The right mindset for ambushes: Listen to your gut instinct

Using your threat detector on a regular basis takes practice; using it appropriately takes training. Here are some tips

By Jonathan Page with Paul Banach

While ambushes of law enforcement have steadily increased over the last couple of years, the trend has exploded these past few weeks with officers murdered in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Kansas City. How can law enforcement prepare for ambush attacks? Tactical advice has been shared by experts such as Dan Marcou, Travis Yates, and Glenn French.

Officers should also sharpen their mental skills. Your mind, after all, is your most valuable weapon. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses, along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, published an article stating that "preparing for ambushes is as much about officer’s mind-sets as it is their tactical training."

What should you know to get yourself into the right mindset?

The subconscious brain
Being vigilant is important. It’s the opposite of complacency and it helps you recognize threats. But purposefully and diligently processing information from the environment to detect a threat is only doable for short periods of time. Your brain is not built for, and does not have the resources to stay vigilant over long periods of time. Staying vigilant for an entire 10-hour shift, in other words, just isn’t possible; it consumes too many neural resources. Instead, train your subconscious to process information from the environment to detect threats.

Have you ever approached a scene and felt an unexplainable, uneasy feeling in your gut? Or have you been in the woods and jumped back, your heart rate elevated, thinking a snake was at your feet? In both of these examples, your subconscious brain alerted you to these potential dangers.

The "threat detector" system in your brain (largely the amygdala) offers 24-hour surveillance. When a threat is detected, the alarm bells sound, jump-starting your fight-or-flight system. You must then use conscious awareness to either confirm or dispel the threat. If the "snake" turns out to be a stick, that’s OK, you are safe. If you never identify the cause for alarm after you’ve approached a scene, that’s OK too. Maybe a threat wasn’t there, or maybe you changed some aspect of the situation that dispelled the danger without thinking about or even realizing it.

The threat detector in your brain works by gathering information from the environment and comparing it to an expected pattern. If the pattern doesn’t match up with expectations, the alarms are sounded. The key is to develop an elaborate pattern recognition system built on law enforcement safety concepts. That way your brain is searching for appropriate patterns — like detecting a potential ambush — which can then be paired with tactical behaviors to defeat the threat.

Using your threat detector on a regular basis takes practice; using it appropriately takes training. Here are some tips:

  1. Be aware of your threat detector system and be in tune with its signaling
  2. Expand the amount of information it takes in and processes
  3. Use it as an internal guide for safety

Be aware of your threat detector system
The first step is to become aware of the workings of the threat detector system. Since it operates in the subconscious, we often overlook the signals it sends. Sometimes this system is referred to as your "gut instinct." Have you ever heard, "think with your head, not with your gut?" That should be changed to "think with your head, guided by your gut." If you ignore gut feelings, they will sink deeper and deeper into your subconscious and become harder and harder to recognize.

Gut feelings can be as faint as a slight twinge in the stomach or strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Allowing those feelings to surface is the first step, but then you must do something with them. When you get a twinge in your stomach, ask yourself "Why?" Obviously your subconscious saw a pattern that didn’t match expectations: What was that pattern? Figure out why the alarm bells were sounded. If the answer is not immediately obvious, then be cautious. Sometimes the threat is only discovered later.

Expand subconscious processing
As you learn to work with this system, expand the amount of information it has to work with. When responding to a scene or approaching a vehicle, position yourself to see, hear and smell as much as possible. Doing so does not necessarily make you consciously aware of new information — your focus is still on the task at hand — but it will allow your subconscious to look for and compare more patterns. 

If you are writing a report in your vehicle, make sure you have adequate spacing around your car and don’t become engrossed in your paperwork, scan the environment frequently. Keep your windows cracked open and the AM/FM radio off to increase auditory awareness. The more information your subconscious can access the better.

Pair threat detection with tactical behaviors
For tactical survival, you should train your brain to react to what your threat detector system is telling you. When responding to a call, if you get that "feeling," don’t park your car. Drive around the block, scan the environment, and look for patterns that may signal danger. What seems out of place? Who is on the street? Is the street abnormally empty? How are cars parked? Is it a dead end or abandoned area? Does the call make sense? If your subconscious signaled danger, try to identify the source.

When dispatched to calls, take note of their nature. Officers have been lured to the scene by calls for minor issues, like loitering persons, vandalism, or a structural fire. Gain as much pre-arrival intelligence as possible. Ask dispatch if weapons were reported, if there is a criminal history, or if the call was made via landline, cellphone, pay phone, or anonymously. That information can inform your gut. Again, on minor calls you may elect to drive around the block and scan the area before stopping and exiting your vehicle. See what your subconscious picks-up on.

When involved in or responding to an ambush, you must understand that you will experience perceptual and cognitive distortions. Fine motor skills will diminish; you may have limited hearing; tunnel vision may limit what you see — and your ability to think and plan will be compromised. Developing a strong gut feeling is an added safety measure that may offer an advanced warning.

  • Engage in "mental practice" often to hone your skills
  • When with your squad, conduct "what-if" scenarios
  • Think outside the box
  • Listen to your gut instincts

Above all, develop and practice safety routines that keep you and others safe. No matter the size of your department, it CAN happen to you.

Thank you for your courage and your resolve to defeat evil.

About Paul Banach, Director of Training, Cognitive Command Group
Paul Banach, Director of Training with the Cognitive Command Group, is a law enforcement training expert with 36 years of experience; 25 of those years were as a law enforcement educator. Paul is a retired Lieutenant from the Monroe Township Police Department in New Jersey (30 years). Paul was a Law Enforcement Training Specialist at Penn State University for the Pennsylvania Deputy Sheriff Training Academy. As a member of the Penn State Justice and Safety Institute, he co-authored Police Leadership and Supervision courses including, High Impact Supervision, train-the-trainer, and FTO training programs. Paul brought problem-based learning principles to the academy and designed science-based training scenarios in the areas of patrol procedures, use of force, and constitutional law. Paul also served as a member of a State Department team that traveled to Morocco to design first responder training for critical incidents and introduced adult-based learning at the Moroccan National Training Academy. Paul served as the Director of Training for the Baltimore, Maryland Police Department where he oversaw basic academy training and all in-service training. Paul received a Bachelor of Science in Police Planning and Administration from John Jay College in New York, and a Masters of Administrative Science in Public Safety Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Additionally, he has obtained Masters Certificates in Global Security and Terrorism, School Security, Emergency Management, and Administrative Science. Paul is currently designing academy and departmental curricula for the C2 Training system and training law enforcement in this new, science-based instructional methodology.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.