January 20, 2004

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Communicate, move, shoot!

Contemporary law enforcement becomes more sophisticated daily, with sweeping advances in technology. From DNA used in crime scene investigations to computers with "mega-rams" dashing information to the onboard vehicle computers just the tip of the 'berg.

Today, the issues concerning the use of lethal force and basic field tactics are often softened by the introduction of new types of technology, like less-lethal munitions. These are designed to reduce the numbers of lives lost by persons displaying "poor judgment" while brandishing knives, waving guns and holding hostages. Officers now have options available that were -- just a few years ago -- just ideas in Buck Rogers' mind.

In all candor, some of these less-than-lethal tools and their proposed applications are "good concepts mugged by a gang of facts" and often entice us to rely heavily on them to work. In reality, the less-than-lethal tools do not always perform as expected. Not to be dismayed, though; many things often aren't what they were cracked up to be. All of which brings us handily to a point where we should consider some basic fundamentals about all this conflict that we seem to be facing with distressing regularity. Technology is nice, but what if it fails?

There is an old military axiom that declares we should be able to "shoot, move and communicate" to be effective in conflict. The military approach, of course, means what it says, literally. To "shoot" actually means shooting, but more importantly, also hitting the threat since only hits may stop the threat. "Move" or moving simply means to maneuver to a position of cover or concealment or to a place where one could potentially get better target acquisition (if I can see the threat I have a better chance of hitting it). "Communicate" or communications to the military means to communicate with each other from a unit-to-unit standpoint and to have communication access to supporting fires that can be brought to bear against threats. To the military, these are remarkably sound principles.

Could these principles apply to current law enforcement officers or operations?
Actually, yes, but in a slightly different way. By developing these principles even further, they can broaden the base of knowledge of law enforcement officers and their ability to function more effectively in use-of-force encounters. The principles first need to be revised, however, not changed. This revision would more appropriately fit the needs of the law enforcement community.

By adding these three simple concepts, cops can more effectively protect themselves from not only injury or death, but also from the specter of litigation in some cases.

Communicate The first order of business? We need to reverse the order of application. "Communications" will be first. You are going to talk to more people than you are going to shoot. Verbal compliance should be programmed into all training forums. Stress a command-presence voice with a minimal message: "Police. Drop the weapon."

First of all, we told them who we are. By expressing the commands in a loud voice we have made an attempt to communicate to the threat to stop doing what he/she is doing. The threat may not stop doing what they are doing but any other officers or witnesses in the immediate area will have heard the officer's request and could, at a later date, confirm it. Say, for example, to a grand jury.

A couple of points of interest here, though. Officers should not use profanity in their compliance request (although we've all heard it and probably done it). Whatever is said could be repeated to that same grand jury. We may already be in enough trouble without having the officer's limited vocabulary become an issue to the blue-haired old ladies on the jury.

The officer's request to drop weapons should be just that: "Drop the weapon." Don't complicate the issue by using drop the baseball bat, knife, pipe or curling iron. It's enough that the officer declare, "Drop the weapon," thereby qualifying whatever the threat has in their hands as a weapon. This brief address could be expounded on slightly to be more fitting: "Police. Drop the weapon and show me your hands."

This approach solves many problems. The officer has told the potential threat who he/she is and that the threat's hands should be clear of weapons and available for visual inspection by the officer. Period.

Move "Move" or movement is the second principle of the three and its place in order does not deviate from the military sequence. In reality, many daily activities of police officers involve movement. By radio or computer dispatch, officers move to problem areas.

Upon arriving at the scene the officer generally dismounts and may move toward the problem. If the complainant advises that her drunk husband is upstairs, abusing their children, the officer proceeds into the house and up the stairs, down the hallway and into a bedroom. Sounds like movement. What do you think? Officers making traffic stops approach people who are sitting inside lightly armored vehicles while the officers themselves are generally protected by only light personal armor and a uniform shirt. There's no getting away from this "movement" concept. The police can't help themselves.

Even if we want to move away from an armed threat while asking for compliance, we can't. "Police. Drop the weapon; show me your hands," and if the threat complies and takes a spread-eagle position, an officer is required to approach the threat for purposes of handcuffing and closure. A great example of this forced movement is the video of the Los Angles SWAT officers approaching the formerly rifle-armed second suspect in the North Hollywood bank robbery shoot-out.

The L.A. officers did it and did it well but it's not really all that exciting in actual application. It's a daily routine for street cops. Movement is required as part of an officer's daily program. This movement can be to approach, to cuff, to withdraw to protective cover/concealment, to get target acquisition or even to move out of the line of incoming fire (always a good idea). Most active shootings find officers and suspects both moving and usually displaying less-than-sterling marksmanship as the inevitable result.

Everyone reading this knows the best way to achieve optimum marksmanship is to shoot from a stationary position at a non-moving target. The problem is that real-world shootings are not generally cooperative along these lines. It won't be fun and it certainly won't be easy, but officers must be able to hit moving targets while simultaneously moving to protective cover/ concealment, away from a threat that has gone from ready-to-cuff to gunfight mode.

Remember, proximity deletes skill. Your opponent doesn't need to be good; he only needs to be "lucky" if he's close. Officers often provide their opponents that "luck" when they close the ground to cuff or engage in witty conversation. Check the stats on the number of officers killed in the category of "effecting arrest." It's lots.

Shoot The third principle is "shoot" or shooting and is probably the least used of the three principles. For many years, law enforcement standard operating procedures used terms like "shoot to kill" and "shoot to wound." Then political correctness (and law suits) appeared and presto, "shoot to stop" was suddenly the by-word. Actually, "shoot to stop" wasn't politically correct. It was, in plain fact, just correct. When officers shoot at a knife-wielding suspect, in all honesty, few really care if the suspect dies. No cop wants to get sliced and diced or see an innocent bystander shredded by the knot-head with the knife.

Officers don't care about the suspect's clothing color, skin color, ethnic background, religious preference, if he came from a broken home or if his dog was killed by a car when he was a child. They just want him to drop the knife, by verbal compliance or compliance by gunfire and it's the threat's choice. I won't even go into the firearms training or techniques involved here. It's enough to know that often firearms and firearms training in the police community are a lot like fire trucks. Nobody thinks much about them until their house is on fire and then they want one now and it had better be good!

Although these three fundamental principles of conflict are not new and not always that exciting, with planning and a little practice they could still come in handy someday. You know, that day your dispatcher won't answer your call and the car computer won't "boot up"?

One last point to think on: It's very hard to acquire new fighting skills in the middle of a fight.


by Clint Smith

Clint Smith is the founder and president of Thunder Ranch, Inc., a former police officer and combat-wounded Vietnam veteran. He's also a pretty good communicator.

About the author

For more articles and information visit the Police Magazine web site. Subscribe to the print version of the magazine, Visit Police Magazine.com.






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