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Policing small-town Gotham City

First off, the feedback on the rural policing articles has been great, it is good to know that we are filling a training gap that has existed for many years. If these articles help even one officer stay out of trouble they are worth it, so thank you.

For several years of working smaller communities, I’ve jokingly referred to my jurisdictions as Gotham City. Gotham City is a place where you have your good guy (Batman) who always comes to the rescue, evil villains (Joker and Co.), and finally, everyone else in the community knows who everybody is and what roles they play.

This small-town Gotham City environment can be fun to work in. If you work in a community where you are the lone officer, you can really take a lot of pride and ownership in your “beat.” Whether you’re alone or working with half-dozen (or more) colleagues, if a crime takes place in your small town, several suspects immediately come to mind. The bad guys know us and we know them.

The problem is that knowing all these villains — and the villains knowing us — can lead into traps that affect our tactical decision-making, and those mistakes can get us killed.

Now before you write this off as another opinionated cop claiming to be a tactical expert, it is actually quite the opposite. I have messed up on every one of these at some point or another — some of which could have gotten me killed and a couple that almost did. I also believe we all make these mistakes at some point in our careers. The sad part is these are issues that have gotten officers killed for years — and still do.

“That’s just Joe being Joe”
If you’re a rookie at Small Town, USA PD, you likely came out of the academy ready to set the world on fire. You get teamed up with a veteran officer and end up at a domestic where a guy is making threats to kill his wife. You get there at the end of the driveway and see (Joe) on the porch of his house holding a knife or gun, screaming obscenities and threatening to kill any officer who comes onto his property.

Naturally, your heart rate increases and you plan your tactical response. You grab the shotgun from the rack and the veteran says to you, “Put that thing away, I’ve been here 50 times, that’s just Joe being Joe”

After some terrible tactical positioning and negotiation by the veteran, Joe drops the weapon, comes out, and is taken into custody. The veteran pats himself on the back for the non-violent conclusion, hoping you learned from him/her. Unfortunately this is a common trap for the rural officer — we deal with the same people under the same circumstances on several occasions. As a result, each time our response gets less tactical and more frustrating.

This complacency and frustration gets us killed.

Treat each and every one of these calls like you have never been there before, utilize available backup, and maintain your edge. There is a time to talk and a time to act — make sure you know the difference.

“We never had any problems there”
You get, a welfare check, 911 hang up, whatever. You get the call and it is one of those citizens you have had prior contact with, but never had problems with. The call seems a little odd but rather than have your partner officer make the 30min (or hour-long) trip to back you up, you tell dispatch: “I know those folks, I should be alright.”

Remember the reason we’re responding to these places is because there IS a potential problem there. Too many times an officer forgets good tactics and simply drives into these types of calls in condition white, thinking: “this will be another misdialed phone or other minor situation.”

In these rural areas it is easy to get caught in a jam when you are at the top of your game and planning your response tactically, it is REALLY easy to get caught in a jam when you are in white mode and not thinking about what you might see when you get to the call. If you are expecting to have the resident come outside and tell you everything is fine, you are tactically a step (or more probably several steps) behind.

Plan for the worst: don’t be afraid to park up the road and listen for a few minutes for yelling, doors slamming indicating people outside etc. Don’t be afraid to walk up those driveways where you can’t see the house from the road. Similar to the lone officer vehicle contact, do everything you can to surprise them! In rural America many officers have been killed in an ambush situation. Prevent this by making the contact on your terms. We never know what we are going to find until we get there, so plan for the worst and make the contact when you are ready and prepared. If there is no urgency to get inside, the extra five minutes standing in the shadows can tell you quite a bit about what you are about to walk into.

“I can read people”
For the first few years of my career I thought I had a pretty sense of “good and bad” and thought I could read people pretty well. Then the realization hit that many officers killed in the line of duty shared this same trait. Thinking we have everybody figured out can get us killed.

The person who is shaking, stuttering, and generally nervous is a pretty easy read for just about anyone, we should be on guard there, so we cannot give ourselves much credit on reading those contacts. What about the relaxed, yes sir/no sir type who is trying to divert your attention by small talk, asking directions or time of day, and making tiny little efforts to control the contact. That person is probably reading us. Something to try is to pay attention to behavior traits when you talk with off duty officers, active military and veterans, even a multiple murder suspect if you have the opportunity. These are all people that have the mindset to kill if necessary. Pick up on the behavioral traits they possess, file them away, and add them to your “things to look for.” This is important today more than ever. Terrorism is not going away — what type of people do you think are likely to carry out these catastrophic events? Highly trained killers with a killing mindset. Terrorists and serial killers drive rural highways, go on vacation, and do other things in rural America. Also don’t underestimate the teenagers we deal with, many rural kids are extremely proficient with firearms and many officers have underestimated these “kids” and paid the ultimate price in many shooting and ambush situations. Being overconfident in your ability to read people can get you killed, statistics prove this.

“I know this person/I have a good rapport”
Once in a while we have an incident that requires a tactical response and negotiation. In many areas the tactical team is quite a distance away (or non-existent) so uniformed patrol ends up dealing with the situation. More often than not in your own Gotham City, the suspect any number of reasons is known by an officer at the scene: previous contacts or arrests, kids go to the same school, you went to the same high school, the list goes on.

Human nature, along with TV, forces us to try to help the situation and offer to talk them down believing that we possess the skills and have the relationship with the suspect to put them at ease. In some instances this might be a good idea but I believe that there are a few things working against us. We may take ourselves out of “I might have to kill this guy” mode and go into “friend” mode. I think it becomes far easier for our judgment to be clouded when we volunteer our “friendship” to help talk someone down. Remember the reason we are there is because that person is not thinking clearly, you are taking a gamble if you think the fact that you played softball together a few years back is going to bring the suspect back to reality.

The reverse of this is the suspect that you know through any number of negative contacts both on and off the job. You may have fought with this person any number of times during the course of your arrests and won every time so you tell yourself “I can take this guy” and let your guard down. If an officer is negotiating that does not have these relationships I think it puts some uncertainty in the suspect’s mind, they are not sure what they can get away with, at what point they will be stopped, and eliminates any outside issues shadowing the negotiation. This is a much better tactical position for us.

Slow down and get there
If there is one thing any rural cop can tell you, it is the exact top end speed of their squad. City cops will say, “around 120mph,” while the rural cop will say, “125 mph with the overdrive on and 138 mph with it off,” or “I can touch 145mph with a clean top and a good road.”

Think about those “silent runs” you make — the burglar alarm you are 45 minutes away from where they got away from you last time. Off you go, no lights, no siren, nothing but the sound of a V8 engine wound up tight and the hiss of a set of radial tires at 130mph.

I’ll admit it, I lied in my job interview: I really didn’t care to help people that much and only wanted to serve them by chasing bad guys through the woods and down country roads. That’s why many of us become cops isn’t it? I’ve put my foot to the floor plenty of times, had parts fly out of the engine, rolled rims off tires in the corners, arrived at calls where the smoke and steam coming off the squad was so thick it covered the highway and I had to put out flares.

Also, far more than once I’ve also had the sick feeling and racing heart for a second or two where I thought I was about to die in a car wreck because I was going way too fast.

We have got to use our heads and pay attention, too many officers die in car crashes, plain and simple. It is our nature to want to get the bad guy, save a life at a bad accident, and obviously get to officers when they call for help, but we need to be aware of the dangers of driving at high speeds along country roads. When you are running hot to that call, keep it in the back of your mind that lots of officers die this way.

Use the training you receive
Rural officers tend to try to be decent to the people we deal with. Why not? We usually will be seeing them again at the gas pump, the café, the high school ball game, etc. There is nothing wrong with treating people with respect, but don’t forget your training. For instance, when I went from working mostly by myself in small towns to working with experienced narcotics officers, one thing I realized was that I spent far too many years in small-town USA doing inadequate searches of people. Fortunately, it did not get me or someone else killed, but there have been plenty of instances where officers have been killed by a weapon that could have been found with a good search.

Don’t let yourself or your fellow officers become one of them. There is no reason to not take our searches seriously — search like you know they have something. If you are dealing with someone and feeling like you are in danger, don’t leave your gun in your holster because you are afraid that your suspect, the community, or your boss will give you grief about it later. Use your handcuffs every time, use them correctly, plain and simple. Remember, we cannot read people as well as we think and some of them will kill us if given the chance.

Do you make mistakes?
We are cops we love to brag about our strengths, but it is our ability to recognize our weaknesses that makes us better. I know there are officers out there who really believe that they don’t make tactical mistakes, they base this on the fact that nothing bad has ever happened to them. It is possible they are just that good, but in my opinion, unlikely. If you are a rural officer who makes no mistakes, then think about who is evaluating your performance. For most rural cops who work alone, the only person evaluating our performance is the person we arrest, or the people we told the story to afterwards. Neither is an accurate gauge as to the effectiveness of our tactics. I think that we all make mistakes, be it tactical errors, driving too fast, being overconfident, doing bad searches, etc. And more often than we think! The difference between going home at night and ending up with our name on the wall is when and where we made the mistake.

So how can we make ourselves better when there is nobody there to point out our errors?

In my opinion, it does not matter if you are a recruit, veteran, FTO, or administrator. We need to all take the time to read and encourage others to read the names in the PoliceOne Officer Down page, the FBI Officers Killed Summary, and your state’s local memorials.

Familiarize yourself with each and every name and the incident that took place, you will find many of things talked about in this article — officers killed in traffic accidents, officers shot while dealing with armed subjects, officers ambushed while arriving at a call, officers shot by someone they just arrested. While there is no way of knowing what went on seconds before tragedy struck these fallen officers, very few of us will be able to say we have never placed ourselves in those same situations. However, for our fallen brothers and sisters, it was the wrong time, wrong place, and the wrong person. We all can (and need to) learn from these tragedies.

I like to think that the best thing we can do to honor our fellow officers who gave their lives is to first off, make an effort to understand each incident and make sure we mentally prepare should we ever be in the same situation. And second, give them the opportunity to look down from above at some clear-headed, tactically-sound country cop who took the extra minute or two to walk up that rural driveway just in time to realize he/she was about to walk into an ambush. Instead of hearing a lone shot from a suspect’s weapon, that team of fallen officers above will hear the distinct sound of a semi auto leaving a cop’s holster at lightning speed and the phrase “Police! Drop it!” coming from the shadows, all without a budge of that Stetson hat.

Start today by admitting you are not perfect — think about the things you can do better and the ways you handle your calls. When you’re out there alone there is nobody to point out your tactical errors, except of course the bad guy, so you need to be constantly evaluating your tactics and making needed changes. Work, be effective, and be safe — don’t just go through the motions, be a good cop. Don’t become arrogant enough to think that the reason you never got assaulted or shot is because of your outstanding ability to read people. It’s likely you just have not met the right guy on the right terms yet and when you do, good sound tactics and a clear head will be what gets you back home.

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