We have spoken often here at Law Officer about what we believe to be the most important Officer Safety course available in “Surviving the First Three Seconds.” In fact, the course is built around over 100 resources and one of them is a book called “Left of Bang.” One of the authors, Patrick Van Horne, is a contributor to us and we are honored to work with him. Below, he discusses the need for law enforcement to identify and act on potential threats before they happen. Watch this talk inspired by Patrick’s work in the US Marine Corp Combat Hunter program and his book Left of Bang. For more information about WINx or to sign up for our 2016 event, please visit www.experienceWINx.com.
Despite improvements in technology and equipment, the number of police officers getting killed every year continues to rise. And with every officer ambushed and every memorial service we go to, we’re reminded not only about the complexity that this type of threat presents, but also how unique of a problem it really is. Policing is a naturally, inherently dangerous job. If officers safety was truly the most important or highest priority thing that we did, police officers would never leave the station. There’s naturally a lot more risks faced on the streets than there ever would be inside of the safety of a secured building. But if we are going to prevent the next 9/11, if we are going to prevent the next Paris, the next Aurora, Colorado, the next Virginia Tech, the next Newtown, we have to accept the fact that officer safety is a priority, but it comes second to actually protecting and serving the American citizens that we are tasked with overseeing.
And when we take a look at what that really means, and as we accept that statement as just the reality, it doesn’t mean that we go about and we look at officer safety in a negligent or naive way. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything possible to reduce the risks that a police officer faces while interacting with the population, while serving warrants, or even while off duty. The simple question is, “How do we do that? How do we protect our nation’s protectors?”
Often times, the common, or perhaps natural response to the situation is to increase our personal defenses, spend money on defensive and protective equipment. Think about what happens; people start shooting at police officers, we put every police officer in the country in a bullet-proof vest to increase their survivability. Police officers get shot at while serving a warrant, we now turn to the SWAT team to serve warrants in the future because why wouldn’t we put our best trained and most highly skilled police officers there so once the shooting breaks out, they’re able to end the situation very quickly?
But when we look at things like up-armored vehicles, when we look at things like just increasing spending on defensive measures, we realized that those dollars and those decisions are only impacting half of the risk equation. If we look at risk as a formula where we multiply the likelihood of a police officer being ambushed by the severity of that attack, should it occur, you can see very quickly where we spend so much of our time and so much of our attention. We focus on limiting the severity of that attack once it begins. Think about something even pretty similar: the increase in shootings we have seen in our country’s schools. Over the last 10 years, the way that police officers have changed their tactics to respond to these shootings, reflects this exact dynamic.
But if we only look at things by simply trying to limit and lower the severity of these events, we miss a pretty big component to risk. And I’m certainly not saying that’s a waste of time, or I’m certainly not saying that’s a waste of effort, but if we are only looking at “How can we make these events more safe by limiting how severe they are,” we’ll never ultimately prevent all attacks from occurring. Why? Because when you look at the severity of an event, that number is already higher than one or it’s already higher than zero. So focusing only on the severity makes risks more manageable, but it will never erase the risk from the day-to-day lives of a police officer.
Even just a few years ago, it would be unheard of for a first-arriving police officer on-scene to go into that school on his or her own. Now, that’s exactly what police officers are taught to do; that first officer arriving goes into the building and has the sole goal of stopping the shooter. But why is that? Because if that first officer can go into that building and stop the shooting and decrease the number of people that are hurt or killed by that shooter, the overall risk of that shooting has decreased.
And so as we look at doing everything that we can do to protect those police officers going on patrol, to protect those police officers on the street, it requires that we not only look to see “How can we improve the way they react to violence,” but also look to see “How can we get them left of bang?” And to understand what I mean when I say, “getting left of bang,” I want you to think about whatever act, whatever incident is important to you. It’s the shooting, it’s the stabbing, it’s the bombing, it’s the drug deal, the sexual assault, it’s whatever event you don’t want to happen. That is bang.
When you take bang and you place it on a timeline, bang is time zero. Bang is directly in the middle of that line. When we are operating left of bang, it means that we have identified some of those pre-event indicators. We’ve identified some of those warning signs that exist and alert us to let us know bang is coming, and still provide us with enough time to prevent the act from ever actually happening.
When we are right of bang, it means that we have missed all of those warning signs, all of those pre-event indicators, and we are now reacting. The criminal, the attacker, they have the upper hand. When we are right of bang, that attacker has the initiative. When we get left of bang, it means that us, as the good guys, we control the situation and the attacker is reacting to us. And whether we are only four seconds or four minutes or four hours left of bang, that is absolutely the goal where we can ultimately prevent and stop these attacks before they ever occur.
But I also understand that it’s not simply enough to look out and say, “Hey, go get left of bang. Go prevent all of these attacks from occurring.” I understand that there has to be a how to follow that statement. And often times when we ask this question, people will respond with saying things like, “We need better situational awareness. If we’re going prevent attacks from occurring, we need to be aware of our surroundings.” And that is true to a point; we certainly can’t have our face buried in our cellphones if we’re going to be able to recognize attackers. But generic, vanilla, bland situational awareness is not going to be good enough to ultimately get us left of bang.
If we’re going to be successful here, we have to elevate our situational awareness to a level of informed awareness. An informed awareness means that our police officers on the street have two very distinct skills. One, they know what they’re looking for. They know physically and tangibly what pre-event indicators are the ones that are going to alert them to a threat being present right there. And not only do they know what they’re looking for, they also know how to look for those indicators.
Being able to get left of bang on a consistent basis, we cannot rely on a purposeless, aimless scan of our surroundings. It has to be very deliberate and very explicit if we’re going to be able to recognize these threats and recognize these attackers before the event occurs. And getting to that level of informed awareness is really the difference between that officer on the street information hoping, and information hunting. And as we take a look at “How do we actually do that?” How do we prepare officers to recognize these attackers? We can take a look at how the military innovated in 2007 to deal with some very, very similar threats and similar situations.
In March 2003, our military stepped off on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Only 21 days later, our military occupied Baghdad. We just moved faster, moved further, while taking fewer casualties than any other military has ever done throughout history. And as we moved so quickly, we just showed the world how capable our entire military machine could be when we leveraged our advanced technology. When we leveraged our equipment, there was no one who could slow us down.
But as the uncertainty in Iraq grew, the fighters that we were dealing with learned very quickly that if they wanted to avoid detection, and if they wanted to completely defeat the technological advantage that we had, all they had to do is take off their khaki fatigues, dress like everyone else, and they could completely blend in and completely negate that entire advantage that we had. And as they learned to adapt, as they learned to avoid our strengths and attack our weaknesses, as they learned that by simply dressing like everyone else, they could choose the time and place of their attacks. They could choose when an ambush was in their favor or if they should wait until another day. They could completely control the outcome of these events.
And the response to the situation early on was very similar to what we oftentimes see right now occurring in law enforcement. The response was, “Put more body armor on marines and soldiers. Put more armor on the vehicles. Put more marines and soldiers on patrol every single day.” The assumption was that since we can’t identify those attackers, since we can’t prevent this act from even beginning, we should armor up, try to protect ourselves and so that when the attack comes, if marines and soldiers can survive that opening salvo, now they can finally do their job. Now they can finally return fire as soon as that enemy, as soon as that adversary revealed who they were and where they were located.
And in 2007, after years of taking this approach, Marine General James Mattis said, “This situation is absolutely unacceptable. We can’t tell marines that they have to go on patrol and wait to get shot at before they know who out there is trying to hunt them and trying to kill them.” And in 2007, he directed the creation of something referred to as the Combat Hunter Program which taught marines how you identify those pre-event indicators, how you read the physical and human terrain to identify those warning signs that exist before the event occurs. And as marines started to learn these two distinct skills of what they’re looking for and how to look for those threats, it started to shift the way we operated. We started to become very proactive. We didn’t have to wait for that adversary to reveal who they were. We could go after them, and also ensure our own safety.
And the two components that went into the Combat Hunter Program, the one that gets talked about more often than not are the behavioral approach to recognizing threats. But that’s only one component, especially when you look at what informed awareness is. The biggest take away and the biggest advantage that the Combat Hunter provided was teaching marines a structure and a framework for the sequence that you use to make observations and to make assessments to actually notice those indicators before if it’s too late.
We taught marines something referred to as a heuristic, which is just a simple strategy that we use to make decisions when we have a limited time and a limited information available to us. And if you think about the role or you think about the life of a police officer, how often do officers have perfect information about the people around them? Never. How often do they have an unlimited amount of time to scan and really assess the intentions of the people around them? Never. And so the same three-piece, three-component structure and process to make decisions in these kind of conditions that we taught marines can certainly help police officers make the same recognitions and identify those criminals and identify attackers left of bang.
The process that we teach marines is baseline plus anomaly equals decision, baseline plus anomaly equals decision. And what these components are, the baseline is simply what’s normal for the situation you’re in. Individual people have a baseline. Groups of people have a baseline. This room has a baseline. Chicago has a baseline. And the first step of our process is to simply identify what is normal here.
Once you know what’s normal, you can turn your search to actively hunting for those anomalies, those things that standout from the baseline. And there’s two types of anomalies that we care about. There’s anomalies above the baseline and anomalies below the baseline. Anomalies above the baseline are the additional presence, the extra things that are here today, here in this situation, that typically aren’t. Anomalies below the baseline are the things that should be here, but aren’t.
And so as we looked at what goes into identifying these anomalies so that we can get to that third and final stage of once you recognize that anomaly, being capable and confident to make the decision. Oftentimes people perceive that the most important step of the process is being able to recognize the anomaly, but it’s not. Being an anomaly means that you stand out, but to stand out, you have to stand out from something; that something is the baseline, that something is the norm for the people and the situations that you’re in.
And by teaching marines or police officers how to look at uncontrollable and universal elements of behavior, we can teach them and empower them to define their own indicators that are going to make someone an anomaly; their own indicators that are going to cause someone to stand out from the crowd, because they started by defining what’s normal. And it’s not an infinite list of possibilities; there’s 14 different assessments that could go into simply defining what’s normal here.
And as we look at really empowering marines to get left of bang and teaching them this process of how you establish a baseline so that you can identify anomalies, the whole process was based and geared towards that first part of the risk equation where we aren’t just focused on limiting the severity of the attack, we were focused almost exclusively on “How can we prevent that attack from ever occurring? How can we decrease the likelihood or the probability of that ambush, of that strike, before the actual trigger was pulled?” The behavioral approach to recognizing threats, the behavioral approach to getting left of bang, it’s not a silver bullet; it’s not going to stop all crime, it’s not going to prevent all violent acts from occurring. But the question I always come back to is, “Why isn’t it?” Why is that not the goal that we are constantly striving for in police and security?
If that is the sole standard that we are making continuous systematic progress towards, we can ultimately get to that point where the body armor and the armor on our vehicles becomes less significant. And I don’t discount the value of that, especially when it comes to the types of threats that we’re seeing right now. But criminals can always buy a bigger gun; terrorists can always build a bigger bomb. The defensive measures and the protective measures we often take have a shelf life because as soon as terrorists or criminals evolve and learn those capabilities, those investments we’re making right now can immediately become much less important to us.
But by teaching officers to get left of bang by understanding simply how you identify a person who possesses a violent intent, looking at a situation and asking yourself just three very simply questions: What’s going on here? What’s going to someone stand out? And what am I going to do about it? Preparing them to not only think through what’s normal, but also have them simulating and anticipating those cues that are going to make that criminal, make that attacker, reveal themselves; take away that advantage they have of blending in by simply dressing like everyone else.
And so when we take a look at what it means to do everything we can for that officer on the ground, that person going on patrol, that person going to respond to the call, it’s not just focusing on that second half of the risk equation. It’s not just protecting them and helping them be prepared to react to violence, it also means that we have done everything we can to empower them, to ensure their own safety and prevent themselves from being the victim of an attack. And if that capability is there, then we’re freed up again to go after those larger criminal, insurgent, terrorist networks, whoever it is that we are targeting. And so when we look at what it means to truly protect those officers, the solution often comes down to teaching them that one very specific skill: giving them the ability to get left of bang and stay there. Thank you.
Find out more about Patrick Van Horne and his courses at the CP Journal.