Imagine you are a police officer. You are six hours into a 10-hour shift. You have already been on a domestic violence call, three cold harassment calls and an injury accident. You’ve just cleared from the jail after dropping off a motorist who had a traffic warrant. Calls are stacked up in the queue, so you put off your meal break.
As you look for a priority call, dispatch calls you over the radio to respond to a residential alarm. You hit your lights and head to the call, leaving the siren off. You are driving a little faster than your normal speed, but not that much. The vast majority of residential alarm calls are accidental activations, and there is no reason to put other motorists at risk by driving like a bat out of hell. You’re five minutes out.
Dispatch radios you with an update. There is a 911 call from the same residence as the alarm. The reporting person (RP), a woman, says someone is kicking in the back door. There is no suspect information. You hit your siren and drive as fast as you can without wrecking your vehicle.
The vast majority of residential alarm calls are accidental activations, and there is no reason to put other motorists at risk by driving like a bat out of hell.
Cars on the road in front of you move over to the shoulder, but it seems like they are moving in slow motion. You approach an intersection like a rocket, slowing just enough to make sure it’s clear. In the pit of your stomach you know that no matter how fast you drive, it will not be fast enough. Dispatch calls with another update: “RP reports shots fired.”
You are less than a minute away, but it seems like an eternity. Other patrol cars converge in behind you. You turn onto the street, scanning the house numbers. You lock up the brakes stopping in front of the house. As you exit your squad car, you key your radio to call out on-scene.
Gun in hand, you run to the door. It opens, and a woman appears holding a phone. She’s too panicked to speak, but she points down the hall.
You hear a scream coming from a room and rush over. You slice the pie into the room, yelling, “Police!” Your mind takes a snapshot of what you see: A young girl is on the bed, her knees pulled up to her chest, screaming uncontrollably. There are two men in the room. One is on the floor holding his stomach. The other is pointing a gun at the man on the floor. You shout, “Drop the gun!”
What do you do?
Bad Time for a Bad Call
Who is the homeowner and who is the intruder? As a police officer, you have an instant to decide.
If you wait a second too long and the man with the gun is the intruder and shoots again, the girl is going to be crying on every news channel that the police officer just stood there and watched her daddy get murdered. You’ll have to explain your failure to act to internal affairs while the media crucifies you.
Before the father is buried, lawyers will be calling his family. The family will likely sue the city, your department and you. The best defense for your department is to split the cases so each will get tried separately. This is to show you acted outside policy. You will lose qualified immunity and will be personally responsible for damages. You’ll also be fired.
Who is the homeowner and who is the intruder? As a police officer, you have an instant to decide.
If you shoot the man with the gun and it turns out it was the homeowner, you are in just as much trouble. You will be vilified by the media. Civil suits will eat away at any savings, leaving you in inescapable debt. You will have to live with yourself for killing an innocent man. And you’ll also be fired.
It seems every few months there is a news article about cops responding to a home invasion and shooting the wrong person. Street cops have to make life-or-death decisions in an instant. Given the number of calls for service that happen in the United States every year, statistically — every once in a while — some of those decisions are going to be wrong.
But what if I told you that you as the homeowner can help responding officers make the right call?
There are many physiological and psychological elements at work against a victim that make it more likely that a police officer will mistake him or her as the aggressor. When humans were still hunter-gatherers, being able to visually focus on a perceived threat was critical to their survival as a species. Those early humans whose vision tunneled in on threats survived and passed those genetic traits on to us. What that means for us modern humans is that someone who has just survived a violent encounter in his or her home will likely be focused on the threat and not be able to see the police in his or her peripheral vision.
Likewise, auditory exclusion was a key to our survival and comes into play. During a violent encounter, our brain’s ability to process sounds is reduced. It’s not that the soundwaves fail to reach our eardrums but rather that our brain ignores the signals. Couple auditory exclusion with the hearing degradation after firing a gun in an enclosed room, and the homeowner probably won’t perceive the police entering his or her home or demanding that he or she drop the gun.
There are many physiological and psychological elements at work against a victim that make it more likely that a police officer will mistake him or her as the aggressor.
It is natural for people to want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and a threat. In a physical encounter, “fight or flight” kicks in, and the hands typically go up to head level and push out until the arms are locked straight out toward the threat. Thousands of years ago, this reflex kept predators from biting and clawing our eyes and throats. Today, it is why the Isosceles shooting stance is favored over the Weaver: It requires less training because our bodies do it instinctively.
When an untrained person holds a knife to protect himself or herself, he or she will usually lock his or her arms straight out, pointing the knife at the threat. It’s not the best technique for wielding a knife, but it’s what instinct causes us to do. It is also why an untrained person who has just shot an intruder will instinctively keep pointing the gun at that intruder.
The combination of these factors will cause a homeowner to fail to hear an officer entering the residence or commands to drop the gun. All the responding officer or officers will see is someone pointing a gun at someone else and not listening to police commands. The officer or officers will be forced to make the distinction between homeowner and intruder, and God help everybody involved if the police officer discharging his or her weapon is wrong.
Help the Police Help You
What if the circumstances were a little different when the officer entered the room? What if the man with the gun had it at low ready and not pointed directly at the other man? How about if the person holding the gun was giving loud, authoritative commands to the other person in the room to not move and to keep his hands in view? The officer would have more indicators of who was the homeowner and who was the intruder. You have to help the police make the right decision, and to help them, you will have to overcome certain instincts. That means you must train and mentally prepare.
One of the hardest things to get police trainees to do is issue verbal commands. We practiced yelling commands at the range when we discharged our firearms and in the mat room when we trained with foam batons. Likewise, when you train, incorporate verbal commands into your drills. Making sure you are shouting commands at an attacker during a critical incident — whether you’re on the street or in your home — will help police and witnesses know you are not the assailant.
If you turn to look to confront a voice behind you and you are at high ready, you could end up pointing your gun at a cop. If that happens, the cop in question will be forced to make an instantaneous decision on whether or not to shoot you.
As a private citizen, you also need to mentally prepare and train yourself to transition your firearm from high ready to low ready after shooting. When you scan for threats, scan at low ready and don’t sweep the muzzle wherever your eyes go.
I was taught the opposite as a soldier and a cop. When I started doing diplomatic security, I balked at the idea of scanning at low ready. I wanted to be able to get my sights on target as fast as possible. It was explained to me that low ready is better in an environment where many people from different agencies and not in uniform are carrying guns and have never seen each other before.
Don’t make yourself look like a threat to a first responder. If you turn to look to confront a voice behind you and you are at high ready, you could end up pointing your gun at a cop. If that happens, the cop in question will be forced to make an instantaneous decision on whether or not to shoot you. Also, remember the second rule of firearms safety: Never let the muzzle of your gun point at anything you are not willing to destroy. If you scan at high ready, you will very likely violate this safety rule.
Stay on Guard
As lawful firearms owners, we need to be able to instantly communicate to responding officers that we are not threats. Recognize what actions may appear threatening and work to eliminate them from your responses through training. In a critical incident, understand that your perception may be tunneled in and you may not be aware of what is going on around you. The police will not immediately recognize who is the attacker and who is the defender, so don’t present yourself as a threat and be sure to follow their commands. Help the police avoid making a wrong decision you definitely don’t want made.