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Reducing the dangers of lone-officer contacts

For the lone officer, with the nearest backup 30 minutes away, every contact has the potential to be deadly

If you are a lone officer, the only person evaluating your performance is the bad guy, and they tend to have interesting ways of bringing our tactical errors to our attention. To be effective and safe in our job we need to use each and every advantage available to us — our “routine” face-to-face contacts are no different.

We can manipulate several factors to give us an advantage when dealing with people — simple things using like the bright sun or ambient noise during that domestic or roadside interview. Think about where you should stand in relation to your subject. Make them look into the sun. Give yourself the position away from the source of noise so you can hear every mumbled word. And remember, whether you are standing uphill or downhill of a suspect can have an effect on the outcome of the contact.

Remember, we need to control every aspect of the contact. Much of this process starts with a few simple questions when you make contact to “test” the cooperation you may get from the suspect. A few seemingly unrelated questions might give you a good indicator of what you can expect from your contact as well as whom your ring leaders might be when dealing with multiple suspects. Once you determine who you are dealing with and what you may expect for cooperation you can decide the best tactics to use.

Varied Physical Positioning
Most fighters are well practiced at a face to face encounter, so mix it up a bit if you can. For instance, instead of a classic “I – Stance” what about standing side by side a few feet apart, facing the same direction while you do that field interview or make small talk until the next officer arrives?

Yes, it goes against all the training we’ve had in the past and is just plain unnatural for most people, but remember that statistically speaking, you are likely to be dealing with a right-handed person — if you are standing to their right you have effectively just taken away the “wind up.” You’ve made it that much harder for them to strike with a right-handed, strong-side blow that has any force. Also, if you are a right-handed officer, your gun is protected and facing away from the suspect and you are set up to deliver the most powerful strong-side strikes you can develop.

Out in the country, you can set this up talking about crops, hunting, or anything else you see in the distance.

Obviously, this will not always work out because people tend to want to talk face to face and it makes reading an interview pretty difficult. However, think about that 1,000-yard-stare person you are stuck with by yourself — the one who won’t look at you and makes your hair stand up. This might be just the right stance to put into your bag of tricks and try when you feel that something is just not right and your backup is 30 minutes away.

Traffic Stops and Sobriety Tests
One of the situations that are most likely to put your average rural officer in harms way is the traffic stop on a suspected drunk driver. You are out there alone, face to face with an intoxicated person trying to explain field tests or perform HGN, and sometimes it seems that there’s simply no way for us to accomplish the testing portion of the contact that does not jeopardize our safety.

The horizontal gaze nystagmus test is a great way to test intoxicated drivers but it tends to place us in close proximity to the driver. If you are older than 30 you will remember the old radios with the telescoping metal antennas. If you do a little shopping at an electronics store you can find one of these replacement antennas that will be small enough to fit next to the pens in your shirt pocket when it is closed, and give you up to 24-inches of separation when extended. Glue an orange or red bead to the end and use this as your “pen” for HGN testing. That little extra distance will seem like a mile and if the drunk wants to take a swat at you or grab your $5 antenna, let them. That just means you’re one step closer to using both your arms to take care of business and stay in control.

I can think of ten different field sobriety tests and there may be more out there I am not familiar with. In addition to our standardized tests, it may be worth talking with your local prosecutor to see if they would be willing to allow other non standardized tests in certain safety-related situations. Remember that safety on the street works both ways, if you feel that a walk and turn test will increase the chances of your driver stumbling into traffic or get them moving around when you would rather they didn’t, maybe an alphabet or counting exercise would be more appropriate to get the evidence you need? A prosecutor may understand a deviation from the normal tests with some healthy conversation and documenting the reasons in your report.

Lone Officers and Domestics
The domestic disturbance is the most dynamic call officers respond to, the cops arrive and calm people get mad, angry people end up wanting to give you a hug before you leave. You never really know what to expect when you walk in the door. When you are a lone officer you don’t always have the luxury of being able to conduct good interviews of each party or keep them separated. Think about doing your interviews outside the residence rather than in separate rooms. We tend to know who the aggressor is when we arrive, take them outside, away from the other parties and the comfort of home.

This also will decrease the chances of them getting their hands on any weapons that may be in the house. If it is raining or snowing, great! How about sitting them in the backseat, behind the cage of your squad and getting out of the rain? Many times you might be able to get the cuffs on your bad guy before the people inside know what is going on, eliminating the chances of outside people joining the fight. I also like the outdoor interview because when things go bad, or somebody inside decides to grab a weapon, I have the entire world to use to find concealment and cover, and your portable works far better outside than inside when you call for help. These are little things to keep in mind that can increase your odds of surviving an encounter.

The Little Things
Take a close look at every aspect of your work, from the shoes you wear to where you stand and how your mic on the portable is positioned. Think about what will work best and put you at an advantage when you are on patrol, every little thing you can do to benefit yourself will increase your chances of surviving an encounter. Cops will spend thousands of dollars on the equipment hanging on their belt, but what about having a compact dim flashlight on your belt? Might get you out of the woods undetected if you find yourself pinned down someplace without backup. It’s a cheap and useful little thing for the purpose of evading gunfire and bad guys. We all know that sometimes it’s the little things that can become extremely important in certain situations.

The same goes for our field contacts, when you are making contacts alone it is important to gather all the information you can in a very short period of time. Don’t be afraid to ask some questions and try to read the person or group you are dealing with prior to getting down the business. Then position yourself accordingly and create some options for what you’re going to do if things go wrong.

A lone officer can lose control of a situation very quickly, so we need to be dynamic and flexible in our tactics. Part of this flexibility is to think about (and implement) as many tactics as possible when carrying out our daily activities. Hopefully with a little effort that bag of tricks you are carrying will become large enough to become a dangerous weapon in itself.

Patrick (Pat) Novesky has spent most of his life working in a rural environment not only in law enforcement, but also has been employed as a wildland firefighter working several states and as a guide for a hunting outfitter. Pat’s law enforcement background consists of a 20 year career ranging from positions as a sheriff’s deputy, ranger, and police officer holding assignments as intelligence officer and investigator. Pat has also been assigned to two narcotics task forces. Pat has served as a police firearms and Verbal Judo instructor and has been involved with various training for all types of law enforcement & other users of the outdoors and remote areas. The past several years of Pat’s career have been spent working as a conservation officer in Northern Wisconsin. Pat’s goal is to bring a common sense approach to issues that pertain to the rural law enforcement officer. Contact Patrick Novesky