Duty Gear is Good

Aug. 11, 2008
All that technology your wearing around your waist can get you killed

How much gear can you carry? Considering all the stuff you have to hang on your duty belt today, there's probably a case to be made for having a bigger waist. That's my story, and I’m sticking to it!

Okay, I'm just kidding, but the fact is that, especially during the last 15 years, officers have been asked to pack more and more equipment on their duty belts. It's at the point now where many officers simply can't fit all of their gear on their belt, and have had to go to alternative carrying methods for some equipment.

Consider this: Once upon a time, officers carried a handgun holster, a cuff case, and an ammo carrier. Most officers also used a set of belt keepers, and the occasional baton ring or key ring.

A typical officer today carries the following: a handgun holster, a double magazine pouch, two cuff cases, a portable radio, an aerosol holster, an expandable baton, a case containing a pair of gloves, a mini-mag or other tactical flashlight, at least a couple of belt keepers, and an electronic control device (ECD). Add to that the occasional pager holster, mini-cassette recorder holster, a key ring, and a couple more belt keepers, and you've got roughly a ton of gear strapped around your waist. Even considering the streamlined nature of much of today's equipment, it's still a load. Just for fun, I measured the space each item takes up on a duty belt, and found that the total approaches 36 inches. And that's just for the basic load, not counting the pager and recorder.

I'd also be interested in how much it all weighs, but not having all my gear handy, I wasn't able to make that calculation. I have to believe it's at least 20 pounds, and probably more. Is it any wonder that coppers develop back trouble after a few years of carrying all this stuff?

I'm all for having lots of options and for being properly equipped, so this is not about being a Luddite. It is, however, about keeping officers safe.

The amount of gear is a problem, but that's not the central topic of this column. There is another related issue that we don't spend nearly enough time thinking about and training for; weapon retention.

Weapon Retention

Most officers have received some sort of weapon retention training, usually in the basic academy. Most of that training in the past has been oriented toward handgun retention, which is understandable. We've all read and heard about the incidents where officers are disarmed and then killed with their own weapons. Weapon retention is a critical issue.

However, the need for retention training, and especially the need to think about retention, extends far beyond the handgun. After all, in the list outlined above, virtually everything is either designed to be used as a weapon, or can be pressed into service as a weapon. The obvious ones are the baton, aerosol and ECD. But what about the portable radio, the handcuffs, and even the tactical light and loaded pistol magazines?

Some of these weapons are non-lethal in nature (the aerosol and the ECD). That is, if an officer is disarmed and attacked with one, the use of it is not - in and of itself - likely to be fatal. However, the degree to which an officer is incapacitated, and thus unable to defend himself, can escalate the non-lethal nature of the attack quickly to deadly levels.

The other items mentioned are impact and contact weapons. The baton, and sometimes the flashlight, are designed for such use. The portable radio and the loaded magazines make excellent improvised weapons. The cord of the officer's radio can be used for choking, and even the microphone can be swung around like an old fashioned bolo. All of these items have a higher likelihood of creating serious injury or death if used to strike an officer's head or throat, which is the way in which many bad guys are likely to use them.

So, an officer has a lot to think about when they are in close proximity to suspects or other individuals. A question comes up frequently in my ECD instructor classes - just as it did in the aerosol instructor classes that I used to teach, and that is how much force can an officer use if he or she is disarmed of their OC or TASER?

The response I usually give is that officers should use whatever level of force they believe is necessary in order to protect themselves from serious physical harm. Although that answer seems obvious, it's not as simple as you might think.

Here's the part that every officer needs to think about: If you are disarmed of your handgun, you are obviously in great peril, and you should do everything possible to prevent that from occurring. That includes allowing the bad guy to get possession of your baton, OC or whatever else he or she tries to take while they are also trying to get at your firearm. When you're rolling around on the ground with someone that is trying to disarm you, nothing is more important than your firearm. Do not attempt to protect everything; at least not to the extent that you allow your defense of your firearm to be weakened out of concern for one of your non-lethal weapons.

Good Tactics are a Better Answer

Good approach deployment and safe tactics are, of course, the best way to handle a potential disarming attempt - by not putting yourself in the position to be disarmed. We all know that sometimes things happen that you haven't planned for, and you need to react. The more you can use good tactics, the less likely you are to have to defend against a disarming attempt.

This column is about those times when you are already being attacked.

It's not uncommon for officers in my ECD classes to say that they would just use deadly force if they were disarmed of their TASER. That may be the best option. However, just being disarmed may not be enough justification for the use of deadly force. Other factors that come into play are distance and whether the ECD has a cartridge loaded in the firing bay. Officers know that if a suspect has their TASER, with a live cartridge loaded, and they are within range, then they are likely to be incapacitated if they are hit with the probes. This is especially true if an officer received a TASER exposure during training - they know exactly how helpless they are likely to be.

However, if there is no live cartridge loaded, then the officer just needs to create distance in order to be safe from the effects of the TASER. In that case, use of deadly force by an officer, based on a belief that the suspect is about to incapacitate him or her, may not be justifiable.

The issues surrounding aerosol spray are similar, although most officers that have been sprayed with OC know that - while the experience is nasty - they can fight through it if they have to. Still, under certain circumstances, spray can be debilitating, and is likely to give your attacker a tactical advantage. While you may not be rendered completely incapacitated, your ability to defend yourself may be significantly impaired. Only you will be able to determine the level of risk you are under, and how much force you need to use in order to protect yourself from serious physical harm.

Everything else on your duty belt is a close-in weapon. As long as you can create distance from your attacker, it matters less that he or she has taken a piece of your equipment for the purpose of using it against you. Still, you may be at significant risk if you can't get away and, again, you'll have to decide how much force you need to use to protect yourself.

So, as long as you can keep some distance between yourself and your attacker, you're at reduced risk from most of your duty gear. Even your aerosol and ECD weapons have limited utility for a bad guy to use when attacking you, and you can take steps to reduce the likelihood of injury or incapacitation from those even farther.

But your firearm must be protected! Don't let the rest of your technology get in the way.

Keep in mind, the time for all this pre-thinking and analysis is before the fight starts. Make up your mind about this stuff beforehand. When things go wrong, and you end up on the receiving end of a disarming attempt, the last thing you should be thinking about is liability. Your paramount concern must be protecting yourself from serious physical harm, and you should not have to analyze case law and policies during a fight in the mud.

Will there be decisions to be made during an altercation? Of course. But the more you think and plan beforehand, the more prepared you'll be to make those decisions quickly, based on what you believe the threat is to you and your partner.

Don't let the technology dangling from your belt befuddle your decision making process. Protect your firearm and create distance. Use whatever force is necessary to protect yourself.

Then be thorough and as accurate as possible when you write your report. That's part of protecting yourself, too.

Stay safe, and wear your vest!

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