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“Looking for a Fight.” A mindset for service and survival

by George on February 6, 2012 11:29

“Since the dawn of time, men have taken up the sword in combat.  Some among them were so capable that they were considered to be in a class of their own—the mighty warrior class.  These men were revered as brave, heroic, and essential to life, for they were the guardians of their people.”   Ben Boos, “Swords”

We are undergoing a curious experiment in North American law enforcement, the effectiveness of which will not likely be known for century, perhaps even more.  The military and the police are our society’s warrior class.  The police (and increasingly the military) are being tasked with performing seemingly conflicting functions, that of being both warrior as well as servant.  Since the beginning of humans gathering into settlements and villages, there have always been people—historically men, and presently both genders—who have taken upon themselves the heavy burden of responsibility as society’s peacemakers, protectors, and guardians.

Until recently (historically), and especially prior to the 1970s, these individuals acting in the name of the law have been fairly unrestrained in their violence.  Law breakers, especially violent criminals could expect “frontier justice,” and, later, “street justice,” as a result of their behavior.  It was “understood” by both parties that if you were arrested, there was oftentimes a beating due before you went to jail.  When I was a child, I grew up in a county where the jail would not accept a prisoner who was not bleeding.

Thankfully, times have changed.  In our maturing society, officers are now expected to be “peace officers.”  This experiment continues to unfold into a combination of roles, that of “public servant” and “officer” (keeper of the peace, or warrior).  These roles sometimes appear to be at odds especially in the brutal laboratory of the street where policing actually takes place.  As public servants under the US Constitution, officers are first tasked with preserving the civil rights of the individuals with whom they come into official contact, and then to assist those in need. 

This has evolved into even greater demands for professional courtesy when interacting with the public.  As the responsibilities of policing expand well beyond simply enforcing the law, there are greater expectations by at least some segments of society for officers to “help” individuals—even those who are violent and may harm the officers. 

This evolving role is mirrored in the character of those individuals wearing the badge:  officers generally become cops because they want to be of service, and this quality is indispensable in the mindset of a police officer.  In recent years, however, this message of “service” has become misunderstood by many officers to be their primary mission.  When these officers arrive “on-scene,” their first instinct is “to help” rather than to ensure their safety and the safety of all through enforcement efforts first, and service when all are safe.

If you are this officer, this primary attitude of being "helpful" can get youand others—murdered.

 

“Looking for a Fight”

These competing roles can be resolved through a mindset reflecting the reality of current policing requirements:  “always look for a fight.”

The phrase, “looking for a fight” can be construed many ways.  Warriors in past ages constantly sought every opportunity for combat as a means to prove their valor and skill.  Those warriors without a commitment to higher ideals of service and integrity were dangerous to anyone on whom they focused as a threat or challenger, creating the need for a competing class of warriors who sought to protect.  Today, in the civilian world, the phrase can mean that a particular person wants to engage in violence and is simply looking for any excuse, often creating the opportunity where none existed.  However, neither of these interpretations are the context for modern day law enforcement.  

Properly understood, the officer today would embody the following phrase and underlying mindset in his or her awareness of suspect behavior and signaled intentions:

“I always look for a fight.  Don’t get me wrong.  While I’m willing, I don’t want to get into a fight.  But I’m always looking for signs that someone on-scene wants to fight.  It’s the only way I can be ready to respond when the fight comes while still doing my job of helping people.”

This modern concept of “looking for a fight” is key to not only every officer’s safety on the street, but also to protecting the citizens the officer serves.  It does NOT conflict with the function of the police as both protector and servant, rather it enhances the service function and safety of all.  “Relaxing” may mean letting one’s guard down and is not useful.  “Looking for a fight,” however, permits the officer to act “in service” with professionalism and appropriate courtesy until a subject’s behavior or the circumstances necessitate enforcement, defensive, or protective responses. 

Officers properly should “look for a fight” so that they can be ready to respond to sudden assault or flight.  “Looking for a fight” simply means that from minutes prior to arrival on-scene to the moment after you have cleared the call, you are consciously looking for those behaviors and clues signaling impending attack or flight.  Like it or not, officer injury and murder statistics demonstrate that officers have a real need to capably respond with lawful violence to any level of assault.  Understanding your proper role as an officer, looking for a fight is the difference between being:

  • Ready to respond early with effective and reasonable force, or 
  • Being surprised and being forced to “come from behind”—or even forced to “go primitive” to save your life.

 When consciously looking for a fight, an officer is not heavy-handed, rude, or badge heavy.  This proper mindset is not a predator’s world-view—it is that of a public servant who has a warrior’s mindset.  It is based in a thorough understanding of law and agency policy, and the understanding that violence is a process rather than a simple, contained event.

Your job as a cop carries with it the inherent and lawful threat of violence.  For your safety (and that of the citizens you serve), you must embrace this warrior function.  Developing your skills with weapons (less-lethal and deadly) and with empty hands is only part of the equation.  Looking for a fight means recognizing the process of violence as it cycles up to an attack (or attempt to flee) early enough to prevent injury.

 

Violence is a Process

Violence does not just happen.  All violence is a process.  It moves from the beginning of an idea through to its final execution up to the conclusion of the violent act(s).  Aside from planned ambushes where officers have no inkling of prior threat (which still involved the suspect initiating a process of decision-making, implementation, and initiation), there are generally many indicators of a growing likelihood of assault or an attempt to flee.  Any officer who says the suspect “just attacked me without any warning” probably missed a cascading number of indicators that the offender made a decision, initiated preparations (either subtle or gross), and then executed his plan.  

The decision to assault may have taken place prior to the police contact (a “prepared offender”), or it may be a spur of the moment decision based on panic (an “opportunistic offender”).  In the case of the prepared offender, the threat indicators as he maneuvers into his assault preparatory position are likely to be more subtle than the opportunistic offender’s desperate spur of the moment realization that he needs to attack the officer or he’ll go to jail.  Subtle or not, there are indicators exhibited that, if recognized early enough, will provide the officer with a justifiable basis for a pre-emptive force response.  The early recognition, early enough to make a difference is a direct benefit of the mindset of “looking for a fight.”

Because violence doesn’t just happen, officer safety is dramatically enhanced through vigilance and the early recognition of threat indicators; this is what it means to be "looking for a fight."  This includes the totality of the facts before arriving in the area, as well as those observed upon arrival, and individual or group signals of impending threat.

 

Totality of the Facts:  Before Arriving On-Scene

Upon any dispatch to an incident, begin “looking for a fight.”

Violence in the initial dispatched report, or the presence of weapons may very well indicate there will be a “fight.”  The same can be said in any contact involving a subject who is a member of a gang, or a history of violence, especially against the police.  Certain types of behavior indicating out of control mental illness or being under the influence of drugs such as methamphetamine or PCP may indicate unpredictable violence.

The initial call for service initiates the “best-worst game.”  The “best-worst game” assists you in keeping an open mind, permitting the appropriate function (warrior or public servant) to present as needed and as reasonable for the circumstances.  Ask yourself while en-route, “What’s the best thing that can happen, and what’s the worst?”  Play the game each time you are dispatched or are backing an officer to get your head in the game well before you near the scene.

Make up your own scenarios.  Do you know the players in this call?  Whatever the scenario, develop a “when-then” response.  “When ‘this’ happens, I’ll respond by…”  Notice it is not “if,” but “when.”  Feel the difference in your mind and body between the two following phrases:

  • “If the suspect has a gun, I’ll…”
  • “When the suspect has a gun, I’ll”

For most people, “when” makes it more real, more likely to occur, and provides a better “go-switch” should some assault take place.  “If” seems more remote, and feels much less likely to occur.  “When” tells us it is going to happen at some point; “If” is the lottery that will probably pass us by.  “When” is inevitable; “If” will likely never happen.

Taking into account your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the location, the reported participants, and the “known” circumstances (accounting for the fact that what is reported to Dispatch may or may not resemble what actually occurred), begin looking for a fight.  What is the safest way to respond to this location given the threat (and what can go wrong before I get there)? 

Determine the safest method of approach to the location to achieve “invisible deployment” and surprise.  Coordinating with other responding officers to arrive simultaneously from different directions, or meeting at a rally point and moving together are options that can be applied for safer responses.  It is during these beginning stages of responding to a call for service that “looking for a fight” begins.

 

Totality of the Facts:  Arriving On-Scene

As you approach the location, look for a fight.  Is there anything out of the ordinary?  Is the street deserted where it is normally busy?  Is there an angry crowd milling about, or is there fear showing in individuals’ physical or emotional behavior?  Are people urgently attempting to get your attention, pointing at an individual or to a location?  Is a person or group of persons exhibiting guilty, threatening, defiant, under-the-influence or mentally ill behavior focusing your attention on them?

Whether it is appropriate to employ stealth or not in your approach is situation-dependent; looking for a fight is not.  What is the entire scene telling you?  Even if there is an obvious victim, your first instinct should be to look for a fight—you have no idea who harmed the victim, where that subject is, and what the victim’s intention is toward the police.  

LOCK DOWN THE SCENE as quickly as possible to ensure the safety of all.  Rushing up to “help” the victim may put you into proximity with an opportunistic offender who may use this lapse in officer safety practices to harm you to ensure his escape, or put you directly into a kill zone.  The best way to “help” this victim is to ensure that no one else, and especially you and other officers, are harmed in the attempt.  

Individual Contacts

When contacting any individual, suspect, witness, uninvolved party, or victim, look for a fight.  You know what cooperative behavior looks like, having seen it constantly since you were first in uniform, knowing what people who comply act like.  You also know how evasive or uncooperative behavior looks.  While evasiveness or a lack of cooperation does not equal assault, it IS an indicator that should not be dismissed and is almost always a component in any forensic analysis of an assault on an officer.  It is part of looking for a fight, narrowing down your focus to the evasive or non-cooperative individual, identifying someone who may want to harm you.

Threat indicators are generally based on behavior that has in the past been observed prior to assault.  These are divided into four main groups:  Motor Activity, Attitude Patterns, Posture, and Speech, or M.A.P.S.  An extremely limited examination of components within the various threat indicators of the M.A.P.S. model are:

Motor Activity:

  • Clenching jaw and fists, flexing arm, chest, and shoulder muscles repeatedly.
  • Striking objects in the officer’s presence.
  • Rapid, out-of-control breathing.

 Attitude Pattern:

  • Extreme distrust.
  • Controlled anger.
  • Repeatedly failing to comply with simple instructions.

 Posture:

  • Excessive eye-contact or "mad-dogging."
  • Maneuvering into a bladed stance or overt “fighting stance.”
  • Maneuvering to “protect” his dominant side from the officer. 

 

Speech Patterns:

  • Quiet but “pushed” speech, or talking through his clenched teeth. 
  • Answering questions with questions, or repeating back the officer’s words.
  • Statements of “losing control” or past violence.

An almost universal signal the suspect has elected to engage in violence is what is described as a look of “disgust” immediately prior to the assault.  Injuring or murdering another who the individual perceives as a fellow “human being” is difficult.  He therefore enters into a process of “othering” the officer, making that person other than human in his mind, as if that person is simply an object to be used.  Disgust exhibited at this time in this confrontation is a physical manifestation of his being disgusted, offended, and concluding an internal mental process of dehumanizing the officer.  It is at that moment the suspect has decided to initiate the now imminent attack.

While one of these behaviors may mean nothing in and of itself (the look of disgust is the exception), it is generally a cluster of M.A.P.S. threat indicators combined with the totality of the events that should signal a tactical or force response.  Looking at your own experience with resistive or assaultive behavior, list mentally the four M.A.P.S. threat indicator categories exhibited by the last five suspects who forced you to respond with force.  While the concept of “threat indicators” may not be new to you, utilizing the MAPS model and breaking each observed behavior into its category not only makes you more likely to notice the behavior on the street, but better enables your articulation during any justification following a force response. 

 

Looking for Predatory Behavior

Predatory behavior in humans matches anything seen by lions, tigers, and bears on the Animal Planet channel.  These are easy to see if you are looking for a fight:

  • One or more people intercepting your path. 
  • Two or more people intentionally spreading out in a flanking move, widening the angle between them.
  • Knowing glances or subtle agreement between two or more people that seems to initiate movement or some action. 
  • “Flooding” by multiple suspects seeking to suddenly surround you.  This is seen when a car full of subjects suddenly exits as if upon agreement, seemingly a swarm of bodies, or like a flood that will overwhelm you.

Whether or not you were looking for a fight, any single factor or a combination of these predatory behaviors means you just found one. 

 

Non-Compliance to Simple Orders

Any non-compliance by any suspect is threat indicator.  An indicator that an individual is near to completing the decision process to physically engage (or flee) is the direct refusal to comply with simple directions to “Step over here to me;” “Keep your hands where I can see them;” “Sit down on the curb,” or any order directly related to your safety.

Asking yourself, “Why isn’t he complying?” is a waste of limited attentional focus.  Why he isn’t cooperating is secondary to what he is doing while he is not complying.  Wondering "why?" rather than "what?" can get you murdered.  Is he:

  • Seemingly looking for escape routes?
  • Subconsciously guarding his dominant side, touching the outside of his pocket(s) or waistband? 
  • Glancing repeatedly at your holstered handgun or other weapon(s) rather than cooperate?
  • Seeming to be attempting to maneuver to gain some type of positional advantage despite orders to the contrary?
  • Subtly blading his body or transferring his body weight to the balls of his feet (which can appear as if he’s crouching a bit)?
  • Rocking his body weight to his back foot so he can step forward with his other to initiate the assault (punch, tackle, takedown, etc.)?
  • A subject who will not comply with police orders is engaged in a risk-benefit evaluation process:  “Is it worth the risk to me to fight or run from the cop versus the dope/weapon/ warrant/crime I just committed he’ll find if I cooperate with him?” 

Be Safe:  Look for a Fight

Far from being an abusive mindset and a recipe for excessive force, constantly “looking for a fight” permits an officer to safely do his (or her) job while being of service to those who need the police.  Approaching any call with a social worker’s mentality is unsafe for everyone on-scene.  Yes, officers are there to assist, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and to act as a shield against those who criminally harm others.  Part of that function is intrinsically violent because some criminals just won’t listen to reason and will respond only to threats of or actual violence.

When and how that force is employed, as a reasonable response to suspect behavior, will be determinant of your ability to protect yourself and others.  Officers who are suddenly overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected violence have little chance to defend themselves from harm or murder.  The mindset begins at the first moment of being notified of a call for service.  The “looking for a fight” mentality is carried through early orientation to suspect threat cues, predatory behavior, and non-compliance to simple, direct orders to prevent you from being assaulted.

As the civil guardian of our society, the police officer has sworn an oath, picked up the sword, and has become essential to our society.   We expect more of our officers than ever before, more than the "rough men who stand ready in the night willing to do violence to those who would do us harm" of George Orwell, more than we expected of the officers in our father's generation.  Within the course of your business day, you will encounter few who are actually willing to harm you--they may not like the job you do, but they are not willing to do the deed.  Among everyone you meet on your shift, you may recognize those few, the one or two on that particular call who are willing to engage in the Process of Violence.  That recognition early enough, gives you the opportunity to foul their plans, and hopefully to bypass the violence through your own tactical movement and early intervention.   If you are among those who are most capable at their profession, your mindset is to simply, consistently, and constantly “look for a fight” as you protect the public and yourself from injury or murder.