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Get Back to Basics

Every morning in my email inbox I receive a summary of officer-involved shootings, vehicle crashes and other incidents involving police officer injury or death.  Like most of you, I continue to feel frustrated as I read about the daily assault on American law enforcement.  Most days, I’m on the phone or exchanging emails or texts with other trainers, with survivors, and with officers on the street, talking about individual cases as well as “officer survival” in general, and the conversation always seems to circle back to the same thing:  “Basics.” 

Before you think to yourself “I’m no rookie, I don’t need another article on the basics of officer safety” and hit the back key, get up and take a long, hard look in the mirror.  Remember, the average age of an officer killed in the line of duty is now forty.  How did your last shift go?  Your last arrest?  Your last search?  Did you make any mistakes?  Did you see anyone else make mistakes?  We’re not only responsible for our own safety, we are morally obligated to watch out for our brothers and sisters, and that includes making sure we’re all performing at our absolute best. 

Here are some of things we need to improve upon, immediately.  See if any of this applies to you or someone you know.

We’re rushing in.  Whether it’s a suspicious circumstances call, a domestic dispute, a warrant service, a cell search, or a traffic stop we seem to be in a big damn hurry.  Sometimes that’s appropriate, but very often it’s not.  Are you thinking about what’s ahead? Are you visualizing what may happen in the next five seconds, the next ten minutes, the next hour, and how you’re going to respond? We call that “When/Then” thinking in our officer survival classes, and that kind of mindset is essential to your safety.  Slowing things down a bit is not the same as “hesitation.”  Be deliberate in your response, in your observations, in your tactics.  Breathe, focus, anticipate. 

We don’t get back up. Before you say “I don’t have the luxury of back up” ask yourself if that’s really true.  For many of you, it’s your day to day reality.  Half of all American police departments employ less than ten sworn officers.  But even if you’re a small town cop, can you get back up from the agency next door, or from the county, the state police, or even from an off duty colleague who lives in town?  Be creative and a little patient when it comes to getting another officer on scene.  And for those of you who do have back up readily available, are you asking for it?  More importantly, are you waiting for it?  Again, rushing in can be deadly.  What if you absolutely can’t get another officer there to help out?  Then consider your options.  Get people controlled, make sure you’re constantly aware of cover, communicate with dispatch, and always consider the option of disengaging.  You can’t walk away from a violent domestic or an active shooter, but you can probably wait to serve that warrant until you have another officer or two on your side. 

We’re outgunned.  There are so many articles and news reports on the “militarization of law enforcement,” and yet we’re consistently being out-gunned.  Assume the criminals have long guns, assume they have more that one weapon, assume they are skilled shooters, assume they have their own back up, assume they want to kill you.  Make sure you have more than one firearm, enough ammunition, confidence in your own skills, and an absolute attitude that you will “keep fighting no matter what!”  Remember, it’s not paranoia, it’s preparation. 

We’re not thinking “edged weapons.”  Gunfire deaths and assaults are on the rise, so often we’re looking for and thinking “gun gun gun” when we should also be looking for knives and other weapons.  I’ve been teaching edged weapons awareness for years, and I’ve also been personally blindsided by an edged weapons assault that I never saw coming thanks to my own complacency.  We’ve been averaging less than one officer per year stabbed to death in the U.S., but already in 2012 we’ve had two officers killed 14 days apart by edged weapons attacks, and both by suspects already in police custody.  Just because someone is in handcuffs or even in a correctional facility does not mean they are unarmed and/or won’t try to hurt you.  We must get and keep our suspects controlled, make sure they are thoroughly searched, and watch for any indication that an attack may be coming. 

We’re not mentally prepared.  Have you truly prepared yourself mentally as well as tactically and physically to win a gun fight?  As Dave Grossman talks about in “The Bulletproof Mind” making deadly force decisions requires as much mental preparation as it does tactical.  We also have to be prepared for the immediate aftermath.  Have you thought about how you’ll respond if you’re shot?  Chances are, if you can think to yourself “I’ve been shot!” then you’ll be able to take the necessary steps to survive.  You have to be mentally conditioned not just to survive, but to WIN, and that “will to win” doesn’t just apply to gun battles.  Any catastrophic injury will require mental toughness on your part, and the time to study and practice that mindset is now, not after something happens.  Read books like “The Survivor’s Club,” “The Survivor Personality” and “The Tactical Edge,” and practice what these authors preach!   

A few other things.  Carry an off duty gun and be ready to use it. Slow down and wear your seat belt.  Carry a second handgun on duty and lots of ammunition for all of your firearms.  Wear your body armor.  Get a good offensive knife and carry it where you can get to it but the bad guys can’t.  Take care of your health and your fitness, know your family medical history, and be able to recognize the early signs of a heart attack.  Take a class on self aid and buddy aid and make sure you have the basic supplies with you.  Go to training, pay for it yourself if you have to.  INVEST in your own ability to WIN!

Recognize the nature of our constantly changing society.  Regardless of where your personal beliefs fall, accept and understand that we’re in a very “anti-government” atmosphere these days, and no one represents the power of the government more than someone with a badge and a gun.  People seem to be more motivated to hurt and kill us than they have in the last 30 years.  Be ready to stop them in their tracks before they ever get the chance. 

Print this out, take it to roll call. Forward it to your team, your watch commander, your best friend from the academy.  Be vigilant, be ready, and be safe.  It’s up to you; it’s up to all of us, to get back to the basics.


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About The Author:

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. Recently retired as a patrol supervisor, she has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.

As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.

A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites including Police Link. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar since 2003, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for Police One TV and was a featured character in the Biography Channel’s “Female Forces” reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States and Canada and beyond.

Betsy is the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival for Women” seminar and manages Dave Smith & Associates. Together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through “Winning Mind Seminars,” an Illinois based company. She can be reached through her website at