Preparing for armed encounters in 2010: A year-end "script review" for cops

When stage actors have been in a play for a long run, it’s not unusual for the director to call a special rehearsal at which the cast reads through the script again, word for word. Often they’re astonished at just how far they’ve strayed from their original lines as they’ve settled comfortably into their roles and performed from memory night after night.

As we come to the end of 2009, it’s wise for officers to conduct their own personal “script review” and consider whether, over time, they may have unwittingly wandered away from the basic tenets of prevailing against would-be assailants. When federal agent Chuck Soltys addressed the 2009 ILEETA conference in a session on “Preparation for Armed Encounters,” he was asking his audience of trainers and officers to do exactly that.

“It’s easy for any of us to do,” says Soltys, who has been involved in multiple OIS incidents during 23 years as a police officer special agent, a tactical EMT, and a leading trainer. “You go out there shift after shift and without consciously realizing it, you can start to drift away from what you know should be critical components of your commitment to prevail against threats to your life.”

In a conversation with Police1, Soltys expounded on two key elements of his presentation:

1) a seven-point checklist of considerations when you’re approaching a potentially dangerous suspect or situation
2) six rules for winning a gunfight

Using this baker’s dozen of guidelines for survival, you can do a quick read-through of your current habits and see if you’re still sticking to the script you need for top performance.

Seven Principles of Approach Planning

1. Strive for undetected movement. “If an adversary sees you, he can fortify his position and be ready to attack you,” Soltys explains. “Ideally, in moving toward an objective, you want to create a question in the subject’s mind about exactly where you are so you can maintain an element of surprise.

“That could mean not pulling right up in front of a house you need to approach, making a discreet passenger-side approach on a vehicle stop, using landscape features to your advantage, quietly gathering intelligence before and during your approach, and so on.

“There is so much on calls that works to our disadvantage that every little bit we can create in our favor is important.”

2. Never think you can’t be seen. “Even when you’re trying to move undetected, you need to assume that the suspect has eyes on you,” Soltys says. “And when you’re able to see him, that means that you technically are in his line of sight, as well. Keeping this in mind helps keep your tactics and readiness sharp. Try to avoid moving completely unprotected, because you never really know if you’re compromised or not.”

3. Remember: Closer may not always be better. “This can apply to people in some circumstances, such as when you’re confronting an edged weapon. But it also applies to inanimate objects like cover,” Soltys says. “Officers get indoctrinated by TV and movies. Because it makes a good picture, the camera often shows cops with their back against a wall, their gun up beside their face — exactly what you shouldn’t do.

“Back off from cover a bit instead of hugging it. If you’re too close, you have to expose an enormous amount of your body before you can get a good field of view beyond the cover. If your weapon is drawn, keep it in a ‘high retracted ready’ position so you can retain it in a close-quarters attack and, if needed, put it on target as quickly as possible. Milliseconds matter!”

4. Know the terrain. “You may drive a neighborhood in a beat car for years, but do you know it on foot the way some gangbanger who lives there does — someone you may be chasing some night?” Soltys asks. “That means knowing where alley hiding places are…where clotheslines, fences, tree stumps, and other hazards are…where a suspect could lie in wait to ambush you. It could be disastrous for you to run into a clothesline in the dark, for example.

“If you’re not confident about the lay of the land, foot pursuit may not be your best option. It may be wiser to set a perimeter and try to catch your fleeing felon coming out. Don’t get so caught up in a flight situation that you let your ego take over. What you don’t know definitely can hurt you!”

5. Let or make the suspect come to you. “This rule seems especially tempting to violate in emotional situations, like the end of a pursuit or during a high-risk vehicle stop, when you’re experiencing an adrenalin dump and there’s a compelling urge to rush up,” Soltys says. “I’ll admit this is a tough principle to train.

“But if you’re able to place yourself in a position of advantage, behind cover, use commands to get the adversary to move to you rather than walking out into an unsecured area and moving toward him, exposing yourself to greater danger. Moving into an unknown area, you may encounter additional threats you weren’t even aware of.

“If the subject won’t respond to clear, concise commands, he may not understand the language or may be under the influence—or he could be trying to lure you in for an attack. You’re now dealing with a different level of offender and you may need more manpower to resolve things safely. Adjust your tactics accordingly.”

6. When engaging, move on the flank. “The military teaches and uses this tactic all the time, but for some reason in law enforcement we often ignore it,” Soltys says. “Unfortunately, bad guys teach it to each other, too, and cops never know it’s coming.

“Likewise, a suspect who’s engaged with an officer face-to-face may not anticipate other officers flanking out and targeting or approaching him from different angles. If you get him triangulated so he can’t move, you may destroy his will to resist. At the very least, you’ll be better positioned to engage and end an armed confrontation quickly, while minimizing the risk of blue-on-blue crossfire.

7. Out-mass your adversary. “When my agency conducts raids, we try to have sufficient intelligence in advance so that we have at least two enforcement personnel for every suspect we expect to encounter,” Soltys says. “Whenever possible the same 2:1 ratio should be used in patrol situations, too. That’s the basis of the contact/cover concept.

“Sometimes it’s not possible. But often, it’s a matter of officers being willing to call for and wait for backup instead of moving ahead alone.”

Six Rules of a Gunfight

1. Have a gun. Elementary, Soltys admits, but from his personal inquiries over the years he believes that “at best only 20-25 percent of officers consistently carry at all times, including to church, to the mall with the family, and at those times when you decide on the spur of the moment to dash out to your neighborhood convenience store for a gallon of milk.

“Over time, you develop personal perceptions about when you’re at risk, but in reality you never know when your number is going to be called. We don’t get to pick the time and place when a gunfight happens; those are decisions the offender makes. The key is to be ready when the moment comes.”

2. Make sure it’s loaded. “A large percentage of officers never check to be sure there’s ammo in the weapon when they strap on,” Soltys says. “They just assume it’s in the same condition as the last time they loaded it. But that can be a dangerous assumption.”

He’s known officers who carried dummy rounds from the range in their gun for months, others who’ve forgotten to reload after cleaning. As a rookie, when he was booking a prisoner, he himself was the butt of a misguided practical joke when fellow officers removed rounds from his gun and replaced it in the locker. Fortunately, as a matter of habit, he checked his weapon before leaving the station and discovered it had been tampered with.

“The loudest sound you’ll hear in a gunfight is a click when you expect to hear a bang,” he says.

3. Shot placement is critical. “You want to deliver fight-stopping rounds and end any engagement ASAP,” Soltys says. “Unfortunately, some officers get so fixated on training with two-dimensional targets and putting rounds in the scoring area for qualification that they can’t easily adapt to real-life dynamics where a 3-D, hostile, moving offender may present something other than a full-front view.

“Dr. James Williams, another ILEETA trainer, teaches concepts like ‘tactical anatomy’ and ‘shooting with x-ray vision.’ What he means is understanding anatomy sufficiently so that you can envision where a suspect’s vital organs are from any angle, no matter what his posture is.

“Keep applying deadly force to his central nervous system and vital areas until he can’t function any more or ceases to attack. It will take longer to neutralize him if you are just hitting areas where he may eventually bleed to death but won’t quickly be incapacitated.”

4. Bigger bullets are better. “This is controversial,” Soltys concedes, “and it’s true only if you can competently control a larger bore. Considering that accuracy is most important, 9mm rounds that strike vital areas are going to be more effective than .45s that are not well-placed. Rounds of any caliber that miss the intended target can injure or kill innocent people. Good decision-making and solid marksmanship under extreme conditions are supreme.

“But if you can master accuracy and are comfortable with a larger gun, let’s face it: bigger holes are better.”

5. More bullets are better. “There’s a good possibility that more than one assailant will be present when your life is threatened,” Soltys says. “Even if you can end the fight quickly against one attacker, the fight may not yet be over. You could still run into a problem if there are multiple attackers and you have a low-capacity weapon or are not carrying extra magazines.

“In terms of reloading, the issue becomes how much ammunition do you have on your person? If you’re carrying 50 extra rounds in a briefcase that’s locked your squad car and therefore not accessible, that’s of little value to you.

“Officer-involved shootings are come-as-you-are events. When you leave your cruiser, what you have on your person is all you can depend on.”

6. You must be mentally prepared to shoot. “At the core of winning is your mind-set,” Soltys emphasizes. He recalls a sergeant he once worked with who admitted candidly that he didn’t know for sure whether he’d actually be able to pull the trigger in an armed confrontation.

“If you can look in the mirror and honestly make that statement, it’s time to start looking for another line of work,” Soltys declares. “There is nothing dishonorable about leaving law enforcement because if just isn’t for you. However, it is dishonorable to remain in law enforcement if you believe you cannot or will not uphold the oath you took. You should leave your house thinking, ‘If today is my day, I’m ready to take whatever action is necessary.’

“Watch your thoughts,” he concludes, “because they become your actions over time. Watch your actions because they become your habits, good or bad.”

As we enter 2010 (and the next decade), what are some topics and tips you’d like to include in your script review? Post your thoughts below and share them with your brothers and sisters in law enforcement.

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