down will allow to prioritize what is truly most important in that moment.
Instead of forcing quick split-second decisions by rushing a suspect in their vehicle, staying at the vehicle allows officers the ability to take the time to process the situation and formulate the best and safest route to move forward. Often times someone (an officer) should be taking control of the situation and finding other tasks that need completed. This officer is responsible for the "overhead" view of what is transpiring.
Distance and time go hand-in-hand. I’m sure all street savvy cops have heard of and seen demonstrated the “21-foot” rule. This rule pertains to proper stand-off for suspects with edged weapons by showing that a suspect could cover 21 feet in approximately 1.5 seconds which was believed to be the time at which an average officer could draw their weapon and fire. This has since been tested ad nauseum and recent tests have shown that 21 feet is typically not adequate.
Cops familiar with the 21-foot rule will also be familiar with the OODA loop. USAF Col. John Boyd found that high stress decision making follows a four-stage approach: observe, orient, decide, and act. Furthermore, he found that the person who is the fastest at completing the “loop” will gain an advantage on an adversary allowing them to act first. Distance is a pivotal tool in completing the loop, as it allows you to be able to break out of “tunnel vision” so that you can better observe and take in the totality of the situation. Additionally, it gives you options, and options help make the best possible. For instance, if an officer is responding to a weapons disturbance and chooses to approach the door and the suspect produces a weapon, the officers only choice is to try and fight in that limited space. However, if they utilized distance, they may have seen an obstruction they could have placed in between them and the suspect (possibly cover). This would hopefully allow the officer to establish a position of domination which reduces your physiological responses to stress.
I have experienced the physiological responses to taking gunfire firsthand. Even the most highly trained officers cannot completely eliminate the physiological responses to stress. Utilizing cover and establishing a position of domination is the best way to prepare yourself physically and mentally for a confrontation. Being in a stable platform and feeling comfortable in your position will allow you to mitigate those “oh s***” responses such as dramatic flinching, the urge to move to a better position, wild and inaccurate return fire, or hesitation to take action at all.
A long and widely spread ideology in the training community is that vehicles (excluding the engine block and axles) are not cover. Over time I’ve developed a working definition of cover in law enforcement and it is as follows; as much stuff as I can put between myself and a bad guy. While a vehicle may not provide absolute ballistic protection, I have experience (closer than I would have liked) the bullets coming to rest or significantyl deviating from it trajectory after impact. As most officers in the United States are working from vehicles, understanding the strengths of the vehicle and how to position it to stack as many barriers between yourself and a threat is imperative as it might be your only option.
I’ve had the luxury of working in one of the largest departments in the country where backup is moments away. I understand and appreciate that fact and credit it to having kept me safe and from having to resort to using deadly force on several occasions. Vehicles are an obvious form of "cover" that from the first second of your shift to the last, it is an option you have available to you. Sometimes your only option is to get small and introduce at least one factor to the bad guy that makes marksmanship difficult, target availability.
I understand that this cannot be a “one size fits all approach” as different agencies have different staffing and capabilities. Numbers of course referring to physical officers. What is important to know however is the number of officers you need to safely handle a situation can vary. How many people do you need to conduct a safe felony stop? Clear a structure? Deal with an armed suspect? The answer is going to depend. How many suspects do you have? When it comes to open air (suspects on foot) or known suspects in vehicles. A 2 to 1 rule should generally be applied. That is 2 officers for every one suspect.
It’s important to be honest and reasonable in regard to your manpower and skill set. I’ve always been a proponent of patrol units being two-man. I know that isn’t realistic for some agencies (in fact some agencies don't allow it) but the officer safety aspect to me will always outweigh the productivity argument. Additional resources, perspectives, viewpoints, experiences, training and to minds collectively making a decision can be force multiplier that is hard to beat.
The ultimate goal of all officers is to make it home safely at the end of their shift. In order to do that you should be constantly thinking about the first thing that can kill you and what you will do to overcome it. Keeping the factors mentioned above in your mind will help you prioritize what is most important and allow you to make decisions that you can truly be accountable for. Most importantly they are the contributing factors that will likely save your life.