How many times have we heard of officers being shot or killed due to a missed pat-down or search? There have been a number of reasons why this has occurred; complacency on the part of the officer, lack of or negative training, poor policy or procedures when dealing with suspects, or a number of other factors. Certainly we are not going to win all of these encounters all of the time, but many of these shortfalls could have been prevented. By addressing the three Cs — Complacency, Control and Cuffs — we can begin to reduce some of our losses and turn them into wins.
Probably the single most contributing factor to officer assaults and deaths is complacency. We see it in almost every facet of our profession. Whether it’s while driving, traffic/pedestrian encounters, searching, or training, at some point we begin to become complacent. Once we allow this beast to seep into our procedural tasks, it begins to pervade into every aspect of our performance until it becomes a point of vulnerability. This is when we see officers lose their tactical edge and become victim to active resistance, assault, or worse.
Complacency affects all of us at some point in our careers, sometimes sooner than later, but it does manage to invade our mindset and performance eventually and we must be cognizant of it. Once aware of complacency we must take steps to overcome its impact and return to a state of vigilance, being constantly mindful of our surroundings and those in proximity to us.
We must assess the situation from the time the call comes in until we have cleared the run and we are on to the next. We do not have a crystal ball to alert us that an assault is imminent. However, if we study how officers are assaulted and killed we can see a pattern which should trigger our intuition and alert us to potential hazardous situations. If we were to analyze how officers are assaulted or killed based solely on a single factor, we could start with the type of call: Domestic assault, suspicious person/circumstance, traffic stops, robbery, burglary, disturbance, and so on. Officers handle these types of calls throughout their careers, sometimes they go well, sometimes not, but regardless, with each and every call we become a little more confident in our ability to handle them. Improved ability increases confidence; confidence unchecked ebbs to over confidence; over confidence surrenders to complacency.
We must challenge ourselves daily to do the things that keep us safe; use of back-up, cover contact principles, solid tactics and procedures and always alert to the cues of danger. Our mind guides our actions and when our consciousness slips so to do our actions.
If possible, before we approach a subject in order to initiate either a pat-down or full custodial search, we should test the waters by checking for compliance. Give the subject some verbal commands and see if they comply: “Sir, turn around and place your hands behind your back...”
If they’re noncompliant at this stage, then the officer should reassess the situation and determine the next course of action; call for back-up, de-escalation, or higher level of force, whichever is reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances at hand. If they do comply, we can now make a tactical approach; balanced posture, hands empty, up and ready to react.
As we make our approach, we must keep in mind: Distance = Time = Control.
As the distance between ourselves and the suspect decreases, so does the time we have to react and thereby relinquishing some of our control over to the suspect. Action is always faster than reaction and therefore our awareness level must increase with every step we take closer to the suspect. In the back of our mind we must have plans “B” and ”C” in place in case the suspect turns on us. If this does occur, our options at this point are to either move forward and forcibly gain control over the suspect, disengage, or create distance. We will either attempt to deescalate the situation or respond with a higher level of force — whichever is reasonable given the circumstances of the encounter.
We must also be cognizant that as we make our approach, the suspect remains in a fixed position and looking forward, not turning their head over their shoulder trying to index our location as we make our approach.
If the suspect is compliant and the officer is able to make a tactical approach, the next step is to gain control of the suspect’s hands (plural). Too often we see officers move in with handcuffs already deployed, usually in their strong hand, and try to control or handcuff a potentially uncooperative individual. The suspect may have appeared to be compliant when they were issued verbal commands, only with the intent to give them a false sense of security and draw the officer in closer. Once the officer makes the initial contact the suspect unexpectedly attacks. Officers need to keep both hands empty in order to first gain control over the suspect and then, if appropriate, deploy and apply the handcuffs. Whether you are going to have the suspect place his/her hands behind their head or behind their back is not the foremost concern, there are pro’s and con’s to each method. What is important is that you establish control of the hands on your initial contact. There are a number of different techniques available and I encourage officers to experiment with several to determine which works best for them. The important element is that the suspect is unable to quickly disengage from the officer in order to escape or initiate an attack.
Once we gain control of the hands, again we are assessing the suspect for compliance; are they tensing up, shifting their weight, attempting to pull their hands apart, or again trying to index us by looking back? At this juncture we are ever mindful of plans “B” and “C.” If we do not encounter any resistance, create some balance displacement on the suspect by spreading their legs wide apart, or leaning them back slightly towards you. At this point you conduct your pat-down or search.
Search techniques vary as well, but whatever method is used, it must be systematic and methodical. Generally, it is conducted from the top down and from right to left because most individuals are right handed and conceal weapons and contraband on their strong side. Special attention should be given to the waistband and groin region, which is often overlooked.
If it is appropriate and justifiable to handcuff the suspect then by all means do so. Officers place themselves at unnecessary risk when they have the ability to handcuff an individual and for whatever reason (complacency) choose not to prior to conducting their search. A simple rule to follow: Arrestable offense = handcuffs. This may seem elementary to some, but all too frequently officers will do a cursory pat-down on subjects who are either arrestable or under arrest.
The aforementioned procedures for controlling a suspect prior to conducting a pat-down also apply to those individuals we intend to handcuff and search. Once we have made our tactical approach, gained control over the suspect’s hands (plural), made our second assessment for compliance, and established some balance displacement, now we can deploy and apply the handcuffs. Once the handcuffs are applied, make certain that you check the tension and double lock the handcuffs ensuring that they do not continue to tighten.
The practice of handcuffing persons to their front should be reserved for rare exceptions and then only after they have been thoroughly searched. Any officer who comes in contact with the individual should search again as if the person had never been searched. Officers have died because they assumed someone else had performed a thorough search only to become a victim due to their assumptions. Just as any firearm should be inspected by anyone who comes in contact with it, so to should the suspect because both can end your life in an instant.
A final note on handcuffs: Inspect your handcuffs periodically to ensure that the single bar moves freely within the confines of the double bars, that the hinge is not rusted or corroded and that the locking mechanism is functioning properly.
Stay Alert, Stay Alive
If we strive to maintain a conscious awareness of the cues to danger, train in proper control tactics, and develop solid procedures when conducting searches and/or pat-downs, we will win far more encounters then we lose. We simply can’t afford to lose any more of our brothers and sisters due to complacency and improper tactics and procedures.
Complacency, controlling, and cuffing are all aspects of our profession. If we allow complacency to trickle into our tactical procedures, we open the door to vulnerability and attack. We must always strive to overcome the temptation of complacency and the pitfalls that await us if we fail. Positive training, proper mindset, and the prevailing will to survive will keep you on course. Assess compliance, be vigilant, gain control before deploying your handcuffs and remember to handcuff before searching whenever the opportunity presents itself.