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Cover? It’s All About Context

by George on June 24, 2014 07:49

We all should use cover in a gunfight.  Problematically, rather than routinely contacting subjects from cover, most don’t use it until there is a real possibility of shots fired or a gunfight actually erupts.  When there is an exchange of rounds and you’re not initially hit, especially if there is a chance gunshots will continue, you will likely seek to put something to stop the bullets between your soft body (along with all of its parts) and the shooter’s muzzle.  How you might best employ cover to save your life is dependent upon the context of your gunfight.

When discussing what actually constitutes cover, we’d have to go into a discussion of a second topic that requires context:  bullet caliber, weapon and distance from which it is fired, bullet design, and the material type and thickness of the cover being used, not to mention the difference in material thickness to protect against one round hitting the cover or several bullets striking the same material within a small area.  For our purposes, let’s just agree that cover is any material and thickness that protects against fire and the effects of fire (backface spalling, or fragments that chip off the cover at the same speed the bullet strikes the face of the cover and can be lethal for up to three feet or more) from a particular weapon at a particular distance.  Because there are so many factors in what constitutes actual cover, we are probably better served by considering everything to be concealment (a material that hides one from observation but has little to no ballistic protection, e.g., a wooden fence or car door) and tailoring our tactics to it. 

The use of cover is one of those tactics that everyone has an opinion about.  Their way is the only way.  “Always keep back from the corner.”  “Never move up to cover.”  “Always…”  “Never…”  The truth is, every method ever demonstrated on how to use cover is probably “the right way” within a specific context dictated by the situation.  Too often, tactics trainers attempt to force the situation to the tactic rather than the tactic being determined by the situational necessities of the moment.  Tactics are always based upon the context of the fight.

 

BASICS OF COVER

Whether you treat everything you hide behind as concealment or you have faith that the material you are presently hiding behind can actually stop the bullets being fired at you, there are some universal principles that boil down to understanding angles and corners that can be applied:

  • Plane of cover.  This is the imaginary plane established by the suspect’s position and ability to see beyond the corner of your cover (both vertically, e.g., the side of a fence, wall, or tree, and horizontally, e.g., over a wall, a hood of a patrol car, or under the undercarriage of the car at your feet).  The angle of that plane of cover establishes your “safe zone” and the “kill zone.”  If any part of you is in the kill zone, it can be shot.  Keeping your feet inside the safe zone is foundational to the proper use of cover.  
  • A particular piece of cover’s value can be negated by threat movement.  The value of every piece of cover is dictated by the relative positioning of each of the shooters.  Since the suspect’s position dictates the plane of cover, any lateral (or vertical) movement by the suspect will drastically change that plane—and your vulnerability.  Let’s assume you’re a step and a half behind cover and in a gunfight with a suspect 15 feet away and 90 degrees from the left corner of a vertical cover.  Your plane of cover is 90 degrees and we’ll assume you are properly protected by that barricade.  If he takes four steps to his right (your left) and you don’t move, the plane of cover shifts so dramatically that you are probably fully exposed, negating any advantage of cover.  If he takes four steps to his left (your right), the plane of cover is changed to the point where he is using your cover to mask your fire and observation of him.  In order to more safely re-engage, you will have to reestablish the plane of cover—against an aware and prepared threat.  The same problems occur on a horizontal piece of cover: the suspect’s fore and aft movement, or vertical modifications up and down, will change that plane of cover drastically.  BOTTOM LINE: the farther you are away from cover, the more the suspect’s lateral or vertical movement will affect the protective value of that barricade.
  • Threat elevation negates the value of cover.  The higher the position of the suspect shooting at you, the more it tends to expose your position.  For example, you take cover behind a thick rock and earth wall three feet tall, fifty feet away from a suspect on the roof of a three story building.  Unless you are lying along the wall at its base, most of your body will be exposed to the shooter’s fire.
  • The effectiveness of angle of incidence movement is affected by suspect distance from the corner.  It is a rare officer who has not been taught how to “slice the pie” of a corner.  Formally, this is called “angle of incidence,” extrapolated from Snell’s Law of Light Refraction.  Essentially, by moving past a horizontal or vertical corner of cover employing small degrees or angles of movement, you should be able to glean some indication of the suspect’s position (shadow or reflection) or body part (shoulder, elbow, foot, hair, etc.) before he can locate you.  However, this works well only when the suspect is relatively close to the cover.  The farther the suspect is away from the barricade, the greater the likelihood that he will be able to see you as or just before you can see him.
  • If you can shoot him, he can shoot you.  Aside from simply sticking a weapon around a corner and spraying the countryside, if you are behind your weapon shooting at him, even though everything else is protected, he can still shoot your hands, arms, and head.  To lessen this danger, if the suspect is “shootable” (meeting deadly force standards of behavior) and you find him, seeing his elbow or foot, there is no reason to move farther into the kill zone to shoot him “center mass” as this movement will signal to him to respond with fire.  Instead, shoot that which you can see—the elbow or foot.  Then, if still justified, move to targets that are better suited in stopping him—being hit unexpectedly by bullets is often distracting and possibly disabling the suspect attempting to murder you before he can shoot you is a good goal.
  • Corners are dangerous places.  All corners of cover represent danger: from beyond the corner you can be shot.  When employing cover, another danger is in the form of ricochet off of a hard surface.  This threat is lessened by moving back and away from the cover to allow the ricochet’s angle to miss you) or it may consist of the bullet being able to penetrate the corner of the material that is thinner than the body of the piece of cover (e.g., the diameter of a live 30-inch tree is impervious to almost any .30 caliber rifle round, but the edge of the tree where you operate in a gunfight may not be thick enough to stop a round).
  •  Most individuals without military training will tend to shoot at what they can see rather than through the barricade or object the officer is using.  So it makes sense to stay as small as possible behind cover and to expose as little as possible while shooting or observing.  Problematically, suspects aren’t necessarily good shots.  They will likely hit the cover you’re using, so it’s nice to have real cover rather than concealment.

 

TWO NEEDS, TWO TACTICAL CONTEXTS

All tactics are contextual and how you maneuver to employ the tactic is situationally dependent.  Employing cover is not a one-size fits all exercise.  Contextually, officers tend to employ cover in two situations:  deliberate and hasty.

Deliberate.  The officer employs the cover as a means of protection prior to contacting an individual, in anticipation of gunfire, or as a result of gunfire.  This includes searching for a suspect or attempting to locate the threat’s position employing deliberate angle of incidence movement.  Generally, it is safer and more effective to remain minimally at least one arm’s length from the cover and often up to several steps back from cover while searching.  This makes the danger of corner ricochet much less likely.  Because it is deliberate, the officer is able to maintain a more disciplined posture and avoid giving away his or her location by inadvertently crossing the plane of cover. 

When the context changes and the suspected location of the threat is unknown, for example, “The gunshot came from the west!” it is not a good idea to camp out a distance from the cover until you know exactly where that threat is positioned.  The location of the source of a single gunshot is often confusing.  Any movement must now be predicated upon clearing every angle of incidence of the corner in order to work to the point where the plane of cover can be established.  This clearing will begin at the wall and, as possible threat areas are visually cleared, you then move away from the wall until the suspect is located and plane of cover is established. 

Hasty.  The officer unexpectedly comes under fire from a known location at typical police gunfight distances.  The officer moves while firing toward the cover.  Because there is no time to determine the actual plane of cover by slowly creeping up to it (angle of incidence movement or pie-slicing), the officer instead protects as much of his body as possible by moving directly up on the barricade and concealing as much of his body as possible behind the corner of cover while maintaining fire on the suspect, reaching to or past the corner with the muzzle of the weapon.  This permits the officer to maintain the initiative in the gunfight while hurriedly placing as much of his body behind cover as possible. 

 

BUT WAIT…!

Now is the time dogma begins to rear its head and bark.  Bringing up the hasty barricade position often generates mild to outraged protests:  “We always have to remain at least one arm’s length from cover!  This will prevent us from getting hit by ricochets and prevent someone from disarming us who might be standing on the other side of the barricade!” 

Not really.  Remember the context in which it is employed: you are actively exchanging rounds with a suspect.  Because movement is life—it’s harder to hit you—and cover is a good thing to have in a gunfight, you move abruptly as you respond with fire.  As you get to the corner of the cover, you shove your torso and feet behind the protective material but remain engaged with the suspect as long as you are not taking any wounds.  That also includes any round that is so close that you need to duck behind cover to protect yourself.  Your rate of accurate fire—shooting only as fast as you can hit (which is generally a lot slower than most people practice)—is also of equal value in protecting you.

If we accept that both accurate fire combined with the use of cover are desirable components in surviving a shooting, moving to a barricade while continuing to accurately fire on an imminent threat makes sense.  What does not make sense, absent taking wounds or accurate fire that drives you back from the corner, is to voluntarily move away from the corner of cover and cease firing, losing the initiative.  Stopping your fire gives the suspect respite, a chance to reload, or adjust his position.  He’s no longer under any pressure.  Now to reengage, you will have to pie-slice in angles of incidence against a suspect who knows where you are, has demonstrated willingness to murder you, and will likely be waiting for you to show any sign of your body in the kill zone.  Not a good scenario in typical police shooting distances.  Relinquishing the initiative in any fight gives the other guy the opportunity to bring the fight to you.

Regarding ricochets, while there is always a chance that a bullet may hit the edge and ricochet into you, the difference between it hitting the corner of whatever you are using for cover and directly impacting you is often tenths of an inch.  While that may happen, there is a benefit to the certainty that almost all of your body is behind cover and that only your hands and weapon and as little of your head as possible is vulnerable.  The advantage of this confidence may offset the small possibility of ricochet threats.

Everything in tactics is a compromise.  If, in this context, you were to move toward cover while accurately firing and stop where you think the plane of cover might be while remaining well back of the barricade, in practice, we generally find you, like most officers, will be mostly or even wholly exposed.  It is nearly impossible to concentrate on hitting the suspect, move while hitting, and to precisely determine your position relative to the suspect and your piece of cover.  If this proper alignment happens, it only happens in training on a one-way range.  We see officers in force-on-force training disappear behind cover, losing the initiative and advantage, and then have to fight their way back into the gunfight from a position disadvantage.

As far as a suspect grabbing your weapon if it extends beyond the corner, we must remember context and not base our tactics on unknown ninjas and boogey-men.  This is not a slow incident of angle search where the suspect’s location is unknown and may be immediately on the other side of the door frame within hand’s reach of your weapon.  This is a gunfight.  You know the imminent threat(s), his position, and you are keeping him under observation as you shoot at him.

While it is theoretically possible that someone might remain on the other side of your barricade near the corner you are using as the suspect is shooting at you (with the bullets striking where the ninja/boogeyman is standing), it is unlikely.  Besides, we must train for the usual threat, and not the unusual or possible but improbable threat.  If I’m shooting at a suspect who is shooting at me, and I’m at the corner of cover, I’m not going to worry about a guy on the other side of the concrete block wall grabbing my weapon and disarming me.  If that happens, it will be a combatives problem to solve before resolving my present problem of someone attempting to shoot and murder me.

 

CONCLUSION

The “proper” use of cover is context-dependent.  How it is employed as a protective device is dependent upon many factors, including the type of fight you are in.  If the gunfight begins with you behind cover, remaining back from the cover at least an arm’s distance, employing strict discipline in your posture, leaning into barricade to get your weapon and eyes into the kill zone to shoot rather than stepping into it and fighting from there makes complete tactical sense. 

However, if you are not behind cover when a sudden gunfight begins and you are moving toward cover while hitting the suspect as you reach cover, it makes no sense to disappear behind cover, halting your fire, and then being forced to work your way back into the kill zone as safely as possible to reengage.  Stay in the fight by putting your legs and torso behind the cover and remain at the corner of cover to fight and win.  

Context is all-important in tactics.  It is always the first question that must be answered when someone is introducing a new tactic or skill.  Context is the first consideration in all things, for without it, we are unable to determine if the skill or tactic has any validity at all.  Because so many gunfights begin with the officer away from cover, we must consider how to most efficiently employ it when cover is a hasty tactic.  Moving, hitting, and remaining in the gunfight while almost all of your body is covered and close to the barricade makes sense…in this context.

What Training is Sufficient for Civilians in Responding to an Active Shooter?

by George on December 20, 2012 09:33

Active shooter.  That phrase creates many strong emotions in many of us.  For example, on December 14, 2012, a gunman shot his way into an elementary school where firearms, by law, are prohibited, murdering 27 children and teachers before taking his own life as law enforcement approached.  Yet on December 16, 2012, an off-duty Bexar County Sheriff’s sergeant shot and wounded a gunman who shot one person at a movie theater in San Antonio, Texas, ending what might have been another massacre of innocents.  As firearms instructors, there is no question that a person who is armed and willing to confront those who willfully and serendipitously murder the unarmed is the best way to stop the killing.  And if we can’t be the one at the tip of the spear, we want to the ones who taught that person how to end this senseless killing.

The question of the sufficiency of training must be addressed by those who not only train police officers, but also instruct legally armed citizens.  Some instructors will flatly state that only the elite military and SWAT operators should intervene, while others will set a more reasonable standard as that of an average police officer.  Due to the inundation of newscasts about the tragedies of Active Shooter events, you, like me, are probably being approached by legally armed citizens asking questions about how they might be able to protect their families and others in these situations.  The questions they are asking are, “What kind of training would be required to effectively stop that level of violence?  How long would that training take?  What kind of reoccurring practice would be required?

Questions such as these indicate thoughtfulness and a serious consideration of what is involved in possibly interrupting this type of attack.  Different individuals are going to gain proficiency differently given the same number of hours training, and then will maintain that proficiency to various degrees of competency.  Shooting is a perishable skill, and regular practice increases familiarity and may create increased skill if—and only if—that training is consciously performed.  When developing training or answering questions related to any training topic, the foundation must be within the context of the problem.  In this case, what training is sufficient to interrupt the murder of innocents, divert the shooting, and either physically stop the shooter, cause him to commit suicide, or create a situation that permits the police time to respond and intervene?

This level of skill development and mental preparation is likely much, much more than most citizens (and just as many police officers) are willing to do.  The reality is that hits with handguns at extended distance are more a matter of luck than skill while being shot at by your target.  Shooting on a square range on a sunny warm day with a range master and a red flag run up the flagpole may allow for consistent slow-fire hits on a man-sized target at 100 yards with a handgun.  However hitting a man who is moving, murdering people, and maybe shooting at you from 25 yards may be beyond what most people can reliably do with a handgun. 

If it is unlikely that the citizen or the officer armed with a handgun will be able to hit the Threat at realistic distances, why train anyone with a handgun to attempt to interdict an Active Shooter event?  Again, we must look at the context of the event.  According to Ron Borsch, 90% of suspects involved in an Active Shooter event commit suicide on-site (http://www.policemag.com/blog/swat/story/2008/05/active-shooter-response-revisited-part-1.aspx).  When confronted by any significant resistance, these people immediately turn their weapons on themselves.  The legally armed citizen who is able to quickly confront the Threat with fire may actually wound the individual.  Significantly, whether or not the Threat is hit, in most situations the murder of innocents is stopped as his attention is diverted and the threat is soon ended.

After decades of studying these events (having coined the term, “Active Shooter” with Jeff Martin in 1999), it is my belief that any intervention by a legally armed citizen or police officer will generally end the attack on the innocent, and the earliest intervention regardless of whether or not the citizen or officer actually hits the Threat (the criminal gunman) will save lives.  If the statistics are correct, approximately two-thirds of these events are stopped by either the legally armed citizen or police officer (Ron Borsch). 

 

WHAT KIND OF TRAINING?

To prepare any person to competently and contextually respond to this type of defensive shooting, I believe the training would minimally entail:

  • Familiarity with the laws of deadly force in your state.  It is vital if you are going to carry a handgun that you understand when you can legally press a trigger, when you cannot, and know what to say and do following that shooting.  Saving your life or someone else's may be a good thing, but spending your life in prison following the shooting because you don’t understand the law or you say the wrong thing to police detectives is probably not on your bucket list.
  • Sufficient marksmanship skills.  While tight groups on a paper target do not automatically translate into solid hits on a gunman who is shooting at you, putting bullets through the bad guy with combat accuracy is how shootings are generally ended.  Combat accuracy is defined as any hit disrupting the imminent threat.  For those who have never felt bullets just missing them, with the corresponding adrenal dump and the well-known effects on perception, decision-making processes, and the ability to accurately fire a weapon, shooting at paper in a slow-fire method without a care in the world is as dissimilar as flying an F-22 combat jet and a single-prop Cessna airplane.  Both are airplanes, both take off and land, and both move through the air, but that is where the similarity ends.  Again, hits matter, but any shots disrupting the gunman’s murder spree is sufficient, and sometimes just knowing he is being shot at may cause him to shoot himself.
  • Sufficiently aggressive mindset.  You have to be willing to make yourself a target: when you move aggressively, it will be different from every other person who is fleeing, inviting him to target you; when you begin firing, you will also invite him to target you.  Your willingness to do this will be answered only when there is lead in the air and blood is flowing.  The moral question of whether or not it is morally acceptable to shoot and possibly kill another human being must be resolved before you hope to act on-time, in-time.  You cannot hope to act decisively when you have sights on the Threat and hesitate, wondering if it is moral to shoot this person.    This question must be resolved prior to carrying a firearm.  An appropriately aggressive mindset will be enhanced by mental imagery, imagining your response to this deadly situation in vivid detail.  In this way, you will create memories of actions, facilitating your schema, or mental maps, to quickly orient to the situation, avoid being shocked, and giving you that feeling of, “Oh yeah.  I know what to do!’  These mental patterns permit you to act decisively in a situation where aggressive action (either fighting or fleeing) is safer than non-action.  Firearms instructor John Farnham accurately said, "A confused countenance always locks you in position and generates a focused response by predators.”
  • Sufficient tactical competency.  Knowing the human limitations of responding to a deadly attack, as well as the tactics that can give you time to react and positively respond allows you to fight when you are surprised by the sudden nearby gunfire.  How to use cover or concealment (and knowing the difference), how to move safely to position yourself to shoot the bad guy, and how to respond when he targets you will be required.  Ensuring you have a clear gun-target line (the imaginary line between the muzzle of your handgun and the targeted area on the Threat) as well as a reasonably clear background (to protect innocents when you miss the Threat) will be necessary.
  • Sufficient understanding of police response.  In this case, police officers responding to this violent event will be both frightened and excited, and will have a high degree of urgency to end the event.  While it is in everyone's best interest for the police to arrive early, they are not your friend at this moment.  Standing in a public place with a handgun in your hand where shots have been fired with innocents down will not be healthy for you when the police arrive.  Understanding how to survive this second threat to your life is as vital as surviving the first.

Practically speaking (rather than the ideal minimum training above), a legally armed citizen actually needs just two things to make a difference disrupting the Active Shooter event:  a loaded weapon that functions every time the trigger is pressed, and the guts to get into the fight. 

 

HOW MUCH TRAINING?

The honest answer to this is:  As much as you think you need and are willing to pay for in range time, ammunition, and training hours.  If I told you that in one week you are going to face a murderous shooter who will attempt to take your life, your family’s lives, and dozens of innocents’ lives, what level of training would you want to have under your belt?  IF this happens to you (a big if, but then again, if it happens to you, it's 100%), what capability do you want to have?  The real question that can only be answered by the student is, “How much preparation is practical for you for an event that can happen, may happen, but likely will not happen to you?” 

For example, I was driving within 5 miles of the Clackamas Town Center  mall shooting when it began (Oregon, 12/11/12).  10,000 people in the mall all have a story to tell about what they experienced in an event that took the lives to two innocents and wounded a third.  This occurred in a metropolitan area of approximately 1.5 million people.  For most of the 10,000, no training was necessary because they fled at the sound of gunshots and sight of people surging past them, or they were locked down in stores.  Perhaps only 300 people in the mall may have been able to make a difference and would have benefitted from being armed and having undergone this training.  There are reports of one concealed pistol permit holder who pointed his handgun at the Threat but did not take the shot because of innocents in the background.  This young man believes the murderer saw him with the handgun, and then took his own life moments later.

For some of us, it was a case study on what these events look like, how they unfold, and to ask how I might better react to protect myself, my family, and those around me as a legally armed citizen or police officer.  After each Active Shooter event, I ask myself, “How might I modify my training courses to better meet the needs of my students?”  For most people, however, it was just another horror-filled event that shocked them out of their denial for a few days before they re-entered their imaginary and safe “gun-free zones” where the police protect them from all harm and their belief that if they are nice people, no harm will come to them. 

The question of how this training should be delivered lies in frequent, short duration, high-intensity training sessions.  This training regimen is far more valuable to skill development and retention than a long course where the same intensity is sustained over days.  Therefore, most training courses should be three to four hours max, with subsequent training sessions weekly or semi-weekly. 

A basic course for a first-time shooter to gain sufficient competence to build upon through independent practice and minimally react to an Active Shooter as a lawfully armed citizen is a minimum of seven classes, each 3 to 4-hours in length. 

  • One 4-hour class on defense/deadly force law and its aftermath, as well as tactical theory.  
  • Four live-fire range sessions, with 1,000 rounds of practice handgun ammo, plus 50 rounds of carry/defensive ammo (to ensure reliability).  This is sufficient to familiarize the new shooter with weapon function and marksmanship capability suitable to hit what they're aiming at on the range at a reasonable distance, from one-foot to 50-yards.  However, it must be emphasized that this may NOT translate to hitting a person at that distance who is shooting at that him in a gunfight).
  • Two 4-hour sessions on tactics (500 rounds).  This is fighting from a barricade as well as movement work. 

At the end of 1,550 rounds over a seven to fourteen week period, this person should be capable of going from a non-shooter to someone who is competent in their tactics and marksmanship and may be able to safely disrupt a mass murder event through their skills and tactics. 

 

MAINTAINING PROFICIENCY

After fundamental marksmanship, tactical, and skills training, the shooter would have to determine the level of proficiency he wishes to maintain.  Firearms proficiency may either be enhanced or degraded with each trigger press in training.  To be of value, training must be conducted with intent to improve the fundamentals with each shot, even during rapid fire, and an understanding of the very real contextual and human factors limitations we all possess.  It is only through conscious training goals and application of effort that any shooter may progress.

With a conscious training plan, that lawfully armed citizen may be able maintain a sufficient degree of proficiency through self-initiated practice.  That practice would include:

  • Regular range training.  Approximately 500-1000 rounds per year in a course of fire that included periodic, regular training that focused on fighting skills as well as marksmanship skills.  This training should emphasize functionality and familiarity with your weapon as a fighting tool.
  • Mental imaging and preparation.  Playing reasonable "If-Then" games prepares you to respond competently to a suddenly evolving event.  Reading about the situations that occur throughout the world and mentally placing yourself at Ground Zero and then "gaming" possible responses will give you options should you be presented with the real thing. 

No matter how conscious your training practices might be, there will be habits you create that become invisible to you.  Most of these habits will serve you, but others will not.  Allot at least one practice session per year, probably only for one-hour or two, with a competent coach who can observe and correct these invisible habits before they degrade your ability to hit, or worse, get you killed. 

 

CONTEXT IS KEY 

In every aspect of this discussion, the context must be considered if the answer is to be addressed.  The answer to the question, “How much training do I need if…?” is different for everyone.  The proper response is, “At what level do you want to operate?”  When that “if” is a question about the training necessary to function as a SWAT team operator on an entry team during a hostage rescue, the answer is going to look much different than, “I have a concealed pistol permit, and I want to learn how to better protect myself.  What do I need to learn?” 

As a defensive shooting instructor, it is important to ask questions and determine the practical context of the event we are preparing our students for prior to snapping off a pat answer.  While I am willing to train any lawfully armed citizen to operate their weapons at the highest possible skill and tactical levels, I need to remember that they may not have a clue about what they really want.  It is up to me as the instructor to determine the context of the training course I will suggest to them to meet their needs. 

 

“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.