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April 15, 2011

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John Stanley Behind the Bars
with John Stanley

Squad car windows: An open or shut case?

Working with the windows of your squad car rolled up, your senses take in less, information, putting you at a tactical disadvantage

What would you think if you were told that your department was now hiring officers who had almost no sense of smell and as much as an eighty percent hearing loss? Sure, law enforcement hiring standards seem to be ever-changing, but I think we would all have a little heartburn with such a decision. Why, then, do so many cops willingly impose these limitations on themselves by patrolling their communities with the windows of their squad cars rolled up?

Most criticisms against cops patrolling their areas with their windows closed come from proponents of ‘community-oriented policing.’ A 30-year-old quote sums up this sentiment rather well:

“Isolated in their ‘rolling fortresses,’ with windows rolled up to protect them from the smells, the dangers, and even the temperatures, they seem out of touch and ‘unable to communicate with the people they presumably serve.” (Police Foundation 1981, 11)

Keeping your window rolled down while patrolling the streets to give the public more access to you is self-evident. This reason alone argues in favor of the practice, but there is an even more compelling argument that should make this the preferred method for every street cop to choose: It is safer and more effective.

Safer and More Effective
How easy is it to hear distant gunshots or a nearby scream for help in an enclosed radio car with a radio squawking in your ear? How likely are you to smell a meth lab or house fire when the only scents flooding your nasal passages with the windows rolled up is the lingering aroma from the last drunk who tossed his lunch all over his shoes in your backseat?

If you work with the windows of your squad car rolled up, you do not take in the same amount of information as your partners who patrol with them down. This puts you at a tactical disadvantage. As those familiar with Boyd’s Cycle know, observation, orientation, decision, and action is a repetitive process that occurs in every tactical situation. If you take your sense of smell and hearing out of the equation — or greatly reduce their effectiveness — your observations are hampered, which means your ability to orientate, make proper decisions, and execute correct actions is diminished.

Innumerable amounts of information constantly bombard our senses, but when you close yourself up in your car, you are essentially telling your brain that smells and sounds outside the car just aren’t that important. If our mind assigned equal value to them all and tried to process them, we would be overwhelmed and our brains would shut down. In order to filter out the extraneous from the important, our brain’s reticular activating system (RAS) assigns value to the data we come across. We help our RAS out by consciously assigning value to particular facts. That’s why we read briefings and hot sheets. We assign importance to vehicles of a certain make or model and to persons of a certain physical description. If you want to prove this fact to yourself, count the number of red pickup trucks you encounter on your way into work for your next shift. If the brain is told something is important, like looking for a weapon in someone’s hand, it locks onto that information.

When you patrol with your windows rolled up, you are essentially telling your brain that what you see is far more important than what you hear or smell. Even those scents and sounds that may penetrate the barrier of your windows are likely to be discounted because your RAS was told by your conscious brain that data noted by these two senses is not important.

Exceptions to Every Rule
Cops who work with their windows rolled down during routine street patrol will be far more productive than those who patrol with them closed. That said, there are certain situations where working with the windows rolled down does not provide a tactical advantage and would even be detrimental. Those times are when driving at high speeds on freeways or interstates or when responding Code 3 with your siren activated.

Patrolling on expressways at high speed is different than patrolling on surface streets. The sound of freeway traffic and the rushing wind eliminates any tactical advantage gained by working with the window down. Freeway patrol is also a linear action contrasted with street patrol with its frequent twists, turns and side streets. There is little action that is not immediately to the right or left of the roadway on a freeway or interstate.

Trying to broadcast emergent radio traffic with the window rolled down and the siren blaring is all but impossible. Before anyone argues that this is a reason to keep windows rolled up at all times, I would counter that the few seconds it takes to roll the windows up would actually allow you to calm yourself down before putting out effective radio traffic.

If you patrol in Minnesota or Manitoba in mid-winter, you might question the sanity of my suggesting that you patrol with your windows opened even slightly. The same could be argued by those who patrol during a Kansas hailstorm or an Arizona monsoon. Use your best discretion. You can always bundle up and turn up the heater. Cracking the rear window a little bit and letting some sounds and scents in foul weather is better than none at all.

A cop who patrols with his windows rolled down is making a statement. I am fully in service. I am engaged and aware of my surroundings. I am accessible and I am ready to take whatever action is necessary based on the perception of my senses. Given the evidence, patrolling with the windows rolled down is an open, not a shut, case.

About the author

Sgt. John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-one year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is also a published historian and has written extensively on the history of law enforcement and corrections.




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