5 reasons back-up calls don’t guarantee safety

In defending against the “why didn’t you call for backup” critique from friend and foe alike, there are a few things to consider – here are five for starters

Calling for backup is always the first and safest thing to do, right? 

Critics of police will often question why an officer didn’t get additional assistance, as in Virginia where a trooper didn’t call for help on a motorist assist that resulted in the motorist’s death after fleeing into traffic. 

Before asking (or answering) the question, “Why didn’t you call for backup?” there are a few things to consider:

Critics who claim solo officers should have waited for help will also criticize a scene where “too many” officers were present.
Critics who claim solo officers should have waited for help will also criticize a scene where “too many” officers were present. (Photo/PoliceOne)

1. Two-thirds of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty had other officers at the scene. 

Citizens and police policymakers who fault officers for failing to call for backup might be interested in the data from several research studies that show that tragic results are not necessarily prevented by having multiple officers at a scene. 

A review of FBI LEOKA reports shows that an average of 66% of officers who were murdered while on duty were killed while other officers were present. 

2. Research indicates a higher rate of subject resistance when there is more than one officer present. 

The Phoenix use of force study found that one predictor of suspect resistance is the presence of additional officers at a scene. Whether the presence of additional officers emboldens police use of force, the additional numbers incite a suspect’s panic, or some other dynamic is at work, is not clear. 

Critics who claim solo officers should have waited for help will also criticize a scene where “too many” officers were present. Every use-of-force study of which I am aware finds that the suspect’s behavior is the key to whether force is used by police. 

3. Increased use of backup can result in slower response times and fewer officers available at any one time to respond to 911 calls. 

Some departments require or encourage a two-car response for officer safety. Beyond safety, officers increasingly just want an additional witness to counter complaints and questions about their behavior. This is arguably one of the costs of the public’s apparent loss of trust in policing, along with a predicted increase in crime due to the decrease in police officers’ discretionary proactive contacts. Either way, having a two-car requirement can slow response times

4. Calling for backup and waiting for backup are two different things.

Having another officer on the way can become more of a psychological security blanket than a tactical move. If a call or contact can be delayed or stabilized until additional help arrives, a wise course of action is for the officers to stage first and determine an approach as a team. If an officer plows into the call before help arrives, the officer responding to assist will enter a hot zone without important available information. 

A dependence on expecting backup can be fatal if it is not a part of a plan. If I yell into the mic that I am out on a fight in progress and jump into the fray without waiting for acknowledgment, I might not know that my radio traffic was covered, garbled, or that I was in a dead zone. Radios and microphones can be hard to find because they tend to fly off during a fight or pursuit if not firmly attached.

Charging into a call knowing you are the only officer available is tactically different than wading in thinking help is on the way. 

5. A reflex response to use the radio before acting on the threat can delay an appropriate force response. 

Trainers should be aware of whether they condition officers to grab for their shoulder mic before they take immediate action in a scenario. Precious seconds might be better used securing cover, tactical disengagement, or performing a close-quarters combat maneuver. 

While backup will always be desirable, it isn’t a panacea and our profession should be ready to defend against and inform critics who believe it is.

Originally published 06/01/2015, this article has been updated. 

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