BLUE ON BLUE: AVOIDING, HANDLING AND SURVIVING ARMED ENCOUNTERS BETWEEN LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS
By: Lou Savelli
Blue on Blue
Anytime a law enforcement officer is killed, it is a tragedy. That goes without saying! However, when one law enforcement officer is the person killing the other law enforcement officer, no matter how much went wrong with the confrontation, regardless of who made a mistake, it is beyond a tragedy and wounds will never heal on both sides, far and wide. As you can tell, I am being very careful of my wording about this situation that has gotten little discussion. It’s as if no one wants to talk about it and as I found out, no one wanted to tackle this issue, at least in public, so here I am… tackling it! I am not going to pass blame on anyone or anything but I will, forcefully, offer recommendations for avoiding, handing and surviving blue on blue encounters.
Are Blue on Blue Confrontations a problem for modern law enforcement? If one cop gets killed or injured, then it’s a tragedy that needs to be understood and it’s definitely a problem that needs to be analyzed. Solutions need to be devised. As I found out, through extensive research, there have been many law enforcement officers who have been killed in Blue on Blue Confrontations and, in my opinion, there are scores more that did not have their lives end in tragedy that we have never heard about. We don’t even have access to the facts of many of these cases to analyze and use these facts to devise solutions.
My Personal Experiences
As a cop for 25 years and 90 % of that in plainclothes, I have had my share of cop’s guns pointed at me. I have been shot at (by bad guys and cops too!) and pulled my gun on cops who were on duty and off. I was part of a panel discussion and analysis of mass shootings called Massive Reflexive Response (MRR), now called contagious shootings. What I learned from my experience and analysis of shootings was that each incident was unique and occasionally mistakes were made but I also learned that most can be avoided with the right policies, procedures and training.
In the US, in the last 30 years, there have been 29 incidents that can be classified as Blue on Blue Confrontations, though each was quite different, that have ended in an officer being killed by a fellow officer. Of those 29 officers killed, many of the officers were off duty, most were in plainclothes and two were acting in an undercover capacity. What they all had in common was they resulted in mistaken identity.
To emphasize the seriousness, I want everyone to understand that there are victims of these incidents. Yes! There are victims. In the case of Blue on Blue Confrontations that end in death there are many victims. These victims range from the officer killed and his/her family, friends and coworkers to the officer who killed a fellow officer and his/her family and coworkers. How hard must it be to cope with killing another human being, and how very hard it must be to cope with killing a fellow law enforcement officer? I thank God every day that it never happened to me.
After a death, or serious injury, of a fellow law enforcement officer as a result of a Blue on Blue Confrontation, there is much devastation. We all, in the law enforcement family, understand that an officer can get killed doing, what we like to call, “God’s Work” yet we find it difficult to handle. Yet how can we understand when one law enforcement officer takes another officer’s life, especially when both sides are trying to do “God’s Work”? What are the families left to think of us as law enforcement officers and this job we do that causes us to take the life of another officer? Do lawyers kill other lawyers in the courtroom? Maybe they do, figuratively, but not literally! Do doctors kill other doctors while they are practicing medicine? Of course not!
How bitter we must all be when such a death happens. Usually, we can blame the bad guy and focus our anger on him and others like him. We can hate his defense attorney and those who support him but how can we hate another officer for doing his job, especially when he/she truly believes he is saving his own life or the lives of the citizens nearby? How does the widow or widower explain to the children of a dead officer who died at the hands of another officer? What do you say? How do we all feel? How much confusion is there?
The aftermath is that of great difficulty and confusion with broken hearts and broken spirits. And in many cases, blame is passed upon someone who was considered previously a friend, a protector or family. Many questions arise, or at least they are thought. Was it a case of prejudice? Was hatred involved? Did someone break the rules? Who was overzealous? Who was at fault? Or who was more wrong?
Whether we like to discuss it, or not, we must! Yes, the 800 pound gorilla. We have to discuss it, especially when it comes to Blue on Blue Confrontations. Is race an issue? Why are so many minority officers victims of Blue on Blue deaths? Is it so many? It seems so. Or are political activists just trying to stir everyone up at the expense of our nation’s law enforcement officers. Is it just for their own benefit or is there good reason for it? I’m not sure, but I can tell you the truth about the social implications of Blue on Blue Confrontations. We have to deal with them and add it to our training. We need to do it TODAY so it doesn’t happen again. Do we all, no matter how trained we are, bring our own personal prejudices into the equation? Do we bring our own perception into it? Of course, we all do!
So, has race been an issue in Blue on Blue Confrontations ending in tragedy? As an analyzer of facts and the available research, I am not sure. As a cop, a human being and an observer of people, I am still not sure. But what I am sure is that people, even cops, bring their personal prejudices and perception of reality to their interactions. We all know it! Yet race does not seem to be a distinguishable factor in the available information.
According to my research, there have been 29 officers killed in confrontations with other officers. Fifteen were white, thirteen were Black and one was Hispanic. Therefore, according to the statistics available on the Officer Down Memorial Page and other research available, more white officers have been killed by white officers than minority officers have been killed by white officers. In fact, some minority officers were killed by minority officers. But were these officers trained properly to handle such situations?
But what are the social implications? Well, if we, as law enforcement officers think it and community members feel it then there are social implications. So, to best summarize it, I will quote law enforcement officers, community members and family members close to a Blue on Blue Tragedy that occurred in the past few years. It has again raised questions about social issues, such as race in the Blue on Blue tragic death of Omar Edwards, a well-liked off-duty NYPD officer attempting to apprehend a suspect trying to steal his personal car. In a YouTube video that can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fERCRVJN_tc, Detective Edwards friends, colleagues and law enforcement activists, voice their thoughts and opinions about Omar, his death and the questions that have been left unanswered.
Factors Contributing to These Tragedies
Yes, there are contributing factors that led to these tragedies! And yes, absent these contributing factors, many of the officers killed would be alive, or at least I believe so. Contributing factors range widely and they seem to exist, often, on both sides of the confrontation. Without naming specific incidents and especially not naming any officers, or agencies, involved, I will list those contributing factors from my own educated and experienced findings by the frequency and importance. The top of the list is the Lack of a Confrontation Policy, next is Lack of a Confrontation Procedures and third is Lack of Training on both. Most agencies, of the agencies from which over 300 officers I have interviewed, have left officers untrained and confused about Blue on Blue Confrontations and how to handle them, nevertheless avoid them. Yes, we all know the uniform officer is in charge. WE GET IT! But it is not always that simple. And what if the challenging officer isn’t wearing a uniform? See, we need more information…more policy, more procedure and more training!
As I started discussing Blue on Blue Confrontations and training law enforcement officers on effective procedures, as far back as the year 2000, I was consistently amazed how the majority of officers, from a wide-variety of law enforcement agencies, approximately 95%, did not know how to effectively act in a confrontation with another officer on both sides of the confrontation. Consistently, officers had not received formal training on what to do during such situations. Specialized officers, such as plainclothes officers, undercover officers, narcotics investigators and surveillance specialists are much more prone to become involved in a confrontation, received nothing more than “...the uniform officer is in charge!” Yet, one of the consistent safety concerns that arose in discussion, consistently, was their concerns of being shot by a fellow officer who couldn’t readily identify them during a confrontation. It immediately made me realize I had to add a segment for dealing with Blue on Blue Confrontations in training related to narcotics investigations, undercover operations, plainclothes operations, physical surveillance and others. Of course, I stressed how important was for the plainclothes officers must completely comply with uniformed officers and identify themselves before they take action.
Next on the list of contributing factors to Blue on Blue Confrontations ending in tragedy is the Failure of the ‘confronted’ officer to submit to the orders of the ‘confronting’ officer(s). For example, many officers (of the available research) did not submit to orders to “DROP THE GUN!”, or “DON’T MOVE!” or to verbally respond to orders or instructions given by ‘confronting’ officer(s), EVEN WHEN THE CONFRONTING OFFICERS WERE IN UNIFORM. But why didn’t the ‘confronted’ officers respond? It was not uncommon for confronted officers to fail to respond to verbal orders because of ‘Auditory Exclusion’ caused by stress. Auditory Exclusion, the shutting down of hearing or inability to hear due to stress-related focus on a violent or threatening situation, is also associated with, and can go hand in hand with, Tunnel Vision. Tunnel Vision is the narrow focus of vision or attention that prevents an officer involved in a stress-related situation to see outside of a narrow view. Such narrow view can be limited to a specific situation, person or thing. The main problem is that Auditory Exclusion and Tunnel Vision are difficult to identify in rapidly evolving situations like Blue on Blue Confrontations.
Another contributing factor may have been related to, or causing, Auditory Exclusion and Tunnel vision. They are a response to the stressors, or stimuli, connected to armed and/or violent situations and this is called Tachypsychia. Tachypsychia is a neurological condition that alters the perception of time, usually induced by physical exertion, drug use, or a traumatic event and can include Auditory Exclusion, Tunnel Vision, Selective Attention, immediate PTSD Symptoms and other debilitating symptoms. These same symptoms could be suffered by the ‘confronting’ officer(s) contributing to the Blue on Blue Confrontation, however because of the limited information available in Blue on Blue confrontations; research did not reveal such a factor. Undoubtedly, in my opinion, if a confronting officer suffers from Tunnel Vision he/she may not see a badge displayed and if a confronting officer is suffering from Auditory Exclusion, he/she may not hear statements such as “I’m a Police Officer!”
Mistaken Identity has been the frequent label used to categorize the Blue on Blue Confrontation leading to a tragedy but there are many factors that can contribute to mistaken identity. Such factors include Failure on the part of the ‘confronted’ officer to properly identify himself and the inability on the part of the ‘confronting’ officers to effectively assess the situation. Of course we can all Monday morning quarterback and say that certain things needed to be done. In reality, armed confrontations are highly stressful, rapidly evolving, confusing situations involving the threat of deadly physical force. They are too complex to say things like “He should have done this and she should have done that…!” They happened fast.
Failure of officers to properly identify themselves, on both sides of a confrontation, can happen for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons may be beyond their control. Such reasons, for example, can range from the inability to obtain and display a badge and/or ID because it is inaccessible to not carrying a badge or ID or an imminently threatening situation making it difficult to produce or access the badge and/or ID. Realistically, the factors, on both sides of the confrontation, can be vast.
Ineffective identification, such as wearing a badge on the belt can be another contributing factor. Wearing the badge on around the neck facing front, while the confronting officer is at the rear, may not be totally effective but a recent study by the Kansas City, MO, Police Department shows it is far more effective than a belt badge holder. Identification that is absent a ‘POLICE’ raid jacket, or some other obvious identifier, can also be ineffective in the wrong situation and off-duty cops don’t walk around with ‘POLICE’ raid jackets in their pockets just in case they are going to get involved. But they should, always, carry their badge and ID with them! One way that just might be the most effective way to identifying yourself to responding officers is by having your badge in your non-shooting hand that can be shown while you ‘cover’ the bad guy at gunpoint.
Failure to use proper dialogue can be another factor that can lead to a tragic end. One of my pet peeves, partially because of my ‘old school’’ NYPD training, is the utilization of ‘Mutual Cop Dialogue’. During a confrontation, especially when one officer’s identity is in question, badge or no badge, effective cop dialogue can help. The lack of dialogue between officers on both sides can have dangerous outcomes. When an officer says, “POLICE DON’T MOVE!” and the other doesn’t respond that makes for a very tense situation. Using mutual dialogue can help ease the tension. The other officer can respond, “I’m a Police Officer, I work in Fifth Precinct!” The confronting officer might say, “What tour do you work?” The response could be “I work third shift, four to twelves!” That phrase itself, “…third shift” is a cop phrase. It can make a confronting officer relax a bit. If he wants more information to be sure if he is dealing with a cop, he may ask, “What’s the boss in charge of your shift called?” If he’s a cop, he’ll say, “He’s the Platoon Commander.” The dialogue can go many ways to help the confronting officer realize that he is actually dealing with an officer.
Other factors that can contribute to Blue on Blue Confrontations, and/or the tragic end to such confrontations, can be various. Here are some examples with a brief explanation:
My recommendations to effectively avoid, handle and survive Blue on Blue Confrontations, involves the creation of efficient Policy and Procedures, enhanced with proper training. Law enforcement officers should also be directed to carry their law enforcement badge and identification at all times and produce them immediately upon deciding to become involved, on or off duty, when in plainclothes. Agencies should discourage officers from taking action off-duty. Being a good ‘expert’ witness should be preferable than being a good cop who risks his/her life. There should be strict guidelines for plainclothes officers and specific ways they identify themselves. And agencies need to train, and remind, on duty personnel of how to identify off duty and plainclothes officers and use cover in confrontation situations.
Maybe I raised more questions than I answered in this writing. Sometimes it works out that way when you set out to expose something, especially an important and controversial topic. Whatever I raised, I hope I raised everyone’s awareness and understanding of the need for further investigation and policy. Maybe I have been lucky in my many personal experiences with Blue on Blue Confrontations and maybe my experience as an undercover officer, plainclothes officer, detective and supervisor has provided me with more respect and understanding of such situations to help me remain safe and not injure another cop. Or maybe I was just lucky! I think, with no reservations, there is nothing that can take the place of real-life diverse experience, but in the case of avoiding, handling and surviving Blue on Blue Confrontations to circumvent tragedies, effective policy, procedures and training comes real close.
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