ASAA   Europe

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WHY POLICE OFFICERS LOSE DEADLY ENCOUNTERS

Almost daily we read it in the newspapers, hear it on the radio or see it on the Ten O'clock News -- a police officer killed in the line of duty. Why is it so widespread? How can such an awful thing happen so often? Well, aside from the fact that police work is dangerous -- something too many people don't seem to realize -- the answer is deceptively simple.

Just like anyone else, they make mistakes.

But they're trained, you say. They go through academies and receive ongoing instruction in various police functions on a weekly basis. They must qualify with their weapons and be regularly re-certified in various skills. All of this is supposed to make a difference, right?

Well, it does make a difference. If they weren't trained, it would be much, much worse! The problem is that police agencies are, of necessity, bureaucracies, which means that everything must be written down. Once this is accomplished and everyone is familiar with the operational policies and routines that result, the organization becomes resistant to change or innovation.

Why? Because that which already exists must be scrapped, policy and procedure rewritten and retraining accomplished. This takes time and costs money, something no police department has enough of. So, the tendency to remain with the status quo, especially if it has been in effect for a long time, is quite strong. In fact, it usually takes something spectacular, like an officer being killed, before the problem is highlighted enough to warrant corrective action. It isn't that the departments don't care about their officers -- it's that the political aspects of instituting change often have pronounced consequences.

In other words, it must be politically expedient to make the change and it often takes a catastrophic event to make it so. A department may have requested that same change or improvement many times, only to have it disapproved by the City Council or County Commissioners, who felt the expense wasn't justified in relation to the need.

Training, weapons and other equipment falls into this realm. Often, a particular policy on the use of Deadly Force or a certain kind of handgun or tactic is retained, simply because no one every really examined it -- until it causes problems. As a result, some ideas remain in force for decades, eventually becoming legitimate by their own longevity, rather than any real superiority. This is where the "this is the way we always did it," routine comes from.

Police firearms training is better than it has ever been. But, before we all cheer, it must also be added that, in most cases, it runs about a full decade behind the state-of-the-art. Comparatively, the military runs even further behind, with around two decades being the norm. The bigger the bureaucracy, the farther behind the state-of-the-art it runs!

So, why do cops get killed in Deadly Encounters? Specifically, they have:

1) An institutional, rather than an innovative, mission-oriented approach to weapons, tactics and training.

2) A constantly demonstrated attitude seeking shortcuts rather than basic skill building as a solution to their problems.

3) A work-environment that, while high-stress, tends to build tactical complacency and insulate officers from the other parts of society.

We've already talked about the institutional approach to weapons, tactics and training, but let's add one additional caveat -- institutional or not, resistant to change or not, one thing is obvious: most police officers don't handle firearms especially well. Why? We're no longer a rural society, meaning that as the generations pass, fewer and fewer new officers have any firearms background. An increasingly urban upbringing leaves little opportunity for young people to learn about guns. They don't hunt or fish, or spend much time in the great outdoors. If they spend their entire life in the city, how can they possibly know about guns?

Another interesting part of the problem is that, since 1976, compulsory military service is no longer the norm. This produced several generations of people who not only understood firearms but had a more mature, mission-oriented, less self-serving outlook on life than young people today. Now, police departments routinely hire new recruits with no real-world experience of any kind; people who lack this kind of background and attitude.

This leads into the second reason listed above -- the tendency to seek shortcuts to success instead of building fundamental skill. Shooting and weapon-handling demand the mastery of basic skills to achieve success. There aren't any shortcuts! Every attempt at creating shortcuts to weapon skill and tactical proficiency has resulted in failure -- from "instinct shooting," to large-magazine capacity self-loaders ("firepower") to "whiz-bang" weapon-handling procedures (reloading and stoppage-clearing techniques).

They all failed because they attempted to substitute something non-related for basic skill. Because they're now using large-capacity autos, cops are shooting more, but they're not hitting more, thus increasing all three forms of liability: tactical, criminal and civil. This happened because the police community simply refused to address the fact that their training methods -- not their weapons -- were antiquated and inefficient. When officers miss their opponent six times with a revolver, it seems silly to expect them to do any better with a 20-shot Glock!

And guess what? They aren't! All the "trick" bullets in the world, big magazines and other so-called "shortcut" methodologies won't keep you alive when the chips are down if you don't hit what you shoot at.

What has the large capacity self-loader really accomplished? Virtually nothing. Due to misplaced concerns about safety and liability, the police have shunned the Condition One (Cocked and Locked) SA auto, mostly in favor of DA autos that aren't any easier to use than a DA revolver. Claims that the SA auto is unsafe or requires special training are hogwash, something that too many people accept without challenge. And if you don't believe it, come see me at any CTASAA course and I'll prove it to you.

Last, tactical complacency and being insulated from the rest of society have killed many officers. Policemen perform essentially the same functions day after day and it is easy to understand how they become complacent. You hear it often, "nothing happened yesterday, so it won't happen today either," or, "I've responded to 499 burglary calls and nothing happened, so why should number 500 be any different?" Wrong! Each call, even if similar in nature, is a completely new situation, requiring officers to be alert and careful.

Because of their difficult and often terrifying jobs, too many police officers these days have also fallen into an "us and them" attitude towards people, meaning that anyone who isn't also a police officer is in the same category as the criminals. This has resulted in further alienating policemen from the society they serve and creating a police sub-culture that is becoming less and less responsive to citizens, whose support they need desperately in order to perform their jobs! In fact, the problem has reached sufficient proportions that a number of Federal, State and even several local agencies, have instituted studies to determine how and why this has happened.

I hope you won't misunderstand. No one in the world is more pro-law enforcement than I. However, too many officers are unwittingly setting themselves up to be injured or killed because of these problems -- problems that cannot be corrected unless we address them honestly and objectively. Gadgetry, shortcuts and unrealistic attitudes have failed and always will. Egos aren't bullet-proof. Only professionalism, genuine concern for the community and skill, including skill with their firearms, will produce the efficiency upon which the modern police officer can willingly bet his life and expect to win.

Column

 



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