Blue on Blue: How to prepare for the unthinkable

The more aware our officers are, the better mentally prepared they will be when presented with one of these horrific scenarios

Following a low light course not too long ago, I was talking to Police1 Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie about topics for my next column.  I asked him if he had any specific ideas or direction he wanted me to go in coming weeks.  With a mischievous look in his eyes he replied with a question of his own:

“Want to tackle something controversial?” he said. 

My response was, “sure,” and this article was born.  He and I discussed the recent tragedies involving officer on officer shootings, and the absolute necessity to address it head on.  The tone of our conversation leaned toward these type of incidents being one of the newest challenges for law enforcement.  We were both wrong.

San Diego, 1983
Ken Impellizeri, a friend I made during my stint with the California LEOKA committee, sent me information regarding a 1983 case that drew strong similarities to the types of incidents we are seeing today.  Ken is a veteran street cop, and dedicated trainer with the San Diego Police Department.  The case he made me aware of involved the teenage son of a local deputy. 

With the parents away, the son donned his father’s uniform and duty belt, stole the marked unit his father kept at the residence and picked up two of his friends.  After shooting rabbits with a BB gun in a local park, they parked the unit in a secluded area and began discussing where to go and what to do next.  On-duty San Diego Police Officer Kirk Johnson saw the parked unit and — with the intent of providing any necessary assistance — pulled into the parking lot.  In fear of the inevitable repercussions should he get caught, the suspect used the stolen duty weapon to murder Officer Johnson.  Due to evidence at the scene, the investigation focused on fellow officers.  Over a month later, a witness provided information leading to the arrest of the suspect. 

My conversation with Doug, coupled with the email from Ken brought one word to the forefront of my brain: awareness. 

As trainers we should constantly strive to reinforce two items in those we have been entrusted to train.  Those items are awareness and mindset.  In reality, one drives the other. The more aware our officers are, the better mentally prepared they will be when presented with one of these horrific scenarios.  I’ve begun to notice a disturbing trend in our culture. 

The Elephant in the Room
In times past, when a critical incident occurred involving departmental personnel, especially those in which the officer is injured, administrators would provide line-level officers with the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, and any learning points derived from it.  These types of debriefs are occurring much less frequently now.  The most common reason I’ve heard for this lack of dissemination is morale.  Some administrators believe if our officers are constantly made aware of the inherent dangers, they will be less inclined and motivated to do the job. 

I vehemently disagree.  In fact, I feel this approach places our officers at a greater disadvantage. 

Team meetings, roll call training, line up discussions... by whatever method you meet and discuss issues prior to going in-service, this topic should absolutely be at the top of the priority list.  Granted, speaking about cops attacking cops is difficult enough to picture, let alone mentally plan for, however, a deadly threat is a deadly threat regardless of the visual image they present.  Providing the information to our officers and allowing them to paint a mental image is the first step in negating the obvious hesitation they will face when presented with a uniformed threat.

Regardless of the topic, I always remind students of two items:

1.) The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between training and reality.  Under extreme stress the brain searches for a ‘snapshot’ of where it has been before.  If properly prepared, the individual in the fight delivers a trained response.  If unprepared, a startled reaction is the solution that is applied.  We must always strive for a trained response.  This response begins with a simple conversation and a level of awareness.

2.) No officer ever ‘rises to the occasion,’ they will default to their level of training.  Training occurs at many different levels, including visualization.   By simply asking our officers, ‘what would you do if faced with a deadly threat dressed in friendly attire,’ we have set the stage for visualization to occur.  I truly fear the day that we see ‘threat’ targets in friendly uniforms on the range, or judgment simulators with scenarios depicting officers as the threat (impostors or otherwise).  Change begins with awareness and awareness occurs at the line level.

For those who know me, you understand that I am not a fan of what has become known as ‘check-the-box training’ — simply going through the motions and conducting training because a governing body says we shall.  Training should be relevant, current and retainable.  Doug and Dan have done a great job of highlighting current examples of these events.  What topic could be more current or relevant?

A few years ago, I was a guest at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office Training Center in Pittsburg, California.  They had a large array of plaques on display, most having been donated by graduating recruit classes.  A quote on one of the plaques struck a chord with me, and I have repeated it to myself on a daily basis since.  “When the time to perform arrives, the time to prepare has passed.” 

I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Take the time. Talk to your troops. Prepare them for the unthinkable. 

Be safe brothers and sisters.

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