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How cops can stay ‘left of bang’ in a critical incident

These five keys will help you prevent an incident from spiraling out of control

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The more training and experience people have in developing situational awareness, the better adept they are at staying left of bang.


“Left of bang” is a concept (and a book by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley) that can be described as a timeline. It’s the time before a critical incident can no longer be contained.

As soon as the IED goes off, the shot is fired, or the crash takes place, you are at bang. “Right of bang” is where police officers do not want to be. Left of bang is about situational awareness and keeping things from getting to bang.

I have recommended Gavin de Becker’s book “The Gift of Fear” to cops and civilians for years and now must recommend “Left of Bang” as a companion book. The more training and experience people have in developing situational awareness, the better adept they are at staying left of bang. Here are some key ways cops can stay left of bang.

1. Treat people with respect

Chip Huth writes in his book “Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect” about the effect respect has on keeping situations in check. We have all witnessed officers who can speak “respectfully” but with a tone and body language that doesn’t match their words.

Understanding even the bad guys want respect will go a long way in keeping a situation under control. Treat the people you have contact with like you would want your family members treated. Respect goes a long way in resolving situations in a way that keeps you left of bang.

2. Use contact/cover and backup

Having another officer or a superior number of officers present at calls will also help keep you left of bang. Cops are often in a hurry or don’t want to bother another officer when they have contact with people. Situational awareness takes training. More eyes can observe more things. Wait for your backup and use him or her.

If you are not on the call, be that proactive and good backup officer and show up without being assigned. The concept of contact/cover is taught almost universally but it is seldom used correctly or even not used at all. Take the time to learn the concept and use it.

3. Sharpen your situational awareness

Reading “Left of Bang” and “The Gift of Fear” is a good start in learning about awareness. A big part of awareness is learning about pre-incident indicators, which are signs something abnormal is taking place. These indicators could be sweat on someone when it is not hot, a person taking off their hat or watch while standing outside a vehicle, or a posture or position someone takes.

Intuition is often associated with pre-assault indicators and paying attention to what our subconscious is picking up is part of awareness. You can train yourself to pick up on these indicators. Read the above books and others to understand awareness better. When you have a chance to step back in the field, observe people closely to see what they are doing, what they are looking at or how they are behaving. The innumerable videos of officers involved in critical incidents are another great training tool, so watch them closely to see the pre-incident indicators unfold. This kind of training is invaluable and will allow you to pass along tips to others you are mentoring.

4. Remember “Ask, Tell, Make”

This concept helps officers move past hesitation that comes from poor decision-making skills. We have all witnessed an officer giving repeated, lawful commands to a suspect to no avail. Hesitation arises because an officer either does not understand his authority when asking someone to do something or does not have the requisite skills to complete the task at hand.

The concept is simple: ask a person to comply with your request in an attempt to gain voluntary compliance. This works for most people. If it does not work, you tell the person what you want them to do. If ask and tell do not work, you make the person do what you want.

If you have the authority: ask, tell and then make. Failure to take control puts control into the realm of the violator. The longer that a suspect is allowed to refuse to comply with a lawful command, the closer to bang you get. The sooner a problem is handled, the more control you have and the less the suspect gains.

5. Prepare to use force without hesitation or fear

If voluntary compliance does not work, be prepared to use force. The sooner you control the situation, the more likely you’ll have a good day. But using force requires practice and a clear understanding of what the rules are going in. Hesitation and fear are often associated with not knowing the rules or not having confidence in your skills. This is why your preparation, by reading the law and policy and in practicing control tactics, is so important. Staying left of bang requires taking control before the person you’re dealing with does.

It is a complicated time to be a cop. Being the sheepdog without being in the news is considered a good day. Pick up any or all three of the books mentioned here to help you improve your skills. Be safe.

This article, originally published 01/15/2016, has been updated.

Tim Barfield is the Chief of Police in a small midwestern Ohio town. He is in his for 37th year as an officer. Prior to his appointment as chief he spent 32 years in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. He is a husband, father and grandfather who has a love for police work and police officers with a goal of helping them succeed in a great profession. His responsibilities and desires have included patrol, traffic, DARE, SWAT, training and supervision. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and Chairman of the Board of the Law Enforcement Training Trust. He continues to learn and instruct on subjects with an emphasis on awareness, police survival mindset and ethics.

Contact Tim Barfield