Return of Tombstone Courage?

Thousands of law enforcement officers filled a church and more stood outside Jan. 28 to mourn Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, the two St. Petersburg police officers shot and killed by a fugitive while helping serve a warrant.

No one can deny that the first month of 2011 proved to be a very deadly one for law enforcement. With the recent tragedies in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan and Oregon, January 2011 ended with more than a dozen officers being killed, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. At the risk of being called a Monday-morning quarterback, some might argue that more than a few of these deaths were the result of either not heeding apparent or obvious danger signs, relaxing too soon or taking a call as “routine.” Some might say “tombstone courage” played a part in at least one incident.  

Back in 1976, LAPD Sergeant Pierce Brooks authored what many consider to be the first bible on officer survival, “Officer Down, Code Three.” For those baby cops out there, Brooks, then a detective, was the lead investigator on the infamous “Onion Field” case where LAPD Officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger were kidnapped by career criminals Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith. Campbell was executed during that incident which occurred out near an onion field in Bakersfield, Calif., hence the name of retired LAPD Sgt. Joseph Wambaugh’s classic book, The Onion Field, and the subsequent movie. Brooks believed that most police murders could be avoided by following a few simple rules. I think that’s why he felt so close to what the original Street Survival Seminars were preaching: “You can do something about your safety out there.”

After retiring as a captain with LA, Brooks went on to head two law enforcement agencies, first in Lakewood, Colo., and later on in Eugene, Ore. I had the pleasure of meeting Brooks years after he retired from the Eugene (Ore.) PD when I was teaching the Street Survival Seminar in that fair city. He had a tremendous amount of respect for not only the seminar’s format and content, but also co-founders Chuck Remsberg and Denny Anderson. Contained in Brooks’ ground-breaking text were “The 10 Deadly Errors.”

Based on what we’ve seen throughout the past 30 days, it might be an appropriate time to review those issues and do a little soul searching, too. As they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. As you read over the list, if you start to see a pattern emerging in your tactical behavior, take a minute to reflect on these items, first culled more than 35 years ago from the mind of Pierce R. Brooks. I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing some of the language and the hierarchy of his original list, but the spirit of those 10 core errors remains intact.

1.    Tombstone courage: Just what it says, if time allows, wait for backup. There are very few calls where you should try to make a dangerous arrest or apprehension by yourself or with insufficient manpower/equipment. 
2.    Taking a bad position: Remember relative positioning and the “I” stance. Never let anyone you are interviewing or stopping get in a more advantageous position than you.
3.    Not heeding danger signs: If you’ve spent a few years on the street, you know what that good cop’s sixth sense feels like (e.g., movements, strange cars, the pre-attack postures).
4.    Relaxing too soon: There’s no such thing as a routine call. That false sense of security after handling 99 false alarms can create a deadly sense of safety for that 100th. And be careful of presumed compliance.
5.    Improper (or not) searching: Search before cuffing. There are more than 100 places on the human body where a knowledgeable suspect can hide a weapon. Never assume that the first cop (or the next one) has searched (or is going to search) your prisoner.
6.    Improper (or not) cuffing: Once you’ve made the collar, cuff. And cuff properly. Grossi’s law: There are only two places for handcuffs—in your cuff case or behind the suspect’s back.
7.    Failing to watch the hands: Hands kill. Enough said.
8.    Loss or lack of concentration: If you fail to keep your mind focused on the task at hand, you’ll start to make errors. There’s nothing more important than what you’re doing right now.
9.    Lack of sleep: Police work requires that you be alert. A lack of sleep isn’t only dangerous to you. You jeopardize your partner, too. 
10.  Dirty (or inoperative) weapon: Let me expand on that. Maintain all your equipment—firearms, magazines and ammo, ECD, OC, cuffs, baton, radio—in optimum condition. Your tools are just as important to you as a surgeon’s instruments are to him.
This material isn’t just for you street dogs. Bosses need to subscribe to these same philosophies. Starting at No. 10, by conducting frequent inspections, you can ensure that the officers in your charge are maintaining all their equipment in good working order.  With No. 9, if you see one of your troops looking like he hasn’t had a good night’s (or day’s) sleep, call for a meet at the local coffee shop. Maybe he’s working a second (or third) job and isn’t getting his full complement of Zzz’s. For No. 8 through No. 1, roll-call training on such tactics as always watching the hands, proper searching and cuffing, remembering relative positioning, waiting for backup and the other critical issues that encompass safe street work is part of your job as a first- or second-line supervisor. Be a leader, not just a supervisor.

I hope and pray that the stats for February don’t resemble January’s. But hoping and praying aren’t enough. It’s going to take the full effort of street cops, trainers and bosses alike to bring down the deadly numbers that opened 2011. Stay safe!

Brooks, Pierce R., Officer Down, Code Three
Motorola Teleprograms, Inc., April 1976


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