By George T. Williams
In the March/April 2014 issue of The Police Marksman, the article, “FOREFRONT: How Not to Get Shot Off-Duty by Other Officers” appeared.
You’re responding to a call of a man-with-a-gun with multiple 9-1-1 calls. Out of your patrol car, you’re moving toward the reported location behind the house when you suddenly hear some shouting and then a series of gunshots and believe they’re from the alley just a few feet from the corner of the fence you are moving along. Slicing around the corner, you see a male with a handgun in his hand, his back to you, shouting something you can’t understand. Another male is down, holding his belly, slowly rocking back and forth as blood pools beneath him. Just as you take in this information, out of the corner of your eye, you see your uniformed backup officer step around the corner a few steps, directly into the alley. He’s wide-eyed with his rifle aimed at the armed subject’s back. You’re about to tell him to get back behind cover when he calls out, “Police! Freeze! Drop the…!” The armed subject turns his head and shoulders, his face hard with surprise, the handgun swinging in your general direction as he moves. You and your backup officer don’t see the badge hanging around his neck…
The problem of uniformed on-duty officers intentionally shooting an armed subject who later turns out to be an off-duty or plainclothes cop continues to plague law enforcement. A large responsibility for this problem falls on the armed off-duty officer who fails to recognize the peril he is in when uniformed officers arrive, especially when he turns toward armed officers. The responding officers believe that an unidentified individual is a criminal involved in a shooting that is either in-progress or has just occurred. A badge may even be visible, worn around the neck, clipped to a belt, or even held in the hand. Even though visibly displayed, badges are not always seen because the officers’ attentional focus is locked on the firearm as it is moving or lifting toward the officer. Problematically, there is nothing about that badge that is sufficiently salient or conspicuous enough to rip their attention away from the firearm that is now threatening them. Uniformed officers fire in what they believe to be in defense of their lives, and, too often, two or more cops and their families are smothered in tragedy.
Training programs have been developed that focus on the responding officer. These programs revolve around recognizing badges and essentially slowing down the deadly force response to an apparent threat. This may be an ill-considered attempt to rectify a problem that probably should be directed more to training officers in safer off-duty conduct as well as how to more safely arrive at the scene of a shooting or the presence of a firearm. Slowing an officer’s response to a perceived threat involving a visible handgun is counter to an officer’s safety.
That said, there are steps that responding officers can take to confidently respond to an apparent imminent deadly threat while providing them with a method that makes them less likely to fire upon an off-duty or plainclothes officer.
Change the Basis of Defensive Firearms Training
As a trainer, it is a highly useful and beneficial goal to train officers to recognize a deadly force threat and to respond with little need for thinking about how to fire their weapons. This is performed through stimulus-response training. As the officer learns to associate an imminent threat with a proper response (fire accurately until the threat is over), the response starts out as, “Threat? Yes—Shoot!’ As training progresses, the response becomes, “Threat-Shoot!” A well-prepared officer will exhibit a “Threat-Shoot!” response. In the split-second, high-stakes world of surviving the typical close-range gunfight, where the suspect is first to move and almost always gets the first shot (according to the FBI), an unconsciously competent, nearly automatic response to a perceived imminent deadly threat is a life saver.
Many officer survival and firearms training programs emphasize recognition of the weapon as the trip-wire for response. “If you see a gun, shoot him.” “If you see a knife, shoot…” It is also common in academies as well as in-service training to use the command, “Gun!” as the drill execution command (the military command of “Fire!” has no relevance to policing; neither does the current ‘cool-guy’ command of “Up!”). Upon hearing, “Gun!” officers initiate their string of fire. This translates as “Gun = shoot.” Problematically, this range execution command is the same as the street communication between officers of “Gun!” In the street, this is a warning that there is a firearm present but should not be an initiation signal to begin firing. The use of the same word for two incompatible purposes—to fire or to inform—creates internal and potentially fatal conflict within an officer.
TRAINING POINT: Deadly force should be a behavior-based response rather than a simple response to the hardware an individual possesses.
Training should provide what we call “Early Orientation Markers©” or threat pattern-matching capabilities for officers. By training officers in what threatening behavior looks like and how the body moves when the suspect is obtaining a deadly weapon, the officer is likely to make better decisions.
While this discussion is not intended to be a primer on deadly force standards, the individual officer’s reasonable belief that the suspect’s actions, based on everything known to the officer at that moment, is creating an imminent (about to shoot) or actual (the subject is firing) danger of being killed or seriously injured is required. The mere possession of a deadly weapon, absent any other indication of ongoing or imminent threat, is difficult to justify. If the suspect is simply armed, the officer likely needs more information to shoot.
Training should emphasize the concept of “threatening behavior plus reasonable belief of capability equals deadly force response.” While a suspected criminal subject with a firearm turning rapidly with the weapon would reasonably justify shooting that person in self-defense, there are other behaviors that might be evaluated if there is time.
For example, identifying expected criminal behavior after a shooting is valuable information. There is a difference between criminal use of a firearm and police/legally armed citizens’ defensive use of a firearm. Fleeing after a shooting (or quickly robbing the victim) is likely the most common reaction for a criminal suspect.
Off-duty officers, on the other hand, will likely be acting like cops:
- Armed and holding someone at gunpoint with the suspect holding up his/her hands or putting his/her hands on his head.
- Standing over someone who is proned out.
- After shooting someone, guarding that person until help arrives.
- After shooting someone, holding the suspect’s associates at bay by pointing his/her handgun and shouting at them to “Stay back!” or “Get on the ground!”
Another example of behavior-based response in very threatening circumstances is the first responding sergeant to the Trolley Square Mall shooting (an active shooter event on Feb. 12, 2007). An off-duty officer disrupted the suspect’s attack by exchanging gunfire with the suspect. The Sergeant stated he did not fire on the armed off-duty officer because of the officer’s behavior—though in plainclothes, the off-duty officer was armed with a weapon in-hand and was maneuvering in a tactical manner—the Sergeant instantly recognized that this armed individual was not a problem. Simply put, the off-duty officer was not acting in a criminal manner that prompted his needing to be shot. That Sergeant’s instant evaluation in a high-threat environment was the behavior-based decision-making that must be reinforced in training. Our job is to create in our officers a capability of evaluating threat behavior very quickly: “Is the behavior I see right now like a criminal (threatening) or like a cop (protective even though tactical)?
Fundamentally, it is not solely hardware that creates the justification and need to shoot, but the person’s actions, whether armed or not, that create a reasonable and imminent fear of serious physical injury and provokes a police deadly force response.
Tactics Create Time, Time Equals Better Decisions
Many tactically minded cops complain that many of their co-workers are not “tactical.” Why is this so? I would submit the reason lies in “prescriptive training” (a how-to list that is unique to each type of incident). It’s impossible to remember every step in a unique list that is just one of dozens or hundreds of lists. Eventually, many officers’ responses become standard—they show up at a call. And since no one has killed them yet, they keep doing what they do because they misinterpret luck for skill. Pulling up to the reported location, stepping out into the open where people are or have just been shooting at each other, and letting everyone know that you have arrived before you have identified who the problem might be—or even what the problem is—affords little time to do anything other than react to a perceived threat. And that may turn out to be an off-duty cop, forgetting that you have no idea who he is, who is justifiably shot because of his reaction to your presence.
Tactical response should not be reserved only for high-risk calls. Training and peer-pressure should emphasize a tactical response to every call to create habits of behavior. Habitually responding to every call in a tactical manner creates a beneficially automatic pattern of performance that, by definition, makes you safer on the street. Employing tactical, universally applied principles makes better sense than attempting to follow a prescriptive list.
Employing a principle that is universal—it can be employed in a broad spectrum of incidents—creates a continuity of response that makes sense and becomes habitual. Doing something the same way call after call, especially when it becomes reflexive and standard behavior, automatically creates safer behavior. Safer behavior can be defined as giving the officer more time to assess a subject’s compliance or threat levels and then to beneficially react to possible assault with less surprise.
TRAINING POINT:Habitual tactical response employing the Universal Tactical Principles© creates time to make better, safer decisions. In the case of responding to a shots-fired or man-with-a-gun call, some of the Universal Tactical Principles© are:
- Superior numbers: work in the “we” mode, not the “me” mode. Employ backup routinely. If more officers might be needed, call for help early rather than during an emergency.
- Surprise: invisible deployment. Officers deploy on-scene unobtrusively and reveal their presence at a time, place, and timing to their advantage. The subject(s) should be surprised to find an officer contacting them, rather than anticipating where and when the officer will appear.
- Optimize distance. Stay as far from the suspected problem as you can and still be able to conduct business. Distance equals time and, as Clint Smith says, “Time equals marksmanship.” While the “optimum” distance is a subjective matter that must balance efficiency and effectiveness with safety, generally the farther you can get from a weapon problem, more time will be available for you to make safer decisions.
- Corners: minimize exposure. Work from behind corners (a foundational tactical principle) and become as small a target as possible. Cover stops bullets and the effects of bullets (including ricochet and spall from the backside of the material) from harming you. Concealment prevents observation but permits bullets to pass through. All approaches to high-risk, weapon-related calls should be from corners to corners. All contact with armed/possibly armed subjects should be from behind a corner.
- Keep subjects in a narrow field of view. If you are part of a multiple-officer response, your objective is to contact the subject(s) from positions providing a wide triangulation for you and your fellow officers, giving you intersecting fields of fire as well as a narrow target. When combined with the Universal Tactical Principle of “invisible deployment,” this method of contact creates an instant, extreme vulnerability for the suspect. Essentially, it “flanks” the suspect and gives him/her wide and diverging angles in order to get firing solutions on each officer—a very difficult and unlikely proposition.
- Hands kill cops. Hands operate weapons. Visually clear the subject’s hands as quickly as possible as early as possible.
- Communicate clearly. One officer gives commands. This prevents conflicting orders (“Don’t move!” “Get down!” “Come here!”). Stop yelling at people. This creates communication that can’t be understood. Worse, it also projects fear, not only giving the perception of being emotionally out of control but contributing to it. The rule is: one shout to get their attention (e.g., “Police!”); then speak to the subject loudly enough to be heard.
- Make the subject come to you. In all cases, call the subject to your position, even if it is a few steps. This gives you several advantages:1) You are able to gauge the subject’s compliance; 2) It establishes your authority over the subject; 3) You are able to take the subject away from his/her ground (with its possible advantages or weapons) and bring him/her to yours.
- Put resisting or threatening subjects to the ground immediately. When in doubt, everyone goes to the ground. It is far safer to have one or more subjects on the ground, face down with their hands empty and placed where you want them than it is for them to be standing with their hands up.
- Move your weapon quickly, aim certainly, hit and put the suspect down. Survival in a gunfight should not be based on volume and rate of fire. Surviving a gunfight is about hits. Tactical response gives you time, and time permits a certainty in aiming.
While some may counter, “This is just another list to remember,” it is actually a practice of response that functions throughout widely diverse tactical circumstances. Each is employed as needed. Acting upon each principle provides you with more time to evaluate the situation and to react to the threat-based behavior rather than simply the hardware.
By basing your response to all calls (including those “routine” non-threatening calls that turn into scary-OMG-I’m gonna-die! calls) on threat recognition provided by Early Orientation Markers© gained through habitually employing Universal Tactical Principles© and creating decision-making time, the likelihood of mistakenly shooting another officer decreases.
While the off-duty officer needs to adopt a safer mindset of assisting responding officers to identify his/her status, so, too, is there a need to respond to all calls for service through habituated tactical principles. Force response is always behaviorally based. Responding with deadly force is especially so. Having the time afforded by habituated tactics to assess whether or not the armed subject is acting like a crook or a cop may save the life of an off-duty officer. 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
- Upon arrival of a “shots fired” call, is this the perpetrator, an off-duty police officer, or a legally armed civilian good guy? What behavior-based response is necessary instead of a simple response to the hardware?
- The proper response to “Early Orientations Markers©” and threat pattern matching.