3 things cops can take away from the NYPD ambush

There are no “low-risk” assignments when you’re on duty, just a bunch of “unknown risk” assignments

In the days to come, we’ll learn more about the cowardly ambush killings of two NYPD officers and will be able to analyze it in detail for lessons learned, but until then I want to discuss a few initial thoughts prompted by these senseless murders — not accusations about the incident but rather some officer safety issues that need to be readdressed. 

Please be assured that I am not making any accusations about the fallen officers here — I’m only saying that the situation has highlighted some officer safety issues that need to be readdressed.

We’ve discussed this issue before, most recently in connection with the June 2014 ambush killing of two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Officers in a pizza restaurant. there is a difference between comfort and safety, and it’s important to your survival to think about this as you go through your shift.

1. Comfort vs. Safety
It’s a natural part of the human condition that we seek out places where we feel comfortable. We are attracted to places that we know, places where our friends are, places that provide shelter. We’re especially attracted to them when we’re feeling tired, scared or vulnerable, or when we need a mental and physical break.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but there is a hidden danger associated with these havens that we have to be aware of. We have to be aware of the fact that we may subconsciously allow our comfortable surroundings to affect our level of situational awareness, and we may allow ourselves to mistake our feelings of comfort for security.

If an area of comfort is indeed secure — at home, for instance — then it’s OK for us to “switch off” for a while and relax. In fact, we need to do this every day to maintain our mental and physical health. However, when you’re on duty and in uniform in the public view, there is no place of comfort that is safe enough for you to let your guard down. 

When you’re out there in public in uniform, you are a walking target for the angry, deranged, damaged, drugged, and sociopathic among us. It doesn’t matter if you’re surrounded by brother officers, parked in a remote location in your patrol car, or in the back corner of the local cop stop eatery — you are not safe, you cannot turn your radar off, and you cannot mistake your familiar, comfortable, surroundings for safety. 

2. Continual Risk Assessment
Cops are good at reading people and situations. They develop an ability to quickly analyze a situation, determine what’s going on, and make rapid, accurate decisions based on limited information. 

Despite this, I’ve got some bad news for you: Sometimes your risk assessment skills aren’t enough.

There are certain parts of your job that are inherently high-risk, and when you find yourself in these situations, you naturally increase your level of attention and awareness, and you take extra steps to ensure your safety. On the flip side, there are certain tasks that are generally low-risk, and you typically don’t approach them with the same level of intensity.

Domestic violence call or a traffic stop? High risk. Be alert. Issuing a parking ticket or investigating a fender bender? Low risk. Yawn. When’s lunch?

The problem is, the whole high-risk, low-risk thing is absolute crap. It’s fantasy. The truth is, you have no idea what the risk level is in any of these activities.

In the past year, we’ve had officers violently assaulted or killed while eating lunch, writing parking tickets, working a vehicle accident scene, going to court, writing a report, making a quick stop for a soda, working the front desk at the station, doing highway construction guard duty, telling some pedestrians to get out of the middle of the street, or doing a hundred other things that we would classify as “low-risk” activities. Guess what? They weren’t “low risk.”

The problem is, you sometimes have no idea what sharks are swimming in your waters when you’re on duty, and anytime one of these predators gets close, your level of risk skyrockets — without you knowing it. 

There are no “low-risk” assignments when you’re on duty, just a bunch of “unknown risk” assignments. There is nothing you do on duty that doesn’t require your utmost awareness and attention to safety. Don’t let yourself drift into condition white out there.

No More “Purple Heart Boxes”
The American Sherman tanks of World War II were no match for the heavy battle tanks of the Germans. They were under-gunned, under-powered, and under-armored compared to the German steel, and in the black humor favored by combat troops, they quickly became known as “Purple Heart Boxes” — especially among the Infantry, who wanted no part of being trapped in them when the ammo started flying.

Cops don’t drive tanks, but they do drive patrol cars. These thin-skinned vehicles can be penetrated by most small arms, and have all kinds of internal obstacles (MDTs, gun racks, steering wheels, go bags, radios) to trap you in place so that you can’t escape them quickly or fight effectively from within them. They have blind spots that rob you of your awareness and allow threats to approach unseen.

But cops spend so much time in their cars that they feel comfortable there, and don’t think about these weaknesses. Big motors, flashing lights and loud sirens promote a sense of authority, power and control. All that steel and glass gives a sense of security and protection. With a good partner seated next to you, it’s easy to start feeling like you’re a bit insulated and protected from the world outside the windows, and can let your guard down, just a bit, while you finish that report.

Don’t fall prey to that temptation. Stay alert, and don’t let that Ford or Chevy become your own “Purple Heart Box.”

Be safe out there, and God bless you all.

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