Managing officer created jeopardy
Contemporary agencies spend a lot of time, money and training resources preparing and equipping officers for the “unconventional adversary.” Those who are mentally ill and/or suicidal create special handling problems for officers, especially when:
- In possession of a cutting or blunt instrument;
Standard procedure in such cases involves a rapid response, followed by a safe distance perimeter and verbal dialogue. Should this effort fail, an alternative resolution plan must be set in motion. Unfortunately, law enforcement has proven that it doesn’t have a “standard procedure” for the follow on process and with surprising frequency; officers/agencies initiate and later validate inappropriate and dangerous behavior. Not surprisingly, behavior such as this often results in tragedy.
The purpose of this article is to address something that is often ignored, regularly dismissed and occasionally celebrated. It is something that dramatically impacts officer/suspect survivability at the crisis site, and touches a raw nerve with no small number of officers. This “something” is officer-created jeopardy, and the failure to limit and manage such jeopardy when necessary, logical and appropriate.
Properly preparing officers before they enter the fray has been proven effective in reducing the probability of negative outcomes. There are a number of steps in this process, with the foundational one being the management of officer-created jeopardy.
MANAGING OFFICER-CREATED JEOPARDY
This is a pre-event policy, training and operational philosophy geared towards achieving mission objectives, while reducing the potential for unnecessary officer/suspect confrontations. It is important to note that there are countless situations in which officers have an absolute need and obligation to mix it up with suspects, and where anything less would be a dereliction of duty. Likewise, there are other scenarios where direct confrontation would be ill-advised and counterproductive.
Consider the following: Officers are dispatched to a “check the well being” call. Upon arrival they find a distraught male, who is pressing a knife against his throat and threatening suicide. In circumstances such as this, officers generally focus on the following primary mission objectives:
- Ensure officer and surrounding citizen safety;
- Prevent the self-destructive behavior, and save the subjects life.
Officers usually attempt to meet these objectives by maintaining a safe distance, keeping citizens away and talking the subject into surrendering. Unfortunately, history has proven that ineffective dialogue frustrates some officers, who in the absence of proper training and direction feel compelled resort to options that are not in furtherance of their mission objectives. This often involves closing the officer-suspect distance, and attempting to use tools such as OC spray or a baton in a manner they were never designed or intended to be used.
Moving into the reactionary gap of an armed mentally ill subject dramatically increases officer jeopardy, and few things are as certain as when officer jeopardy increases, officer/suspect life expectancy decreases. As a result, officers walking into such encounters often face the ultimate law enforcement paradox: Their sincere goal was to save the suicidal persons life, but their actions created the proximity/jeopardy issue that now demands they use deadly force in self defense.
Most would agree that police officers should perform logically, but all things considered, it is hard to find logic in walking “face to face” with an armed suicidal subject. Likewise, police officers do it with surprising frequency, and management not only fails to take exception to this, they often validate it by awarding the officer for, “consciously disregarding his/her own safety.”
Consideration should be given to an alternate view. Police agencies must do more than just, “talk the talk” of less-lethal force problem solving. They must “walk the walk.” This begins with policy, training and operational protocols that address safety prioritization and inappropriate officer-created jeopardy; specifically prohibiting and holding those accountable who engage in well intentioned but foolish behavior.
In the absence of this, officers will continue to step needlessly into jeopardy, which will end up costing lives on both sides of the badge. Contemporaneous to this, the agency must set a process in motion that provides the appropriate tools, training and techniques that will safely bridge the operational distance gap, while providing viable resolution options that do not unnecessarily endanger the officers.
This is a difficult pill for some to swallow, who suggest that raising the issue is just another way to “blame” officers for the actions of others and “leave them hanging out” when things goes wrong. The practical reality is that the opposite is true. Managing officer-created jeopardy is the best thing that ever happened to cops from a safety perspective. The process clearly spells out that officers not only have no obligation to lay their lives on the line for those who would harm themselves, but that for their own safety and that of the subject, they are prohibited from doing so.
This process is a proven life saver and the foundational concept in the safe and effective handling of suicidal and/or mentally deranged subjects. It is the pre-requisite to introducing viable technology options in such cases, and agencies adhering to this philosophy will increase officer/subject safety, and the probability of positive outcomes at the crisis site.