Being AWOL in the Army can get you a discharge. Being MAWOL in law enforcement can get you killed. This new acronym was introduced to police trainers by Ron Borsch, manager of Ohio’s SEALE (South East Area Law Enforcement) regional in-service academy during the 2010 ILEETA annual training conference. It’s intended to keep officers from drifting into the dangerous state that’s better known as Condition White.
MAWOL — pronounced May-Wall — stands for “mentally absent without leave.” By adding a letter to the universally familiar military term for not being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, Borsch has created memorable shorthand for lack of alertness, with a variety of valuable applications.
Borsch is a gifted inventor of catch phrases:
• “Stopwatch of Death,” describes the speed with which active killers claim prey
• “Tombstone Caution,” for undue hesitation in a life-threatening situation that demands immediate intervention
• “SOLO” means “single officer life-saving others” when a first responder needs urgently to take action alone without waiting for backup
MAWOL resulted from ruminations “percolating in my brain” about a pet peeve, Borsch recently told PoliceOne. Across three decades of police experience, “I’ve always been bothered by cops being inattentive or dividing their focus when they ought to be concentrating fully on something in the environment immediately around them.”
In its mildest form, he’s witnessed this lapse countless times at roll call and during training sessions. “At roll call I’ve often seen officers reading something, finishing reports, or drawing accident diagrams instead of listening to the briefing,” he said. “In training classes, you see them texting or checking their email while the instructor’s trying to impart information.
“If you call them on it, they’ll often say they’re multi-tasking. But science has very well established that you cannot concentrate fully on two or more things at the same time. Your focus has to shift between stimuli, and if you’re attentive to the wrong thing at the wrong time, you could be missing critical input.
“On the street, that could mean your life.”
The Lakewood Four
Indeed, it was while he was contemplating a catastrophe — the shocking murders of four officers last year while they worked on their laptops in a coffee shop in Lakewood Washington — that the MAWOL designation finally gelled for him.
“While I was pondering that tragedy and searching for some memorable training aid that could possibly be used to avoid other officer fatalities, the term AWOL kept surfacing for some reason,” he recalls. “Eventually, it struck me that to stick an ‘M’ for ‘Mentally’ in front of AWOL absolutely describes the deadly error of not keeping your head in the game, of being ‘absent’ from whatever is most important at the moment.”
When Borsch began using the acronym in his classes, he dedicated it to the memory of the fallen Washington officers.
He sees multiple opportunities for applying the term in everyday law enforcement:
The “10 Deadly Errors” — mental and tactical shortcomings that often underlie the murders and assaults of officers — have been a staple of law enforcement survival training since their first itemization more than 30 years ago by Pierce Brooks, a homicide detective who worked the infamous Onion Field case.
“MAWOL is an umbrella term for all those errors,” Borsch explains. “A trainer can branch from that word into each one and its significance: Lack of concentration...taking a bad position...not heeding danger signs...relaxing too soon...failure to watch the hands, and so on.
“Even standing alone, MAWOL is a one-word deadly error worthy of instruction and support with case histories. Given the challenge, your students will come up with new examples from their own study and observation, and this will help cement the term in their mental Rolodex.”
“As a law enforcement officer, you are a potential target of aggressive criminals and you need to operate steadily in no less of a mental state than ‘relaxed awareness,’ even in many off-duty situations,” Borsch says.
“But in times of relative inactivity, it’s easy to drift mentally, and in contact situations it’s easy to get distracted and concentrate on the wrong thing. The experience of always being ready but without anything bad happening understandably tempts us to slip away, to over-relax, and to succumb to creature comforts.
“In this mind-set, you may miss a pre-attack cue as subtle as a target glance at your weapon. You need to shake yourself out of complacency.
“MAWOL is a concise, easy-to-remember term you can make a habit of calling to mind from time to time as a reminder to check your own mental state. Are you staying alert, 360 degrees, to who’s around you and what they’re doing? In your contacts, are you watching for danger cues? Are you attentive to your intuition, that all-important sixth sense that is the totality of all your senses, experience, and training sending you a message on a subconscious fast track?
“You can print out MAWOL and tape it in your locker or put it on a card in your pocket where you’re forced to see it as a prompt.”
“MAWOL can be used at a scene as a code word between officers,” Borsch suggests. “Maybe you want to alert other officers that you’ve picked up on something intuitively or concretely. Saying “MAWOL” will alert your colleagues without tipping your hand to the suspect.
“Or perhaps you see the need for your partner to pay better attention to what’s going on because he or she is taking a ’10-second vacation.’ In that case, MAWOL would mean ‘focus.’ ”
In debriefing incidents for lessons learned, Borsch believes that too often trainers and other reviewers concentrate on analyzing an officer’s physical tactics at the expense of exploring what he was thinking — or, more bluntly put, whether he was thinking.
“Casualties often occur because in one way or another officers are mentally absent at key moments in a crisis,” he says. “Cops are accustomed to being in the hunter mode. All too often, they are surprised by an unexpected role reversal, where they are the hunted, but they’re not aware of any impending threat nor ready to counter the criminal predator.
“Surprise, speed, and violence of action are three key factors for winning in combat. Unfortunately, these work as well for the bad guys as for the good guys. The mental process known as the OODA loop — observe, orient, decide, act — is quickest and tightest for the person doing the surprising. Those being surprised have the loosest and most sluggish OODA loop, putting them at a grave disadvantage.
“Looking for and exposing examples of MAWOL in debriefings would help drive home the importance that mental attitude plays in staying alive and uninjured.”
Borsch offers this final thought: “Mentally absent without leave — that’s an unexcused absence you can’t afford to have on your record.”
Ron Borsch can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.