Force Science poll: How officers think they’d avoid blue-on-blue tragedies
Part one of a two-part series
If you are an LEO at a crime scene — out of uniform but with a gun in your hand — what could you do to protect yourself from a responding officer who might mistake you for a suspect?
From the perspective of an arriving uniformed responder in that situation, what is “the quickest, clearest thing” the out-of-uniform officer can do to inform you that he or she is a cop?
If you’ve actually been in such a face-off, how was it resolved?
These questions, paraphrased here, were key components of a survey conducted by the Force Science Institute to elicit officers’ personal strategies for avoiding “confused identity” blue-on-blue disasters.
Preliminary results were announced today by FSI’s executive director, Dr. Bill Lewinski.
“Ironically,” he told Force Science News, “some of the methods many officers said they would rely on to prevent a mistaken-identity shooting aren’t likely to work in some of the most common blue-on-blue confrontations.
“Mistaken shootings of one officer by another are justifiably much talked about and much worried about in law enforcement. But much more scientific research is needed before we can reliably determine the best safety measures for addressing them. This survey is the first step on what promises to be a long, arduous, and complex mission of discovery that hopefully will guide training and save lives in the future.”
Questions & Answers
The survey pool consisted of more than 200 graduates of the Force Science Certification Course. who volunteered to complete a six-point online questionnaire about the type of blue-on-blue encounters in which identity confusion might occur. FSI staff then spent several months compiling, categorizing, and analyzing their answers.
Here are the topics covered and the predominate responses:
Q. As an armed off-duty, plainclothes, or undercover LEO engaged in an enforcement action, “what could you do to ensure your personal safety once [a uniformed] responding officer arrives on scene?”
A. Listed first by nearly one-third of the officers — the largest single grouping — was to “verbally identify” themselves as an LEO. A somewhat lesser percentage said their top priority would be to comply to the uniformed officer’s commands, while still fewer said their first action would have been “pre-emptive,” such as notifying a dispatcher that they were in the area to put arriving officers on alert.
Q. If you’re a uniformed responding officer, “what is the quickest, clearest thing” an officer in civilian clothing “can do to inform you they are a cop?”
A. Again, the most preferred response was verbal. About 70 percent said the challenged subject should use a “verbal cue to identify” him/herself, while 17 percent favored seeing some sort of “visual cue to identity,” such as displaying a badge, a “color of the day,” or giving a coded physical gesture.
Q. “As the uniformed officer, what orders are you likely to give an individual who announces or communicates they are an off-duty or undercover LEO?”
A. “Commands to gain weapon compliance [or] physical compliance” were given as first responses by nearly half and by about a third of the survey-takers respectively.
Q. “If applicable, describe previous situations when you were first on the scene, wearing plainclothes and identifying yourself as an LEO to a responding, uniformed officer.”
A. The majority either did not answer or stated they had not been involved in such an incident. About one-fifth said they had been involved but their descriptions were too vague or incomplete to be properly parsed by the research team.
About 12 percent were precise enough to report that they had been actively engaged with a suspect when uniformed officers arrived and that their gun was visible during at least part of the encounter. Of these, most said they had used visual cues (such as lowering their weapon) to successfully establish their law enforcement affiliation, while the rest had relied on verbal responses.
Q. “If applicable, describe a previous situation when you came across an [unidentified] off-duty/undercover officer [in an enforcement situation] when you were on-duty.”
A. Nearly 40 percent of all of the respondents said they had been in this situation. Among those who answered in enough detail for their responses to be analyzed, the circumstances most often were related to drug enforcement, robbery/theft/burglary calls, traffic/felony stops, or man-with-a-gun reports. In about equal numbers, the unidentified officer was able to offer verbal or visual cues that satisfactorily established his or her law enforcement affiliation.
In about one out of 10 of these confrontations, the uniformed officer had “received pre-emptive information,” because either the plainclothes officer or a bystander had “called in a description” to alert arriving officers. In a sizeable number of other cases, the uniformed officer had “immediately” recognized the off-duty/undercover colleague as a personal acquaintance. Overall, however, in somewhat less than half the confrontations, identification had to be verified after “temporary detainment.”
Q. “What training have you had, if any, for handling this type of encounter?”
A. Fewer than half of the survey-takers reported taking part in or instructing any type of formal training on blue-on-blue encounters, and about half of those had received classroom instruction only. Only a minority had experienced scenario or simulator exercises.
“This survey offers some important insights into law enforcement’s current understanding of blue-on-blue dynamics,” Lewinski says.
“For instance, the responses underscore the importance of communication between the plainclothes, at-risk officer and the uniformed, challenging officer. Clearly verbal and visual cues are favored and do work in successfully resolving these dangerous confrontations — in some instances.
“Specifically, they seem most likely to work when time, circumstances, and the proper frame of mind permit identifying information to be clearly transmitted and cognitively processed. But in many confusing encounters, those luxuries don’t exist.
“A combination of high stress, time compression, and seemingly threatening weapon movement by the unidentified officer may force a uniformed officer to make a snap judgment based on very limited information, and take immediate deadly action or risk his own life if he waits for more clarifying input.
“Because of auditory suppression that can occur under urgent, intense stress, a challenging officer may not hear clearly what a challenged officer says. Because an unidentified officer, in his mindset, may consider himself ‘part of the law enforcement team,’ he may be puzzled by a uniformed officer’s commands to drop his weapon and may not comply promptly. If a visual cue, like an unidentified officer’s badge, is displayed on his front side, it will likely be missed by a uniformed officer approaching from the side or rear.
“There are many real-life possibilities that commonly occur in blue-on-blue confrontations that can easily defeat ‘logical’ strategies that are contrived in calm, nonthreatening circumstances.”
Dearth of Meaningful Research
“Unfortunately,” Lewinski says, “we don’t know how to better address the blue-on-blue problem because there is so much we don’t know about these confrontations.
“Even some fundamental but important information for understanding the problem is missing. We know something about the circumstances in which most fatalities occur — the blue-on-blue failures — but we don’t know the number of deaths or injuries that have been avoided and what has worked in resolving those incidents successfully. We don’t know the circumstances and numbers where officers have been shot and wounded erroneously by other officers, or shot at and the shot missed. And we don’t yet have the scientific data necessary to base training on much more than mere logic and anecdotal experience.”
Over the next year, FSI intends to formulate research projects to explore deeply the human dynamics of blue-on-blue encounters, Lewinski says. “In particular, we want to focus on the decision-making process: How can the thinking of ‘target’ officers and responders as well be influenced to better clarify rapidly unfolding but uncertain situations and avoid mistakes.
“And we want to expand the knowledge base about officer-against-officer shootings. Identity confusion is only one kind of blue-on-blue event. There are also unintended discharges, slip-and-capture errors, and other training-related tragedies; incidents of cops themselves committing suicide by cop; cases where either the responder or the plainclothes officer is involved in criminal activity, and so on. All these involve human factors that cry out to be better understood.”
Move Past Classrooms
Meanwhile, Lewinski emphasizes that training on blue-on-blue encounters needs to move beyond the classroom to force-on-force, role-playing scenarios. “This training needs to be experienced rather than intellectualized,” he says. “The more you practice responding in crisis situations, the better you get at it.”
In blue-on-blue confrontations, “the heaviest burden really is on the unidentified officer,” Lewinski explains. “Cops need to learn to change their mindset when they are in civilian clothes and to understand the dangerous position they place themselves in when they engage in enforcement activities in plainclothes.
“They can no longer think and act as if they are an instantly recognizable part of the law enforcement team. They have to practice thinking of themselves as a responding uniformed officer may see them. That includes immediately yelling out their identity, complying promptly with commands, and consciously restraining their movements, particularly any inadvertent pointing of their weapon toward the challenging officer.
“Responding officers, on the other hand, need to practice utilizing cover whenever possible in approaching uncertain situations. This may give them more time to pick up on cues to a target officer’s identity and to analyze subtleties of the circumstances they’re facing.”