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How defensive positions keep officers safer

Use your environment for cover while you react to an attack to protect yourself and avoid unnecessary use of force

By Michael N. Habash, JD

Occupying a defensive position during law enforcement operations decreases the risks to officers, the public and suspects. A defensive position is a location from which an officer can choose to react to an attack while simultaneously making use of the environment as a means of protection.

“It is imperative that officers put themselves in a position of advantage that will allow them to negate or react to a preemptive strike or attack,” LAPD SWAT Officer George Ryan wrote.

Typically, an officer resists an attack, wherever and whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, many use-of-force events take place in this manner, placing officers at a disadvantage and increasing the probability of unreasonable use of force. Because of the risks associated, this is precisely the type of event law enforcement must seek to avoid.

Resisting an attack without the advantage of a defensive position subjects the officer, the public and suspects to greater risks, including both a greater probability the attack will be successful and a greater chance that the officer will make a mistake in the application of force. A defensive position thus has several advantages.

The Advantages of Time
A suitable defensive position affords the officer time to detect an attack and react appropriately. Time is central to employing a defensive position. In hindsight, many unnecessary applications of force have occurred because officers lacked the time necessary to detect and assess the suspect’s behavior. This is because “increasing the speed of response increases the probability of error,” according to a study published by the Force Science Institute.

Even with training, officer reaction times and accuracy can only be improved so much, say the study’s authors, because “[p]hysical and mental limitations are the same for everyone. No exceptions.” Thus, when officers operate at their mental and physical limits to react to a perceived threat, they are more likely to employ unreasonable force.

Reducing the need for split-second decisions makes interactions between police and the public safer. A defensive position affords an officer time to observe the attack and determine its nature.

The Benefits of Barriers
Officers also gain time by employing barriers, both legal and physical.

Legal barriers put persons on notice that the area they are entering is off limits before they are proximal to a police officer. A simple stretch of tape marked “Police” deployed between the public and officers provides notice to the public and limits their advance on officers. This barrier also provides officers with a straightforward method to assess a person’s intentions and actions if they disregard the legal barrier.

Physical barriers inhibit movement and thus decrease an attacker’s speed. When securing crime scenes, putting a combination of distance, “Police” tape and a physical barrier, such as a police car, between officers and the public gives officers more time to assess and appropriately respond.

Distance Allows Assessment
Using distance and barriers can increase an officer’s time to respond. A physical attacker must first close the distance with the officer, thus increasing the time a suspect must travel before attacking.

Distance also diminishes the accuracy of ranged projectiles. Handguns are generally inaccurate weapons, so any increase in distance significantly reduces the likelihood that the suspect will be successful in a sudden attack with a handgun.

When confronting a potentially armed person, officers who deploy rifles and stay outside of the effective range of most handguns gain an advantage without limiting their own accuracy. Furthermore, this distance between officer and suspect permits greater situation assessment, reducing the need to react instantaneously to sudden movements, reducing the risk to all. Distance affords the officer time to observe and assess the attack and react appropriately.

Protection and Avenues of Escape
A defensive position also provides protection and limits the effects of an attack. Cover from projectiles and barriers against an assault provide the officer greater odds of survival by reducing the risk of succumbing to a sudden attack and providing more time to react. Protection thus reduces the risk to the officer by absorbing the attack and reduces risk to the suspect by giving the officer more time to assess the situation.

Finally, a defensive position can provide multiple avenues of escape, which further reduces an officer’s risk of being overwhelmed.

Seeking cover also permits withdrawal from suspects whose rate of movement is limited and only pose a risk to officers if they close the distance. For example, persons with altered mental states may approach an officer and not follow instructions to stop; however, they may pose little risk to the officer as long as they do not close the distance. Withdrawal does not resolve the issue, but it provides additional time to assess the situation, coordinate a response and obtain additional resources.

In Close Contact
Employing defensive positions when one or more officers must move or be in close contact with a suspect also provides advantages.

An officer who contacts suspects while moving or who must be in close contact with a potential suspect operates without the benefit of a defensive position. To help manage the risk, additional officers may occupy a defensive position in support of the contact officers, in a classic “contact and cover” scenario.

The cover officers occupy defensive positions, either in a leap frogging fashion or once a suspect is observed. Officers in defensive positions provide some protection for the exposed officers and ensure that any sudden attack on the exposed officers will be met with resistance, even if the exposed officers are incapacitated or withdrawing.

Employing defensive positions is an important tactic for improving the safety of law enforcement, and is part of a cohesive whole concept for improving law enforcement operations for everyone during this challenging time.

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