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12 tactical options for surviving a personnel shortage

Police1’s State of the Industry survey highlights the bleak effects of understaffing on officer safety – here are some strategies officers can use to prevail

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Cyclically police departments have had to deal with personnel shortages due to vacations, holidays, hiring freezes, injuries, or experimental scheduling. Now, however, shortages caused by the current police recruitment crisis are negatively impacting officer and community safety.

As part of Police1’s recent State of the Industry survey on the recruitment and retention crisis, survey participants were asked a series of questions about staffing levels at their agencies. A total of 4,141 people responded to the survey.

Nearly 87% of survey participants reported that their agency was not fully staffed based on current authorized staffing levels. A striking 94% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that this dearth of staff brought about direct negative consequences within their organization. Compulsory overtime hours saw a rise, and so did the worries regarding safety during duty. The hours allotted for training were reduced, and respondents exhibited a lower tendency to carry out traffic stops due to a decreased availability of backup.

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Here are 12 options for officers to consider to make it safely through periods of personnel shortages.

1. Conduct pre-traffic stop investigations.

Do not stop cars blindly. After deciding to stop a car, run your checks in advance to discover if the car is stolen and if the occupants of the vehicle are suspected of criminal activity. Watch closely for occupants to react to your presence by exhibiting furtive movements.

2. Use lights tactically and consider the two-officer illusion tactic.

As you make stops, use all available lights so that occupants can’t see beyond them. Use the PA to ask the driver to turn the interior of his vehicle on, lighting up the inside of the vehicle so you can see in, but they can’t see out. Direct the spotlight at the driver’s side, outside the rear-view mirror, blinding them.

If you are working solo, consider creating a two-officer illusion by slamming the passenger door and talking to a non-existent partner, stating something like, “Hang back. I’ll make contact.”

On the approach, pause at the back of the offender’s vehicle. From here watch and assess the activity inside the vehicle. After determining compliance make contact on the opposite side of the vehicle to where they seem to be expecting you.

3. Make street contacts from a position of advantage.

Arrive at all calls and contacts in a position of advantage. Make certain your relative positioning is superior, by properly using distance, barriers and appropriate cover after considering the type of contact it is.

4. Create backup protocols.

Arrange informal agreements with officers on beats near you, or adjacent agencies so that backing each other up becomes a priority. When you hear each other engage with someone, head toward each other’s location and back each other up.


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5. Even when you are off duty, pay attention.

When off duty, or even retired and you see a lone officer with a contact, pull over and watch for a bit to make sure they are OK.

6. Establish signals for “I need help.”

When a situation is going south, and you do not want to alert a suspect you are calling for assistance, calmly use the radio and say 10-78 (or whatever your code is for officer needs assistance.)

As you see officers driving by your troubled contact use the universal covert signal for “I need some backup.” Scratch your badge, because a badge does not itch.

It is imperative that any covert signals you use are universally known by other officers.

7. Strive to arrive unseen.

Approach and arrive at each contact/call unseen so that you can assess what dangers the scene holds prior to contact. You can also gather probable cause prior to even making contact.

8. Train on your own time, on your own dime.

Training should be increased during periods of personnel shortages not decreased as reported by 58% of the officers in the survey.

Don’t rely on your agency for your personal survival training. Any officer who trains on their own time and their own dime, especially in the area of defensive tactics, will arrive at a moment in their career when that training will pay off and become a key reason for them professionally prevailing.

9. Train in empty hand control

Considering that 48% of officers surveyed stated it takes longer to respond to high-priority calls it follows that an officer in these departments can expect a longer wait when a request for assistance is made.

Acquire defensible skills to be able to hold onto a suspect longer as you wait for that backup to arrive.

10. Multiple attacker training is essential.

The survey revealed that most agencies resorted to one-officer patrols long before the current shortages. It stands to reason that lone police first responders coupled with shortages create a situation where officers need training to prepare them to defend against the inevitability of multiple attackers.

“Getting jumped” has always been a professional hazard. However, now more than ever officers need to be prepared to effectively respond to being assaulted suddenly by more than one hostile individual. Defending yourself against more than one attacker effectively is not an insurmountable challenge. You don’t have to beat them all, you only have to discourage them.

Because I specifically trained intensely for multiple attackers, when those situations did suddenly develop on the street, the intensity of my trained response surprised my attackers and allowed me to prevail.

Part of your defense against multiple attacker training should be to discuss the circumstances that would warrant the use of deadly force to prevent imminent great bodily harm or death. Officers need to practice viable options to defeat such an assault as well as weapon retention tactics.

11. Develop hybrid communications skills.

Sun Tzu said, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” Seek to enhance your communication skills your entire career to achieve victories without having to do battle.

Whether you work in a rural area or a teeming metropolis, becoming a great communicator will be a skill you can apply daily. Consider training in Verbal Judo, professional communication, hostage negotiations and de-escalation techniques. Apply and refine the skills you acquire.

I will share just one line that served me well in establishing positive communication. When arriving on scene and finding an agitated subject, I would often say calmly, “I can see that you are upset, but you can’t be upset with me, because we just met. My name is Dan. Why don’t you tell me what has got you so upset tonight? Maybe I can help.”

Realize that being a great police communicator is a survival skill of the highest order. Commit to seeking out training and then make the skills you have learned your own by applying them.

12. Know when it is time to engage, and when it is time to disengage.

There is an old story about the Texas Ranger, who arrived at a riot and someone asked, “Only one Ranger?”

The Ranger responded, “You only have one riot don’t you?”

That is a great story, but not realistic. There are many situations (not including the in-progress active shooter) that can only be made worse by one officer placing themselves in the middle of them. Every officer needs to know when it is best to disengage and get the help they need before they are in over their head and need the help.

BONUS TIP: Be indomitable!

To speak frankly with you all. Many officers these days sound defeated. The survey showed over half are planning on leaving their agencies within the next five years.

This defeatist attitude goes against advice I received as a young recruit from an indomitable old sergeant who had been there and done that. He said, “When it gets tough, even seeming to be too painful to continue, that is the time to remember these words. Never give up! Never give up!! NEVER WHILE YOU’RE OUT THERE, GIVE UP!”

So until you are out the door, be like that old sergeant. Choose to be indomitable and NEVER GIVE UP!

NEXT: What 1,000 rural LEOs have to say about the state of recruitment, retention and their overall job satisfaction

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.