Who is watching your six?

How to assess whether the threat you are focusing on is less than the threat from your surroundings


“Set up a perimeter!” is one of the first commands to bring order to a chaotic scene. For a crime scene that means roll out the yellow tape. For a suspect search, it means stationing personnel at the outer boundaries of the possible escape routes. For a presidential visit, it means sealing up any pedestrian, vehicular, or air traffic path. If we set up protective barriers as an overwatch for others, it may be time to expand our concept of perimeter security to protect our own.

Although immediate backup is not available for all officers and agencies, the increase in officer ambush and resistance to even the simplest police contacts demands smart deployment when help is available.

Backup doesn’t guarantee safety

Officers taking command should ensure that an overwatch perimeter is established. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Officers taking command should ensure that an overwatch perimeter is established. (Photo/PoliceOne)

If a cover officer is available, get them there. That’s a no-brainer, but as I wrote in a previous article, backups don’t guarantee safety. Two-thirds of officers murdered were killed in the presence of other officers. A 2001 Phoenix study provided evidence that offenders’ resistance can increase with the increase in the number of officers present.

Having a plan for that third, fourth and fifth responding officer should include a point at which a perimeter overwatch protects officers focusing on the intense action that generated the police presence in the first place.

Avoiding dogpiles

It’s hard not to join in with officers struggling with a suspect, but it could be that the most important thing that third or fourth officer can do is to turn their back on the fight and keep an eye on the environment.

I’m reminded of a fellow officer’s account of a state trooper who arrived at an assist call by officers of my friend’s city agency. Several officers were wrestling with a suspect after a fight call in a parking lot. The trooper immediately climbed onto the hood of one of the police cars and shined his flashlight on the wrestling match below. While there were plenty of stereotypical jokes about the trooper avoiding actual police work and worrying about losing the shine from his shoes, taking a position to be able to observe for external threats was a strategically sound course of action.

When supervising a small crew at a large event, I advised my officers to have an officer vertical and watching the backs of any two officers going hands-on with a disorderly suspect. Unless the officers making the arrest called for help in controlling the suspect, the assisting officers were to watch the crowd.

Avoiding ambush traps

Among the many PoliceOne articles on ambush is a gem from columnist Duane Wolfe in which he cites a study that identifies four commonalities to many ambush attacks:

  • Element of surprise;
  • Concealment of the assailant, their intention or their weapon;
  • Suddenness of the attack;
  • A lack of provocation.

Officers must suspect on any call that predictably will result in multiple responders that the call is a) going to be the big event you’re expecting, b) a diversion to keep as many officers away from a criminal event on the other side of town, c) an opportunity for ambush. In any of those realities, officers taking command should ensure that an overwatch perimeter is established with officers watching the environment while the nearly inevitable traffic jam on those kinds of calls commences.

Where two or more are gathered

Officers organizing a training event or even a social event where law officers are going to gather should consider assigning officers on overwatch. In providing perimeter security, officers must intentionally keep to their mission and avoid getting drawn into the activity of the event. Whether a “guns and hoses” competition or a seminar on cellphone investigations, eyes of the overwatch are on the potential outside threat. Relying on the officers at the event to be armed and ready is to ensure a lack of coordinated response to an attack and a lethal delay in awareness and assessment.

Tunnel vision

By now the body of knowledge in the arena of officer survival has brought the awareness of tunnel vision to most officers. The bottom line is that the brain can focus on only one life-threatening event at a time. The closest, loudest, biggest, or most active situation an officer or team of officers is attending makes a looming threat outside the zone of their immediate sensory awareness practically invisible.

The temptation to join a fracas is a strong one. Protecting the officers involved by providing perimeter security might be the best backup you can provide.

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