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How Not to Shoot Off-Duty Officers: The Other Side of the Coin

by George on July 14, 2014 07:28

In an earlier blog-entry, I wrote the article, "How Not to Get Shot Off-Duty by Other Officers” (pubished in "The Police Marksman", March/April 2014 issue).  This is the companion piece to that article, examining how patrol officers can maximize their own safety through tactical principles while decreasing the likelihood of shooting another officer.

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 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 by failing to recognize the peril he is in from responding officers, especially when he turns toward armed officers.  The responding officers believe that an unidentified individual is a criminal involved in a shooting in-progress or just-occurred.  A badge may be even visible, worn around the neck or clipped to their belt, or even held in their hand.  Even though visibly displayed, badges are not be seen because the officers’ attentional focus is locked on that 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.  They 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 focusing on the responding officer.  These programs revolve around recognizing badges and essentially slowing down the deadly force response to 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 to confidently respond to an apparent imminent deadly threat while providing them with a method making it 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 weapon.  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), that response starts out as, “Threat?  Yes—Shoot!’  As training progresses, the response becomes, “Threat-Shoot!”  A well-prepared officer will exhibit a “Thr-Shoot!” response.  In the split-second, high threat 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,"© providing threat pattern-matching capabilities for officers.  By training officers in what threatening behavior looks like, 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 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 on-going 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 or 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, well, like cops:

  • Armed and holding someone at gunpoint with the suspect holding up his hands or putting his hands on his head.
  • Standing over someone who is proned out.
  • After shooting somebody, 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 February 12, 2007).  An off-duty officer disrupted the suspect’s attack, 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 the plainclothes, 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 is 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 creates 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’ response becomes 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 standardized 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.  Working from behind corners (a foundational tactical principle), become as small a target as possible. Cover stops bullets and the effects of bullets (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 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 ground (with its possible advantages or weapons) and bring him 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 the 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 or 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. 

Why Do We Teach? Handgun Shooting Stances

by George on April 9, 2013 13:51

This is one in a series of "Why Do We Teach?" articles focusing on training subjects in police academies, in-service training.  Not just police related, these concepts and methods are often commonly taught.  The series details why we either teach that concept, modify it, or reject in favor of a more practical solution.  If you teach it, it must be defensible, pragmatic, applicable to real-life combat and survival, and lawfully justifiable. 

Handgun shooting stances are taught to shooters and reinforced through hours and years of training.  Creating a stable shooting platform, from the soles of the feet through the hands, is necessary to obtain the hits on the target or, more vitally, on the Threat.  Stances are performed with the legs comfortably bent, spine with a bit of a forward lean, with the arms either pushing and pulling, creating the dynamic tension for which the Weaver Stance is known, or pushing the hands forward symmetrically to form the Isosceles Stance.  It is important to focus upon a proper stance in order to be more successful in surviving shootings, right?

Well, no, not really.  Early formal stance training may be useful to a developing shooter.  However, concentrating on perfecting a stance is generally counter to prevailing in a shooting.  Most shootings take place in extremely close distances involving very large targets, are very abrupt, and extremely violent.  Many officers find themselves in awkward positions when the gunfight begins.  Tactics are much more relevant to your survival than your stance. 

Stances May Be Counterproductive in a Gunfight

The mere mention of a “stance” automatically causes the legs to form a solid, well-balanced base supporting the upper body as it fires the weapon.  Marksmanship requires a strong foundation.  However, accuracy, and thus marksmanship, is contextual.  In most gunfights, what the legs are doing is irrelevant to marksmanship needed to survive.  Training to stand solidly in the open and trade shots with a murderous Threat is a sucker’s game—every bullet fired in your direction may end your life.  While being a static target may theoretically have the possibility of increasing your accuracy, being a stationary target definitely assists the bad guy with his marksmanship and putting bullets through you. 

Standing still with bits of red hot lead zipping past while being thumped by muzzle blast generally decreases any shooter’s accuracy potential.  The more vulnerable you perceive you are, the less physically and mentally functional you are likely to become.  Accuracy is more a factor of being able to cope with and overcome your perception of immediate personal vulnerability.  While you are not likely to instantly affect the Threat shooting you (most bullets take time to cause the body to react), you can create a sense of more time that may increase your ability to lay sufficiently accurate fire on the Threat to save your life.  The tactical responses proven to likely increase your survivability is either sudden angular movement or moving to a corner and fighting from there.  Static stances have no place in this lethal environment when you are behind the Threat in the gunfight and need to stretch time to effectively respond.

Developing the capability for precise fire is a necessary skill for any shooter.  However, precision is rarely called for in an actual shooting.  “Combat Accuracy” is all that is necessary for survival.  Paraphrasing Rob Pincus, combat accuracy can be defined as “Any round disrupting the imminent threat to life.”  This may mean a bullet strike to the brain or spine, a hit in the upper thoracic cavity, the pelvis, or any bone.  Sometimes just simple “minute of human” accuracy to any part of the body is sufficient, but no single bullet can be counted on to stop the fight.

For the balance of this discussion, let’s assume that the legs are doing their thing independent of the upper body’s efforts—this may be moving, crouching, or kneeling.  Therefore, this discussion will be about a Modified Weaver or Modified Isosceles and their contextual usefulness. 

Modified Weaver

The position of the arms in the Weaver Stance, characterized by the push-pull tension of both hands on the grip of the handgun, arguably provides a very stable platform for accurate fire.  This shooting method was popularized by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper as the “Modern Pistol Technique,” permitting more precise shot placement at small targets at any distance.

Fundamentally, the body is bladed and the shooting elbow is locked straight, with the gun-hand pushing the handgun forward.  The support-hand’s palm contacts the shooting hand’s fingers, pulling directly back with the elbow bent and pointing downward.  Many have been taught to shoot with their shooting elbow bent and pushing forward.  This is an error.  Instructors attempting to mimic Col. Cooper’s shooting style are apparently unaware that a combat injury prevented him from extending his arm.  He taught others to straighten their gun-arms. 

The FBI’s “Violent Encounters” study (2006) revealed that more than 97% of shootings begin with the suspect shooting first.  A human’s “startle response” to surprise results in spinning to directly face the threat, hands up at face level and extended to protect the eyes and throat, with the spine forward in a semi-crouched position.  Problematically, human factors and the Weaver-hold are counter to the body’s reactions in a sudden shooting situation. 

It is a rare shooter trained in the Weaver method who does not react to sudden and unexpected gunfire by instantly moving into an Isosceles upper body (regardless of what the legs are doing).  In scenario training where there is no expectation of actual injury—with only minor pain penalties when hit by marking cartridges or Airsoft pellets possible—the sudden response to unexpected “deadly threats” by “Weaver-trained” shooters is almost invariably an Isosceles-type reactive response.  This is even seen on the range where there is no personal peril whatsoever.  Shooters tend to transition into the classic Weaver-hold apparently as they realize they are in the “wrong stance.” 

When wearing body armor, the Weaver stance also presents the non-dominant side’s arm hole to the Threat.  Because the Weaver can only be properly employed in a bladed stance, the strongest part of the body armor (center chest where the shock plate is located) is in an irrelevant position, with the unprotected armpit placed in the most vulnerable position.  Wounds from bullets traversing the body laterally through the axillary region, that is, from side-to-side through the armpit, are incredibly threatening to survival because they tend to pierce multiple organs and vital blood vessels of the upper thoracic region. 

The Weaver-hold is ideal when fighting from a corner.  With most of the body covered by the barricade, the stability of this hold is put to use making longer distance or precision hits.  Corners give you time.  Marksmanship is all about having the time to put the bullet on target. 

Modified Isosceles

The Modified Isosceles is a reactive “stance.”  The Isosceles (upper body square to the threat, hands pushed forward at eye-level, the legs doing what they do in that specific situation) reflects how humans naturally react when faced with a sudden close threat.  The upper body of the Isosceles mimics the natural startle response, as seen in video after video of officers responding to real-life threats by punching their handguns out in front of them.  It is a human instinct to put a weapon between you and the perceived threat. 

While generally not as inherently accurate at distance as the Weaver hold, it doesn’t have to be.  Combat effective accuracy requires only hits on target, preferably in most cases, with bullets impacting within three to six inches of each other, creating as much damage to multiple organs as possible.  At close distances where the Isosceles-style will likely be employed, a high degree of accuracy is generally not necessary for survival.  Hitting him well, quickly and often is more critical to winning. 

If wearing a ballistic vest, the Isosceles-hold keeps the center of your vest facing the threat, affording you maximum protection.  It also supports moving and hitting much better than its well-known counterpart. When the shooter moves in any angular or lateral direction, the Isosceles-hold supports hitting until the angles become too severe, forcing the shooter to transition to a one-hand hold. 

Not a Question of “Either/Or”

Either/or is not a question for warriors or trained professionals.  Paraphrasing Gabe Suarez, the context of the problem determines strategy; strategy determines tactics; and tactics determine the methods and skills employed to solve the problem:

  • Where’s the Threat?  Either close or far, big or small.
  • What’s his weapon?  Firearm, blade, or striking implement.
  • What’s he doing?  Charging you or standing.  Grabbing you or behind cover.
  • Where are you?  In the open, behind concealment, or behind cover?
  • Are you surprised or did you have enough time to prepare?  If you had time to prepare, you are likely behind a corner with a firearm in-hand.
  • Are you willing to shoot him right now or are you still frantically looking for alternatives.  Remember the old saying, “Once you’re in the fight, it is way too late to wonder if this is a good idea.”

These questions will likely not be answered so much as reacted to.  Realistically, this decision is not made as it is a reaction per your training to the situation suddenly erupting in front of you. 

Conclusion

All plans are made for flat terrain and sunny weather regardless of the ground-truth.  Having a rigid plan to engage in a gunfight with a certain weapon hold and stance is not realistic.  Training and expectations of “how it’s going to go down” may not match your immediate needs—especially so if dogma has any part in your decision-making.  Desperately clinging to a “style” or “method” may mean that you are attempting to drive a nail with a screwdriver in a life-and-death situation.  While a screwdriver is a fine and necessary tool, it cannot be applied in every situation.  The same is true of a shooting stance where dogmatic adherence to a “style” due to guru-worship or personal ego-investment may leave you confused, unable to effectively respond, and perhaps horribly injured.

If you’re suddenly attacked at close range and are purely reactive, you’re most likely to shoot (and hopefully move) in some form of a Modified Isosceles platform.  From contact to rock-throwing distances, movement is the highest initial survival priority—hitting him is a very close second.  However, if you are fighting from a corner, employing the Weaver platform is more likely to get the needed hits, especially if the Threat is at distance or behind his own cover.  Fighting from a corner creates the perception time, and if you have the time to make a precision shot, Weaver may help you obtain that hit.

The bottom line in any deadly force response is to interrupt the eye-target line with the weapon, and once the weapon is on-target, to fire repeatedly slowly enough to hit him as long as you perceive the imminent deadly threat remains.  How the body supports this is context dependent and based on the tactics you employ to survive.  The old bromide certainly applies:  “In twenty years, no one will care about which caliber or stance you were using in the gunfight.  All they’ll care about is whether or not you won the fight.”