Legacy of Lakewood: Analysis & Discussion, Part 1 - Training - LawOfficer.com

Legacy of Lakewood: Analysis & Discussion, Part 1

Lesson 1: Situational awareness & observational skills

Brian McKenna | Monday, November 28, 2011

Editor's note: Below is an in-depth analysis of the Lakewood shootings. It's advised that you read Brian McKenna's Officer Down: Legacy of Lakewood before you continue.

Situational Awareness
We will never know if Clemmons displayed any pre-assault indicators as he entered the coffee shop and approached the officers. Neither the baristas nor the couple next to the door noticed anything unusual about him, but since ordinary citizens aren't usually well attuned to danger signs, it’s possible that they missed some hint of his intentions. He may have shown some signs of nervousness, hostility or intense focus, such as sweating, nervous glances, a vacant stare, tense features, a rapid or rigid gait, etc., that weren't obvious enough for them to detect at a glance.

It’s also possible that one or both of Clemmons’ guns weighed down the pockets of his sweat shirt, or that he displayed some of the other behaviors typical of armed individuals, such as walking with his arm(s) held close to his waist to keep his gun(s) in place, touching one or both weapons briefly, or holding one arm straight down along his side (typical of gang members, who often carry a gun under their armpit when approaching an intended target). Similarly, he may have approached the officers with one or both hands behind his back or thigh, or, more subtly, in his pockets, which although not especially threatening, should always be considered a potential danger sign. On the other hand, it’s also possible that he displayed no outward danger signs of his intentions at all.

The crucial point here isn't what anyone noticed or should have noticed about Clemmons. Rather, it's that most people who intend to attack officers telegraph their intentions at least in subtle way, and that armed individuals tend to exhibit behaviors indicative of that fact even when they aren't aware of it. While some of these behaviors are rather obvious, others are not; therefore, officers should learn to recognize them. Furthermore, since there's no way to learn all of them, any unusual behaviors should be viewed as a sign of possible danger. All officers should get into the habit of watching human behavior for subtle signs of what people are thinking and feeling, especially when it comes to dangerous intentions.

Like any other habit, this can be developed over time through repetition, and the way to develop it is by starting with seemingly routine low-risk situations and then focusing on continuing that level of awareness in everything you do. When done long enough on a continuous basis, it eventually becomes something that stays with you all the time. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be practiced at the conscious level, but once developed the habit will remain in the back of your mind even when you aren’t consciously aware of it.

This habit is especially important when we're engaged casual, non-law enforcement activities like dining, taking a coffee break or even traveling to and from work. Because of their comfortable familiarity, these kinds of activities can quickly lull us into thinking that, since we aren't doing any actual police work, we can let out guard down. By developing the habit of looking for behavioral danger signs, we become less prone to falling into this trap.

If the Lakewood tragedy doesn’t do anything else, it should at least make us fiercely aware of the fact that sudden, brutal violence can come from anywhere. Every time we take a dinner break, stop to use the rest room, make a casual PR contact with a store employee, etc., the word “Lakewood” should ring in our ears to remind us to stay alert. By doing so, we can stay safer, thereby bringing meaning to the otherwise senseless deaths of these four noble officers.

Observational Skills
While situational awareness is crucial to officer safety, it's limited by how much of our environment we can see and how accurately we see it. This presents a problem, because observation skills aren't instinctive. They must be learned, and despite the fact that we like to think of ourselves as trained observers, how many of us have ever been taught how to be better observers? The danger here lies in the fact that the first step in responding to any threat is to detect its presence—and the sooner the better. This is why ambushes are so dangerous, and why it's so important to develop our observation skills to their highest potential.

Fortunately, training is now available that expands the ability to see and accurately process more of our surroundings, even when engaged in focused activities. Although the eyes capture images of everything within their field of view just as a camera does with everything in its viewfinder, they don’t actually see anything. Rather, the images are sent to the brain, which identifies and interprets them. However, since the brain can only process a small amount of visual input at a time, it misses much of what the eyes pick up, especially when focused on something that it perceives as very important.


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Brian McKennaBrian McKenna, a 32-year police veteran, is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood (Mo.) Police Department and Law Officer's Officer Down columnist.


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