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Patrol tactics and the ‘OODA Loop’

Reducing resistance to policing makes your job easier and safer

A while back, Andy Casavant wrote an article titled Tactical Planning for Every Officer. This is an updated version of his ideas. I have a copy of an earlier article by Casavant on the same subject from 1984. In the time that has passed, those tactics still remain as viable and important then as they were back when Reagan was President.

Look at the studies of officers killed and injured in the line of duty from the “olden days” until now. You’ll quickly see that the situations and circumstances haven’t changed. I used Casavant’s article as the groundwork for the classes I teach on tactics. The concepts are simple and when applied, can dramatically improve officer safety and increase the likelihood that the officer will prevail.

Another concept I teach is Boyd’s OODA loop. The concept has been embraced by law enforcement, the military and private business. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. It is a simplified decision-making model derived from Boyd’s more complicated OODA cycle, which is more complex but should also be studied by officers and trainers.

Casavant’s tactical principles and Boyd’s OODA loop are directly intertwined and their concepts and applications should be practiced by officers who wish to be safe.

1. Undetected movement

If the suspect can’t see you, they can’t start their OODA loop, the first step is observation. They can’t prepare to deal with a situation they cannot see developing. As you approach, you should be using your observation skills to gather information to formulate a plan of action. Since you started your loop first, you are ahead of the game and now have set yourself up to win.

Too often, officers forget about this simple concept and fail to stop a distance away from a call and approach unseen and/or they rush into the scene without taking time to truly observe the scene. Pulling into the driveway of a house two which you’ve been called clearly violates this concept, yet how many officers do you see doing it on a regular basis?

2. Closer is not always better

Directly related to number one above, we need to fight the urge to get close quickly on most calls. By maintaining distance we increase the likelihood of not being seen, while giving us the advantage of observing from a safer distance. In a fight I want time, distance and cover. The closer I get to a suspect the less I have of each.

3. If you can see them, they can see you

Always assume that you have been spotted and have an appropriate plan(s) to respond if things go to heck. By having a plan in mind you have started working through the first three stages (Observe, Orient, Decide) of the OODA loop and will be quicker to respond since all you have to do is Act versus having to formulate an appropriate plan under stress caused by a unanticipated situation.

4. Let (or make) them come to you

By letting them come to you-you have the element of surprise. For instance a suspect comes out of the back of a business while committing a burglary arms full of goods when suddenly from an unseen position a loud commanding voice advises them that they are under arrest. They haven’t had time to set up a response since they didn’t know the police were on scene. The surprise and shock (overloading their OODA loop) may cause an easy apprehension.

Take the same burglary in progress scenario, surround the building with squad cars with their lights hiding the exact location of the responding officers and a PA ordering the suspect out of the building and you create a more positive environment for surrender.

Contrast that with the option of a lone officer entering the building and attempting to search the building by them self and I think you will see who has the tactical advantage.

5. Move on the flanks

Flanking means approaching from a position where your suspect has the least defenses. In a physical confrontation that means trying to make contact from behind or the side in order to blindside them. Walking in from the neighbor’s yard hugging close to the house is a version of flanking. Most people expect someone to walk up the side walk to the front door. That expectation means their attention (and their defenses) will be focused on that point. By coming in from an unexpected direction you have achieved objectives 1, 3 and 5. The more of the principles you apply the safer you will be.

6. Knowledge of terrain

That knowledge can be used in two ways. First by understanding the “lay of the land” you can go about attempting to apply the previously mentioned concepts increasing your likelihood of success. The lay of the land includes physical environment and lighting conditions. The knowledge can be used to give you a suspect’s perspective, in other words, to see the situation through their eyes. By developing the ability to see the chess board from both players’ perspective you can anticipate and counter the suspects’ likely responses.

7. Mass two to one

By having a numeric advantage over the suspect(s) when possible, you dramatically reduce the likelihood of a confrontation. The choices that the suspect has to make are Do I fight? Do I Flee? Do I Surrender? The choices are made (usually) based on the likelihood of success. If you can’t win, why fight? If you can’t escape, why flee?

The moral here is to use backup when appropriate, and if you are going to call for backup wait for it to arrive (when possible) before you continue with the situation.

As Casavant says, the overall goal of these concepts is to reduce the likelihood of resistance. We can achieve this by convincing suspects that they cannot win. We can lower the chances of having to use force — which should be a primary goal in all police encounters — and by lowering the likelihood of force, we reduce the chance of injury to officers or suspects.

By reducing the injury rate you reduce the potential for liability claims. In other words, by applying the principles your job becomes easier and safer and shouldn’t that be your ultimate goal?

This article, originally published May 17, 2010, has been updated.

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.