'Shoot! Don’t talk!'

When a police contact becomes a shooting, there’s a lot of important tasks that suddenly need to be done, and they’re all simultaneously competing for attention


I’ve been seeing a trend develop in video footage of officer-involved shootings (OIS) that is an important officer safety issue.

Many OIS videos show officers getting on their radios at inappropriate times during these incidents. I’m watching officers properly engage lethal threats with gunfire, but then hurry to make radio calls before it’s clear that the threat has ended, and the fight is over. At a point when their focus should still be on tracking the suspect and re-engaging as necessary to stop the threat, officers are allowing themselves to get distracted with radio work.

Scenarios

We need to be careful about how we train our officers and the potential for negative training scars. (Photo/PoliceOne)
We need to be careful about how we train our officers and the potential for negative training scars. (Photo/PoliceOne)

For example, I’ve seen instances where officers have fired at suspects with the following results:

  • The suspect in a car drops down below the windows where he’s no longer visible;
  • The suspect in a car is no longer visible because the officer has changed position and a window post or seat/headrest is blocking his view;
  • The suspect at the front door of a home retreats into the shadows of the interior, leaving the door open;
  • The suspect moves to a position of cover or concealment, such as around a corner, or behind a vehicle.

In each of these cases, officers immediately made a radio transmission to report the shooting and ask for additional assistance, while the suspect’s whereabouts, activity, condition and intent remain unknown.

Priorities

When a police contact becomes a shooting, there’s a lot of important tasks that suddenly need to be done, and they’re all simultaneously competing for attention.

Some of these tasks are more important than others, however. For example, it’s certainly important to advise dispatch and fellow officers about the shooting, and request assistance, but those tasks take a backseat to several others like:

  • Not getting injured, yourself;
  • Locating the deadly threat, to determine if he’s still a threat;
  • Ending the deadly threat, to protect yourself and others.

To that end, moving “off the X,” getting behind cover or moving to an advantageous position, getting eyes on the suspect, and shooting him again (if necessary) are all more pressing issues than getting on the radio and talking to people who are in no position to help you at that very instant. Sure, your radio call will start distant help moving in your direction, but in most cases that help will be minutes away, while your dangerous suspect is right here and now, and likely to reengage you at any moment.

Engage mouth, disengage brain

This is particularly true if you're distracted by talking on the radio. It can take a lot of mental bandwidth to figure out what to say, and then say it when you're significantly stressed. If you're busy trying to figure out how to talk when your mind and body are racing, that's mental energy that's unavailable for moving, scanning and shooting.

If you’ve got a handful of radio mic and you’re busy talking when the threat pops out from behind cover and takes a shot at you, you’ll be significantly behind the curve and your response will be slowed. First, you’ll have to recognize that the situation has changed, and decide it’s time to stop talking and take defensive action. Your brain will have to send the signal to stop talking, before it can send the signal to duck, move, or point and shoot your gun at the suspect, and that additional delay might be costly.

Have you ever had a firearms instructor ask you to talk while you’re shooting during firearms training? Sometimes I like to ask students to give simulated commands, recite their ID numbers or street addresses, or answer questions while they await the cue or command that initiates target engagement. It’s amazing how a little verbalization can throw them completely off their game, and cause significant delays in responding to the simulated threat. Worse yet, the unexpected delay can set off a cascade of errors, as students try to hurry and catch up from being caught flat-footed. Poor grips, fumbled draws, sloppy presentations and inaccurate fire often result from the self-induced pressure.

If you’ve done any force-on-force training, you’ve likely seen this play out as well. When things start to get busy, scary, or complex, meaningful verbalization often stops. A stressed-out role-player may only be able to bark simple commands (i.e., "stop!"), and be incapable of giving more detailed directions. A stressed-out role-player might get stuck in a mental loop, where a command is endlessly and thoughtlessly repeated, even when it’s clear that the suspect isn’t listening and it’s not helping (“stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!”). In these situations, the mental energy that’s focused on talking will rob the person from making fast and accurate decisions, and taking more appropriate actions for the circumstances.

In the immortal words of Tuco, the bandit from the classic movie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”

Pilot talk

When I was a young student pilot, I was taught that I had three main priorities to keep track of in the following order:

  • Aviate: Keep the aircraft safely flying. Maintain control of the aircraft, and system health. Restore failed systems, or mitigate the effects of their loss to remain flying;
  • Navigate: Keep the aircraft pointed in the direction you want it to go. If necessary, change course to avoid hazards or divert to a safer destination;
  • Communicate: Talk to your crew, wingmen, air traffic control and command/dispatch. Pass useful information and summon external assistance, as required.

The priorities remained the same, whether things were going fine or I was deep into an emergency. If I could attend to the priorities, in that order, then things would work out OK, but any deviations could invite disaster.

It’s not much different for a police officer, and particularly one in a gunfight. Consider that an officer involved in a shooting must:

  • Aviate: Keep yourself safely “flying.” Maintain your control and cool so you can think and act clearly. Avoid getting hit by enemy fire. If you do get hit, preserve your systems by applying self-aid, so you can stay in the fight;
  • Navigate: Keep things going in the right direction. Use good tactics and your skill at arms to place accurate fire on the enemy, and terminate the threat. Change tactics as necessary to achieve the objective. Take the suspect into custody, secure the scene and attend to immediate medical needs;
  • Communicate: Talk to those around you. Issue commands to suspects and the public. Advise your fellow officers, dispatch and supervisors. Request additional help.

It’s important to address these in order as a deviation could place low-priority tasks in front of high-priority tasks, with disastrous results. Police trainer Brian Willis is fond of asking, “What’s Important Now,” and that’s exactly the kind of question you need to be asking in this situation to keep your priorities straight. If you’re busy talking when you should be doing things that are more important to your personal safety, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Training scars

My friend, Sergeant (Ret) Dean Caputo, of the Arcadia (Calif.) Police Department, tells a story about his early training as a police officer that is important to reflect upon, here. As a cadet at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Academy, Dean was taught that "the radio is your lifeline," and it was critical for a deputy or officer to maintain two-way communications with dispatch and fellow officers to ensure their safety. (1) There was a not-so-subtle message that the radio would be an officer’s salvation in a dangerous incident.

That’s been a recurring theme throughout the years in police training, and it’s been heavily reinforced in training exercises, policy manuals and field training.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but sometimes our training programs accidentally place too much emphasis on radios and radio calls and set up an unrealistic expectation for our people.

For example, in simulations and role-playing exercises, officers are encouraged to make early and frequent radio calls. Sometimes the exercises even terminate when these radio calls are made as if the mere act of broadcasting them is enough to instantly solve all the problems at hand. It’s a rare training event that makes a participant wait seven minutes for backup to arrive after a radio call, and handle the degenerating situation alone until they do. It’s even more rare for a suspect to launch an attack while the trainee is in the process of making that radio call (because instructors want to hear and evaluate it). All of these things can encourage behaviors that may not be ideal on the street, and establish expectations that will not be met in real life.

Likewise, policies and agency cultures that place a heavy emphasis on officers calling for supervisory assistance, or documenting their activity with radio calls, can encourage radio habits that may distract an officer from more important priorities in the middle of a fight.

We need to be careful about how we train our officers and the potential for negative training scars. If we are training and conditioning our people to do business a certain way, we shouldn't be surprised when we see them do those things in the middle of an OIS, even if it's not helpful, efficient, or safe at the time.

Homework

So, let’s take a look at what we’re doing in training and what we’re asking our officers to do. It’s vitally important that officers understand what their priorities are during an OIS, and where communication falls in that spectrum.

Communication is a critical skill and an important priority, but if you’re in the middle of a gunfight, or you’re not behind good cover or your tactical position is not ideal, and you don’t know where your suspect is or what he’s doing, then the person who can help you out the most is YOU, not the person on the other end of a radio.

These situations are fluid and nuanced, and it’s possible that a well-timed radio call can get the cavalry on the way, or provide valuable information to an on-scene partner, without hurting your tactical situation. If you judge that you can squeeze off that call with no ill effects, then go ahead and do it. Remember though, there’s nothing a radio voice can do for you right now that’s more important than what you can do for yourself, so don’t allow the radio to distract you from more important priorities.

Focus on winning your fight first, then talk later. The radio may be your lifeline, but you have to avoid drowning before it will be of any use to you.

God bless you all and be safe out there.

Notes

1. Dean recalls that Lt McAndrews, the instructor for the off-duty survival block of instruction, quickly dispelled the cadets of any misconceptions about the relative priority of talking on the radio. McAndrews was a multiple gunfight survivor and understood that you had to solve "Problem Number One" first before you could afford to key the microphone.

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