Rethinking officer safety tactics during pedestrian stops

Such a stop is based on suspected criminal activity, so treat it as the dangerous situation it is


A pedestrian stop is a very common occurrence in police work. As described in Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, the conduct of pedestrian stops generally follows these parameters:

•    Observe the subject
•    Approach from the rear
•    Know where cover is
•    Stand at an oblique angle (with gun side away) with about three feet of distance between the officer and subject

Every officer conducts this stop hundreds upon hundreds of times with great success. The most important point to remember is the pedestrian stop (PS) is typically initiated based on criminal activity or suspected criminal activity — thereby dictating a threat by association. This is why some officers — including myself — find themselves injured or even killed as a result.

Close Quarters Danger
The 2011 LEOKA provides statistics that are directly associated with the PS that should be cause for alarm. Nine years of progressive statistics show most officers were killed within five feet of the suspect — well inside the range of a standard PS. LEOKA also provides data showing more than 80 percent of assaults on officers came from personal body weapons (hands and feet), which also indicates a close proximity to the suspect.

These statistics indicate, in my opinion, a problem trainers should be reviewing on both the local and national levels.

Using the methodology from my last article, a statistical review of LEOKA indicates a potential problem. A further review of local statistics — especially those specific to the PS — will further assist in determining if a problem exists.

The next step is to review some of the major human factors associated with the PS. Many may consider the most prominent human factor involved to be visual perception. Trainers repeatedly urge officers to: “watch the hands, watch the waistband, and watch for pre-assaultive indicators” while also keeping situational awareness within the environment.

These are all highly relevant to visual acuity, and human factors indicate some difficulty in doing these things from three feet away. Science tells us the best visual acuity is provided near the center of an officer’s gaze and influenced by the officer’s ability to suppress their gaze at some point. Reduced to its simplest terms, an officer’s ability to visually perceive a threat is partially limited by his ability to look directly at threat areas while maintaining the gaze long enough to “see and register” the threat.

These problems with visual perceptions from the prescribed distance deserve review.

First Strike Ability
The second standout point comes in a review of action / reaction time literature that shows our officers will almost always lose when they are reacting to a suspect’s action. Therefore, trainers and officers should recognize that a suspect within three feet who wishes commit battery upon the officer will most certainly be able to land a first strike.

This first strike ability can be devastating and potentially deadly if the officer is taken completely unaware. This fact is potentially the most compelling piece of evidence for a call to modify the PS tactic.

Although there are certainly other factors to review, these two are sufficient for the discussion. Modification suggestions should come from those with a solid background in FS while coordinating with experiences trainers. Some recommendations may revolve around considering the officers visual perception capabilities at a greater distance, perhaps 10 feet.

The eye can now take in a much broader view of the suspect as well as the environment. The center of the officer’s gaze is larger at a distance and more of the suspect will be scanned through saccades rather than requiring an officer’s whole head movement and directed focusing. The ability to receive a “whole picture” while at greater distance allows the officer to view multiple potential threat areas (hands, waist, eyes, other body movements) from a distance.

Using Available Cover
Distance is a benefit in action reaction time, but cover is also highly important and not used as often as it should be during a PS. Empirical evidence (from Force Science in 2005) tells us an average suspect can traverse 21 feet in 1.7 seconds.

An officer’s beginning reaction time to an attempted assault may be between 0.25 seconds and 1.5 seconds, depending on his preparedness (Lewinski & Redmann, 2009).

Having something (police vehicle, mail box) between the officer and the suspect requires the suspect to first defeat that object, creating additional time for the officer to react. This benefit in time — although small — could make the difference in overcoming an assaultive suspect. Regardless, it most certainly mitigates the first strike discussed above.

The concept of reviewing tactics and training using scientific knowledge, expert experience, and statistics provides a stable platform for defending our actions and ensuring the highest levels of officer safety.

This simplified scientific review of the PS has provided a solid hypothesis for increasing standoff distances and using cover as a way to defend against what LEOKA has provided to be a high-risk encounter. The next steps include a testing phase using reality-based training (Ken Murray style) and implementation with data collection and review.

Only after successful implementation of this type of change can we truly determine if the cover hypothesis is correct.

Seems worth it if lives are saved...

About the author

David Blake retired from a northern California police department after 15 years of federal and local police. He is a Force Science Certified Analyst with instructor certifications in DT, Firearms, Force Options Simulator, and Reality Based Training. His career included duties within SWAT, Force Options Unit, Field Training, Gangs, and Narcotics. He currently teaches Human Factors and Force Encounters Analysis for the California Training Institute as well as being an adjunct professor of criminal justice, police academy instructor, and owner of the Blake Consulting and Training Group. Blake holds a BS in Criminal Justice Management and a M.Sc. in Psychology.

Contact David Blake

  1. Tags
  2. Officer Safety
  3. Defensive Tactics
  4. Officer Survival

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