The Tactics for Fear

Oct. 30, 2022
In law enforcement, fear can be a natural part of the job, but officers can manage it with various tactics.

Fear is the emotion evoked when we sense risk from a threat, and the greater the unknown factors, the greater that level of fear can be. We mitigate the fear by minimizing the risk we perceive from the unknown although we have to be constantly aware of potential threats. We are trained to maintain a certain level of awareness and to observe the behavior of others so we can reasonably assess the current level of risk we face. We are further trained in various tactics and protocols to offset the risk we can’t completely mitigate. In practicing those tactics and protocols, we hope to minimize the level of threat that can be brought against us. For the threats we can’t completely avoid, we have equipment to counter it. Keeping all that in mind, we’re going to review a few practices and tactics that help us offset our level of risk, mitigate what can’t be avoided, and manage the threats that become real. For the purpose of this article, these are all “the tactics for fear.”

Let’s start out with visual perception. Most people are afraid of the unknown or, in certain circumstances, what they can’t see. That’s why, in haunted houses at carnivals and such, people are always afraid of what’s hidden around corners, behind curtains, etc. For law enforcement professionals though, what you can’t see just might be a lethal threat. The threat we can’t see might be hidden behind an object (or person or part of their body), or it might be hidden in the dark. Being “afraid of the dark” isn’t something we should make fun of. The large majority of lethal force encounters happen in low or no light conditions for officers so darkness literally holds the highest threat. Additionally, since we make decisions based on the data we perceived with our senses and roughly 80% of that data comes to us visually, darkness and low light conditions rob us of what we need to perform appropriately to the circumstances. We can minimize the threats and offset the anxiety attached by practicing good low light operational protocols. Being able to create our own light is always a good start as long as we understand and practice good light tactics. Don’t get backlit. Remember that bad guys will shoot what they see so keep the light away from the center of your mass and out from in front of your face. If you keep your light on while you move through a dark area, any bad guys watching the light can see your path and pattern of movement. Use the light wisely.

Since we can’t always avoid a potential threat, we should always be wearing protective items as much as is practical. Body armor is a good start and should, at a minimum, be rated to stop the duty ammo you’re carrying. Higher levels of ballistic protection are good, but that’s a base minimum standard. Other protective items we should consider either wearing or having available are quality boots, gloves, eyewear, hats or helmets and face shields. Admittedly we’re not going to wear all those items 100% of the time we’re on duty, but the boots, eyewear and hats should be considered. Protective footwear is an easy sell for all of us who have spent any time on duty, but for those who have perfect eyesight, wearing eyewear is often disregarded. Why? They aren’t expensive and they don’t impede your performance in any way. Most of us wear sunglasses but on cloudy days we don’t do anything to protect our eyes. Consider clear ballistic eyewear as an option. Hats are great for protecting your head from the elements, like sun and rain, but are also good for potentially blocking debris that is coming down at an angle toward your face (that’s why hats are often mandated on firearms ranges—to keep hot brass from hitting you in the face). Gloves are a given to protect your hands from both injurious objects and infectious exposure. The bigger challenge has always been finding gloves that offer the right levels of protection without impeding manual dexterity too much. If you haven’t qualified with your firearm wearing your gloves, don’t wear them, because you might have to shoot well enough to save your life or that of another wearing those gloves on duty. Don’t just assume you can; make sure on the range.

Numbers and communication are also excellent tactics to offset threat or to minimize risk. “Numbers” means people. Quite often we have to operate under short staffing conditions but assuming you have the manpower, never go on a call alone. If “two is one and one is none,” then why would you ever only have one officer on the scene of… well… anything? You certainly want to make sure that you have more good guys than bad guys in any given situation, and two-to-one is a good minimum ratio. When a bad guy is hopped up on something it can take a lot more than two officers to secure him/her into handcuffs, so don’t short yourself on manpower. Communications is how you make sure your backup, whether “routine” or emergency, knows how to find you. Make sure you let your dispatchers know where you are and what your circumstances are. In a moment of panic you might not be able to accurately communicate your location, so do that before things go sideways. Better safe than sorry, right?

Finally, knowledge of the area you operate in can have a huge impact on how you perceive your surroundings. Think about it: If you knew where every surprise was when you were walking through a haunted house, you’d rarely, if ever, be startled. Every patrol officer knows where the “problem” houses are; where the gang members (or wannabes) hang out; where the high crime areas are and where the no-crime areas are in their beat. Just being aware of your setting can tell you a lot about what to expect even though you never let your guard down fully.

And that brings us to the final piece of tactics of fear—being aware and alert. Never (ever!) be asleep on duty. Never be so unaware of your surroundings that someone can walk up on you without you noticing them. Never lose sight of someone’s hands (if you can avoid it) and never tell someone, “Show me your hands!” if their hands are in their pockets. Shaking hands is a socially accepted means of greeting but avoid doing it if the circumstances don’t feel right. Why let someone get hold of you without need?

Understand that these tactics for fear are not fear driven but are instead how you avoid risk therefore avoiding fear. These tactics allow you to go to work without an undue level of mental discomfort because the unknown factors are always offset by your preparedness. That is how you mitigate much of the risk we face daily. That is how you manage fear.

About the Author

Lt. Frank Borelli (ret), Editorial Director | Editorial Director

Lt. Frank Borelli is the Editorial Director for the Officer Media Group. Frank brings 20+ years of writing and editing experience in addition to 40 years of law enforcement operations, administration and training experience to the team.

Frank has had numerous books published which are available on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other major retail outlets.

If you have any comments or questions, you can contact him via email at [email protected].

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