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Officer safety in the modern age: 10 critical lessons to live by

Here are ten lessons learned from generations of law enforcement ranging from the old west to present day to help you protect yourself, your family, and your fellow officers


While law enforcement duty has always been hazardous, there has been a spike in high-profile law enforcement incidents resulting in death. Tensions that have existed for decades in a smoldering state have now been fanned into hot flames. 

Among the protestors marching against perceived wrongdoing is a small subgroup — label them anarchists or whatever other term you like — who despise police and may feel justified in hurting you or killing you. Some want to hurt your family, too. Further, there are other individuals around the country who are coming up with their own justifications of why hurting you is now more acceptable than ever.

Some politicians calling for calm have proven to be ineffective at tamping down the mayhem while a legal review process is ongoing. And while review of law enforcement behavior, procedures, and policy — and subsequent changes — are all part of the process of developing long-term solutions, they do little to help the short term ramifications of violence directed against police and the public. 

Here are ten lessons learned from generations of law enforcement – ranging from the old west to present day – to help you protect yourself, your family, and your fellow officers. 

1.    Stay in control of your emotions and reduce residual ill-will all around. Taking things personally and acting on those feelings in a negative way when dealing with or handing off a subject to others endangers other law enforcement officers in the future. 

One of the hardest thing to do as a law enforcement officer is to stay objective and respond appropriately. It may be hard to do, but it is precisely how you need to train yourself to be. Anger, fear and cynicism lead the way to overreaction.

2.    Accept that you are a target and make yourself a hard target. Have someone you trust do an assessment of your and your family’s vulnerabilities. On the job, at home, outside doing activities, in the vehicle, parking and anything else that comes to mind. Then take immediate steps to mitigate that vulnerability whenever possible. Look at your routines and reassess them.

3.    Start using Cooper’s color code. There are people who want to hurt you. Pay attention and stay aware of your surroundings at all times. Expect to be attacked. Formulate a plan whenever you going to a call or encounter suspicious people or circumstances. You may be attacked but you should never be surprised.

4.    Pull your head out of your smart phone or laptop. Don’t look at it for more than a few seconds when you are in your vehicle or out and about in a public area where anyone is around you. If it helps, just think of some attacker coming up from behind and blowing your brains out every time you are looking down to do some texting or an email check in public.

If you need to use your laptop or phone, park where you cannot be approached unseen and look around every few seconds. Make it a habit. 

5.    Stop the social club nonsense. As a law enforcement officer in uniform, you have no business sitting in a restaurant booth with four of you chit-chatting. Keep it to a maximum of two to a booth or table. Seat yourselves out of the way of the general traffic flow in and out of the restaurant or cash register area. 

Have the other officers seated far enough away to provide protection if anyone tries to target any two officers. Stand up when people approach you. Officer presence does not have to be threatening to get the point across you are ready.

6.    Upgrade your overall hand-to-hand skills. Nothing inspires confidence and decreases the likelihood of excessive force like being able to defend yourself against just about anybody using just hand-to-hand skills. This confidence carries over into the firearms and other weapon categories. Well trained people with good values aren’t usually the ones getting into trouble in police departments.

7.    Upgrade your performance with firearms — particularly handguns. Learning to fight effectively with a handgun is more than just upgrading your qualification scores. Significant training in gunfight speed reactive shooting with proper tactics results in far fewer rounds fired and far less problems with “excessive force” complaints. 

If you are being targeted with deadly force, commit to the fight, stay mentally calm and stay deliberate in your shooting. Every round has a purpose.  Don’t let fear of consequences —legal or otherwise — rule your decisions. Hesitation is a killer.

8.    Start carrying a gun off duty you can shoot as well your duty gun. A gun that’s too small is far harder to shoot quickly and accurately then a bigger gun. Use a proper holster and mag pouches. Wear appropriate clothing to hide it effectively. Think about wearing a vest every time you are outside when living in areas of active unrest. Carry two extra magazines as well as one in the gun. For single-stack magazines, carry three extra.

9.    Remember your values and uphold them — you will live and die by them. Review my articles on “the warrior and the merchant” and “the tactical decision equation.” Now is not the time to withdraw from society — it is not “us against them.” Most people respect you and are on your side. Some will fear you. Anarchists are the enemy — not society in general.

Start learning how to properly use the Tactical Decision Equation. Critical thinking under pressure is trainable and necessary. When you start using the equation you will be able to come up with acceptable options in any situation and be able to justify your actions — both to yourself and to the public. 

It provides a common language between the police and the public that will help the public understand what you were facing and how you decided on your course of action. It is also a tremendous after-action tool to go over your incidents and become a better tactical thinker.

10.    Protect your home and your family. Train your spouse and kids how to think and what to do. Have a plan for incidents in and out of the home or at school etc. Teach them self-defense skills and the use of firearms if they are old enough to learn. Harden their minds to the use of force and teach them how to fight. Feeling helpless is debilitating at any age.

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