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Cops in Condition White: When you’re not looking for trouble, trouble will find you

Know these common scenarios that can cause cops to lose situational awareness – and avoid them!


Salt Lake City Police

If officers neglect situational awareness for just one moment, bad things can happen. Consider this story: last month, security video showed a uniformed officer walking through the Salt Lake City airport when a man came from behind and punched the officer in the head. Luckily, the officer was not seriously injured and the assailant was arrested, but incidents like this show how important it is for officers to be attentive, even in relatively “safe” spaces.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way for officers to reinvigorate and reframe their situational awareness: Cooper’s Color Code. Its creator, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper of the U.S. Marine Corps, has become an icon in the law enforcement community for gifting us this guide to understanding situational awareness.

Here is a quick overview of Cooper’s Color Code:

  • An officer in Condition White is relaxed, unaware and unprepared. An officer in uniform should never be in Condition White.
  • Condition Yellow is relaxed and alert. An officer is fully aware of the environment around them and realizes that anything can happen anywhere at any time. They are cognizant of the dangers of the profession and in a state of constant vigilance.
  • Condition Orange occurs when the alert officer identifies a specific threat and forms a plan to respond.
  • Condition Red happens when the plan is put into action. Some believe this means you are firing your weapon, but it does not. The plan may involve moving to cover, warning others and giving commands to the suspect.

Common Condition White pitfalls and how to avoid them

As mentioned, Condition White is dangerous for a uniformed police officer in public. In this relaxed state, an officer is unprepared to respond to a threat effectively. They might not even see that threat coming.

There are many circumstances that can cause a police officer to downshift from Condition Yellow to Condition White. Consider these common Condition White scenarios to avoid becoming a victim and stay ready for anything.

1. A boring assignment

Every officer at some point will work a job that is as exciting as the proverbial “mosquito count.”

These assignments are often a “security detail.” To avoid Condition White, focus on the “security” aspect of your assignment.

Every person and car that passes by is an opportunity to assess: friend or foe? Look for weapons and check body language for indicators of ill-intent. When there is no one to assess, scan the area for potential threats to keep your mind in “security mode.”

2. Working a game or concert played by your favorite team/performer

When you respond to a call, would you turn your back to the subjects involved? No, never. So why would you do that with a special event duty?

When you position yourself near the best seats in the house to take in the game or the concert, you are turning your back to the subject of your call. In crowds, little problems unaddressed can become big problems quickly. My best advice is to keep your head out of the game.

3. Taking a lunch break (or cigarette or coffee break) in public

The problem with performing these acts is that they lead to a mental break as well as a physical break. This may inspire you to downshift to Condition White. Eating lunch in this exposed state makes you more vulnerable to a physical ambush, and creates an opportunity for kitchen staff to tamper with your food.

To avoid the above scenario, I suggest:

  • Quit smoking. It can get you killed now and may kill later.
  • Pack a healthy lunch.

Now, there will be times when you’re carrying a soda or coffee back to your squad car. This does not have to be mentally debilitating if you are constantly scanning your environment and keep your drink in your non-gun hand.

Remember that the places you purchase snacks and sodas are often targets of robberies. Therefore, use your coffee pit-stop as an opportunity to take a closer look at the vehicles and people around and inside these businesses. A Condition Yellow mindset will help you break up a robbery in progress, rather than becoming a victim of one.

Consider this drill

I used to conduct a “hands-free” drill to prepare officers for moments when they suddenly need to fire their guns, but they’re distracted with a coffee cup, a sandwich, or a ticket book in their hands.

At the gun range, I would place an item in the hands of each officer. Next, I would present the threat target at combat distances. The officers would have to drop what was in their hands, draw and respond to the threat. This drill helped officers to override the natural tendency to hold onto items even when they are ambushed and need both hands to defend themselves.

4. Meeting an old friend

Catching up with an old friend on duty can pull all your attention away from real-time and back to old times. To overcome this natural tendency, position yourself so that you can see the world with your peripheral vision. Scan the area during the conversation to break up your tunnel vision. If your friend notices they will understand.

5. Report writing and texting loved ones about personal matters in public

These two activities create such a single-minded focus that they can’t be safely done in public. Find a secure place out of public view to write reports and compose your prose.

6. Falling asleep (or having an “I’m-not-doing-anything” attitude)

Sleeping on duty is the best way to place yourself at the mercy of criminals.

Likewise, officers can figuratively fall asleep on duty by adopting an I’m-not-doing-anything attitude and willfully becoming “retired on duty” for a shift, a month, or a career. Officers who begin ignoring small violations will eventually start missing bigger violations. Eventually, threats developing right in front of them will go unseen. In law enforcement, even if you are deliberately not looking for trouble, trouble will find you. And when it does, you won’t see it coming.

This is all to say that I really want you to stay safe, stay strong, stay positive and pay attention out there!

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.