By George T. Williams
Expecting THE Fight
“Expect THE Fight so you won’t be surprised when it finds you.”
There are three types of hands-on fights for which officers must prepare. While every cop has lots of experience going “hands-on” with resisting subjects, you may or may not have experienced all three levels of unarmed suspect resistance. And this may cost you your health or your life. The three levels of “fights” that officers experience are the scuffle, the determined escape, and THE Fight. Each varies in intensity, has its own perils and consequences, and each category requires you to quickly orient to your present reality.
The scuffle occurs when a suspect panics at the sudden realization of being placed under arrest. Scuffles involve very low-level resistance where the suspect often negotiates or pleads while pushing and/or pulling in a disorganized effort to get away. The certainty of jail creates a mindless type of flight behavior consisting solely of muscular effort as he/she frantically seeks to somehow delay the inevitable. However, panic is not an effective fighting strategy and officers are very familiar with this behavior. In fact, they are experts in overcoming this type of physical conflict. Officer injuries in this common force incident are typically strains, sprains, and falls.
The “determined escape” is less familiar but not altogether surprising. This involves a suspect who is willing to injure you in order to escape. This suspect often begins by attempting to pull or push, but unexpectedly escalates to punches, elbows, head-butts, and knees in order to create an opening. Once you are stunned or injured, this suspect flees. His purpose for fighting is to escape. The usual strains, sprains, and falls occur, but the sharp violence from this suspect also brings with it contusions, lacerations, and possible brain injuries ranging from mild to severe concussions. While not as common as the scuffle, this is a combative experience that is also universal to the police experience. Too often, as you are struggling to contain the resisting suspect, your first indication of a determined escape is a sudden flash of light accompanied by the pain of being struck. Surprised, you are knocked back or just lose your grip, and you realize the suspect is already sprinting away.
If you are able, you chase and physically engage him again. Even though he/she struck you, you remain reactive as you attempt to overcome his resistance. At some point, you expect him to submit, become fatigued, or be injured sufficiently from your efforts to finally comply. You understand you are in a fight with someone who will hurt you to get away.
There is another type of fight that is less common, although, unfortunately, not rare. The infrequency of this event, in itself, creates a problem for you as a police officer. Some officers retire decades on the job having never been in this fight, while others face it early in their careers. An arrest goes sideways and you orient to the suspect tensing, pulling and pushing. You begin to respond through your usual methods when the suspect suddenly strikes you. That flash of white, surprise, and loss of grip on the suspect create the space he/she needs to flee.
Except this time he/she doesn’t run. He/she stays and closes the gap, renewing his/her assault.
If this is the first time you’ve seen this, you may, like other officers, become confused and disoriented by the suspect’s actions. Officers are typically stunned, sometimes for critical seconds at this unexpected event. There is a desperate effort to orient to this change from what should be a familiar pattern, to make sense of this strange situation. Every other suspect fled the moment there was an opportunity, but this guy is not only staying, he/she is intent on injuring you. Frantically attempting to orient to this abrupt difference between the expectation of flight and the unexpected continuation of violence, officers become shocked, mentally locked in place while attempting to make sense of it. The suspect has achieved two of the three tactical goals: surprise and violence of action.
Officers in this situation finally recognize the danger and fight back with renewed ferocity in time…or they do not.
If you are able to fight back, there will likely be a new and unfamiliar determination in your effort—where generally your force is restrained, your response is now definitive. You may realize the suspect is attempting to cause serious injury, and quickly transition to deadly force. Or you resort to your own sudden physical violence to overcome this suspect’s murderous intent, employing strikes, throwing the suspect to the ground, or transitioning to a reasonable force tool.
Unfortunately, some officers are unable to orient to this unexpected change. This is where serious injury is likely to occur. It is during these seconds of confusion and inability to quickly adapt that officers lose their handguns, are beaten to unconsciousness, or are mortally injured. The inability to swiftly shift from expected suspect behavior to what is actually happening can fatally delay an effective force response.
If you have been in this situation, you remember the exact moment. You remember the suspect’s face, the look of hatred, the confusion you felt when he/she had an advantage and rather than using it to flee, he/she stayed to injure you. And you remember the difference the next time you went hands-on. While still responding with reasonable force based on the totality of the facts known to you, you no longer played wristy-twisty games. Instead, your efforts were definitive and designed to gain swift compliance. You no longer expected the suspect to simply flee after attempting to injure you. You now take measures not only to stop his flight, but also to prevent his ability to harm you because “you’ve been there” and know it was a close call.
Preparing for THE Fight
A sound survival strategy does not depend upon the luck of the draw, hoping not to be confronted with a suspect who is intent on continuing the fight when he/she could leave. There are steps you can take to ensure you are better able to respond. Enrolling in a quality Mixed Martial Arts school, attending more DT classes, and/or getting some one-on-one instruction from your agency instructors can’t hurt. However, there are other, more valuable preparations you can make.
Expect THE Fight. If you haven’t experienced THE Fight yet, expect it. Just knowing about the probability of being surprised by unexpected aggression will provide you with better context for the suspect’s actions when it finally happens. Humans make decisions under threat through pattern-matching with likely solutions, settling upon the first solution that seems to fit the problem. If you someday expect the suspect to remain and fight, even though every suspect you’ve dealt with has turned and run, it creates an expectation that will help you to more quickly pattern-match and orient to the suspect’s behavior. You will say, “Oh. I thought this might happen,” rather than, “What’s going on…what’s he doing? This never happened before.” Expecting THE Fight prepares you for that possibility, opening your decision-making options and rapidly recognizing the change in circumstances. The faster you orient to any fight, especially THE Fight, the more likely you will positively influence the outcome.
Know your force policy and force law. It is unfortunate that many officers are unsure of when they are permitted to respond with force, including deadly force. Having been taught only techniques—and sometimes only pressure points at which to poke—many officers have never been trained that lawful violence is intrinsic to policing. Some have been incorrectly trained that punches to the head are either deadly force or excessive force. Under certain circumstances, deadly force may be lawfully employed against an unarmed suspect given the intensity of a suspect’s threat if that officer can articulate his reasoning.
There are too many accounts of officers who have been involved in extended fights with suspects, some well beyond five minutes, where the officer’s fatigue was so great that defense was no longer possible. Research shows that officers are functionally unable to continue fighting after just 45 seconds to one minute of full muscular effort. Officers should be trained that deadly force is an option early in this type of incident based on injuries and a high level of fatigue. Articulating the suspect’s clear determination combined with continuing efforts to seriously harm the officer while having ample opportunity to flee is key to justifying a deadly force response in these circumstances.
The thorough knowledge of force law and your policies, as well as the ability to articulate your reasonable perceptions and belief of the suspect’s threat, provides you with a confident understanding of the permissions and limits to force. The question, “Everyone will fight, but will they fight on time?” is valid during THE Fight. “When” is answered in policy and law, and is just as important as “how” in winning any force event.
Put resisting subjects to the ground immediately! One of the Universal Rules of Combatives© is, “Put resisting subjects to the ground immediately.”© Suspects who are on their feet retain their systemic body strength as well as their mobility. Both are threatening to you. The moment a suspect resists, he/she should be taken to the ground. This gives you options, based on the Universal Rule of GroundCombatives©: “Stay if you’re winning, leave if you are losing.”© Dealing with a suspect on the ground is not a contest. He/she is unsearched and his/her intent unknown. If you feel you are holding your own and dominating him/her, by all means stay until he/she is secured. But if you believe you are about to be injured, or he/she is about to gain advantage, it is time to tactically retreat, select the reasonable force tool, and make the decisions you were trained to make based on the law and your policy. By intentionally taking a suspect to the ground immediately upon the first sign of resistance, it is possible to shortcut many suspects’ intentions to harm you. For those suspects choosing to continue to fight, an intentional takedown will generally leave you standing with the suspect on the ground. If the fight continues, make your tactical and force decisions from there.
While every incident where you’ve resorted to DT or experienced a failed Taser discharge has the ability to become THE Fight, a suspect who is willing to stay and fight when escape is possible may be a once- or twice-in-a-career event. It’s important to rapidly recognize the unexpected behavior of the suspect. In all officer safety situations, anything out of the norm means a critical decision-point, and a suspect who is fighting back and can escape but chooses to stay and continue fighting, signals a radical change in normal suspect behavior. Why he/she is not fleeing doesn’t matter right now. The fact that he/she is still attempting to hurt you does. Knowing force law gives you permission to respond with reasonable force that will take care of the problem before you are too fatigued to protect yourself. Putting the suspect to the ground as soon as possible helps to limit his/her strength and mobility. Expect THE Fight so you won’t be surprised when it finds you. PM
George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Which of the three levels of fights is this suspect considering? Will it be a scuffle, a determined escape, or THE fight?