Waterborne Tactics: Do you have a plan?

Over the last 12 years, I have traveled throughout the United States and other countries and have talked with many officers about a subject that most of us might take for granted: skills needed in water-conditioned environments.

We train on the firing range for marksmanship, and in combat transitional skills; we learn to use our impact weapons, aerosols, electrical devices, handcuffs, and First Aid equipment. We have to get a license in order to operate a motor vehicle, motorcycle or boat. We are required to maintain a certain level of competency in every gear, equipment and performance-based skill. Yet one of the most common skill-based tasks, water proficiency -- that affects more than 50 percent of law enforcement officers who work around a water-conditioned environment -- is rarely conducted or, even worse, not maintained.

Have you ever asked yourself these questions:

    1. You are thrown in someone's pool while making an arrest, either alone (with the subject still on the deck) or with you both in the water and the subject resisting. Do you have a plan?

    2. While on marine patrol you are on a subject's boat and, during a physical confrontation, he resists and grabs you. You both end up in the water with another potential threat still on the boat. Do you have a plan?

    3. You are on beach patrol and have to assist another officer with a combative subject. You all end up in the water, either able to stand or unable to touch the bottom. Do you have a plan?

    4. You are working in an area where there are many open lakes and canals, and get involved in a foot pursuit. During the struggle, you and the subject end up in the water. Do you have a plan?

    5. You are making an arrest on a dock located only feet away from the water. During your verbal interaction with the subject, he or she becomes combative and either pushes you in the water or grabs the 6-foot gaff that was lying on the ground. Do you have a plan?

If none of these situations has happened to you, then you’ve been lucky. However, the potential for any, or all, of these scenarios is a reality.

Think about it: three-quarters of this country is surrounded by water — on our beaches, intercoastals, canals, rivers, lakes and even pools. We are bordered with water from California to Texas, Texas to Florida, and Florida to Maine.

One does not have to be an Olympic swimmer or Aqua Man to be a law enforcement officer. However, there are certain skills an officer should have to work in and around water-conditioned areas.We have identified three specific skill levels an officer needs to have:

Water Safety Survival Level-1 (WSS-1) involves basic skills. A few of them are:

    1. Swimming unknown distances with the head in the water for speed, and also to cover a certain distance;

    2. Swimming unknown distances with the head out of the water to monitor the threat(s);

    3. Swimming underwater from one point to another;

    4. Floating on stomach or back;

    5. Making safe entries into water from various heights;

    6. Treading water with both hands, keeping the head above the surface to evaluate possible threats;

    7. Treading water with one hand on a firearm or radio, keeping the head above the surface to evaluate possible threats;

    8. Being able to defend from an attacker.

Water Safety Survival Level 2 (WSS-2) is appropriate for an officer assigned to work in and around water-conditioned areas such as marine units, Coast Guard, park rangers, wildlife fish and game, border or beach patrol. These are areas where the officer is assigned to work on a boat or wave runner, in which the majority of the contacts with subjects are close to water. In addition to the above mentioned tasks, some of these skills include:

    1. Falling safely, either alone or while grappling with a subject from various heights, into the water;

    2. Controlling and deploying firearm while in the water;

    3. Handgun retention, in and out of the holster, while in the water;

    4. Safely and correctly using active countermeasures against an attacking subject while in the water;

    5. Effectively deploying and handling intermediate weapons (such as batons) and handcuffs, while in water;

    6. Performing submerge and surface tactics correctly;

    7. Being able to effectively make an arrest alone, and with a partner, while in the water;

    8. Safely assisting or rescuing an injured officer or subject from the water.

Water Safety Survival Level 3 (WSS-3) applies to any officer assigned to Special Operations, or to train officers for water-conditioned areas such as tactical marine units, special response and rescue teams from the Coast Guard, park rangers, wildlife fish and game, Border or beach patrol units. These are areas in which the officer is assigned to work on a special rescue boat, zodiac or wave-runner, and in which the majority of contacts with subjects are on the water. The skill level of the instructor needs to be at a level where techniques are conducted effortlessly.

In addition to the above, some associated skills include:

    1. Safely conducting waterproofing evaluations to officers;

    2. Safely conducting water screenings to officers;

    3. Safely conducting water orientation drills to officers.

    4. Safely conducting firearms training while in the water;

    5. Safely executing all physical tasks and skills required of students.

Throughout the U.S. the key mindset for law enforcement officers in water environments has been simply the ability to swim. The American Red Cross has a certified swimming program that teaches officers how to float on the surface, conduct rescues and perform life-saving skills, but does not include considerations or strategies/tactics for escalating or de-escalating in the use-of-force continuum.

Nor are officers required to wear the duty gear they are issued and will be wearing in these unique environments.

A water training program needs to address all of these issues and more. The single most important water ability an officer needs is to be able to stay on the surface for prolonged periods of time while wearing all assigned duty gear—generally consisting of soft body armor, duty belt with firearm, and gear accessories—both with and without the use of a safety floating device (which can weigh an additional 20-30 pounds when wet).

The physical ability to swim distances for prolonged periods of time is important. However, being able to control your buoyancy is even more important. Being able to enter the water, confront a subject who is either cooperative or combative or, in the worst cases, needing to be rescued and still fighting, and then quickly make the proper decision as to how best to handle the situation, are difficult yet critical tasks.

Integrating use-of-force options where the officer either stays on the boat with the subject or goes into the water with them is dangerous for both the officer and subject(s). Once the officer secures the subject, he or she may have to immediately go into a life-saving mode. This adds responsibility and needed skills.

Depending on the situation, a two-person unit may have other force options or equipment available. These range from using life preservers or safety hooks, to throwing floating devices or using First Aid equipment.

Being able to establish protocols on the selection of effective tactics, along with various swimming styles, floating methods, underwater strategies, weapon control and deployment, are critical skills. Other crucial considerations include selection of equipment and uniforms needed for water assignments, and the ability to select and pre-screen department personnel for these assignments.

Upon successful completion of any program addressing a water environment, the student should be able to:

  • Draft or provide guidance to department managers about proper policies and procedures;

  • Prepare and provide a thorough training program on integrated use-of-force options;

  • Select personnel and equipment.
The potential legal liability of a department is increased if officers are not properly trained. This is based on the standards for failure to properly train personnel as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Canton vs. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 109 S. Ct. 1197 (1989). In that case, a woman was arrested and did not receive necessary medical attention after a shift commander was made aware of her condition and decided she did not need medical attention. Although the Canton Police Department policy addressed medical issues, there was gross negligence in not providing shift commanders with the proper training to make such decisions.

Many issues emerged from this case. However, the primary one was "failure to train" on the part of the city. The court said that such negligence amounted to being "deliberately indifferent" to the rights of the plaintiff. The burden of proving the standard of "deliberate indifference" rests with the plaintiff and is not easy to prove. In short, according to the Canton decision, the duties that officers are assigned must be accompanied with adequate training to perform that function.

As law enforcement officers, we are held to a higher level of accountability, both for the actions we take and the actions we do not take. During the discovery phase of litigation, plaintiffs’ attorneys will carefully examine the training and instruction that was provided which directly pertains to the actions being questioned. Thus the design of a water program, including the training component, must specifically address issues most prevalent to that environment, and must provide documentation and materials used to defend it.

Lastly, it should be a requirement that each student be evaluated through a practical screening and be able to complete a waterproofing phase prior to being hired to work in these environments. This is extremely important for officer safety, equipment assurance, and courtroom testimonials. A key question to ask is: Have I received the necessary training to proficiently handle an encounter in water?

About the author

Dave Young is the Founder and Director of ARMA, now part of the PoliceOne Training Network. He is also the Chairman of PoliceOne.com Advisory Board, and a training advisor for CorrectionsOne.com. Dave graduated from his first law enforcement academy in 1985, and now has over 25 years of combined civilian and military law enforcement and training experience. He was a sworn corrections and law enforcement officer in the state of Florida and has served as a gate sentry, patrol officer, watch commander, investigator, Special Reaction Team (SRT) member, leader and commander in the United States Marine Corps.

Dave has participated in and trained both military and law enforcement personnel in crowd management operations throughout the world. Dave is recognized as one of the nation's leading defensive tactics instructors specializing in crowd management, chemical and specialty impact munitions, protocol and selection of gear and munitions, ground defense tactics, and water - based defensive tactics.

He has hosted television shows for National Geographic TV Channel on Non Lethal Weapons and the host of Crash Test Human series.  He is a former staff noncommissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps, a member of the Police Magazine advisory board, and a technical advisory board member for Force Science Research Center. Dave is an active member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training (ASLET), International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).

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