Violent Encounters: Know What You’re Facing and Come Out on Top

Editor’s Note — Cottonwood (AL) PD Chief Jim Smith, author of this article, spoke to PoliceOne in light of the NLEOF study. Offender and officer profiles in felonious assaults fit the same bill as those involved in deadly episodes.

“We’re seeing a much more violent culture emerging, in both urban and rural areas,” said Smith. “Law enforcement deaths tend to be cyclical — the surge in LE deaths now can be compared to that of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but those were due to training issues. Now, the issue seems to be the ease with which deadly force is used by the criminals, as well as their training. Some of these criminals train to shoot as much as or more than police officers do.”

But Smith admits that this cultural trend does not account for the entire spike in violent (firearm-related) officer deaths. “Administrators, instructors and trainers — everyone — is trying to get to the bottom of this disturbing trend in order to pinpoint the training needed to counteract it.”


A study of felonious assaults on our nation’s LEOs

By Chief Jim Smith

A recent publication by the US Department of Justice Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers provides a definitive review of the risks, precipitating factors, offender profile and officer profile in the events.


As in the previous two studies, several factors remained the same regarding officer assaults.

• Most occurred when officers initiated contact with the offender.

• Most occurred outdoors on a highway, street or alley.

• Most occurred during the hours of darkness.

• Most offi cers were assigned to a vehicle, in a patrol function.

• Many of the incidents had more than one officer present.

• Handguns continue to be the weapon of choice, with .38 caliber being the most common.


The officers feloniously assaulted had several common factors.

• Most had stable family lives.

• Most had not encountered a stressful event immediately preceding the assault.

• Most were physically fit and reported fatigue as not being a factor.

• Most had excellent work records and performance evaluations.

• Officers were generally described as hard working, friendly, well-liked in the community, and they concentrated on public relations while on their beat.

• Many felt they could “read situations and people.”

• Many were described as not following procedure and rules for arrests, traffic stops, confrontations and often did not wait for backup

• Many were known to let their guard down early, and erroneously felt they were in control.

• Often officers were described as “laidback” and “easy going.”

• Most did not expect the attack.

• Many had approximately 10 years job experience. The officers who survived attacks had a “do not give up attitude” and continued to fight even after being seriously injured. Many officers attributed the use of soft body armor to reducing injury and even saving their lives.


The offender’s profiles were similar in all three reports.

• More than 95% were male, with almost an equal split between white and nonwhite – average age: 26 years old.

• Even with an increase in the number of female offenders, their numbers remained small in comparison to male offenders.

• Most were poorly educated, had a dysfunctional family and came from a disadvantaged background.

• More than half had criminal histories, with many having a history of robbery, assault, weapons violations and other violent crimes.

• Most offenders had received minor punitive measures for previous crimes.

• Most had an unstable employment history.

• Most had alcohol and an illicit drug use history, while many were under the influence of such during the felonious assaults.

• Many had gang affiliations. An interesting perspective and information revealed in this study involved the offender’s use of weapons. The data was derived from interviews of the offender and case studies of the incidents.

• Most offenders had prior experience with firearms, and had been involved in incidents using a fi rearm, (having shot someone or been on the receiving end of a firearms assault.)

• Most practiced with the firearm, however, only a few had any formal fire arms training.

• Most firearm selection was made based upon availability.

• Almost all firearms were illegally obtained, and were handguns.

• Most offenders carried their firearm on their person, with the belt or waistline being the most common carry location.

• Most offenders routinely carried a firearm.

• Most offenders used an instinctive firearm shooting stance.

• Offenders had a good probability of hitting the officer with their rounds. This can be attributed to the fact that the offender is using his firearm offensively, while the officer is unprepared for the shooting incident, and must react defensively.

• Some offenders carried more than one firearm or a backup firearm.

• A significant number of offenders were diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder.

• Many offenders operated under the perspective that they were prepared to do battle with the officer to prevent an arrest, thus many deliberately made the decision to shoot the officer.

• Most offenders felt a sense of entitlement from society. This report examines the common mental and emotional impact during a stressful event– things like: time distortion, failure to feel pain and tunnel vision. The study revealed that, in some circumstances, officers did not note threats outside their immediate visual concentration area. Many officers reported not feeling pain until the event was stabilized, while many others had distorted recollection of the events, as did civilian witnesses.

Not surprisingly, the study revealed that training could be improved in: an officer’s approach to traffic stops and/or pursuits, and particularly actions to take when facing an attack with a fi rearm. Sadly, many officers revealed that the training they’d received on taking appropriate action when a suspect “had the drop on the officer” was severely lacking. Several officers noted that their inability to diagnose and clear a weapon malfunction negatively affected their shooting situation, as did officers who noted a backup firearm would have improved their ability to deal with the situation (either after having a weapon malfunction or being disarmed.)

As always, weapon retention was a substantial factor in preventing negative outcomes in some of the incidents. Another identifiable factor was the officer’s use of flashlights. In fact, offenders were able to shoot several officers by aiming at the flashlight held by the officers.

Two additional factors which were identified by the study were the need to keep dispatch informed of the officer’s location, and the potential for “friendly fire” incidents due to officers not being properly identified.

One troubling aspect noted in this study was the increase in the reporting and the potential rise in the number of incidents characterized as “suicide by cop.” There was an appalling lack of standards and data in these incidents, such that the true scope of the problem is not known.

This study is well worth reading by officers, trainers and managers who are interested in officer injury reduction and officer survival.


Jim Smith is the police chief of a small town in southern Alabama. He has more than 25 year’s law enforcement experience along with several graduate degrees.

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