Officer Survival Spotlight

Lessons Learned from Critical Encounters

A police officer is depicted in the midst of a critical encounter.

As a new officer-safety-awareness training instructor for the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program, I have pored through 20 years of research, including the groundbreaking studies Killed in the Line of Duty (1992), In the Line of Fire (1997), and Violent Encounters (2006).1 Under the watchful eyes of my predecessors, the vault doors have opened, and I have gained access to volumes of research materials used by the authors to develop these studies.

Faced with an enormous amount of information, I have tried to pinpoint lessons learned by departments. Safety procedures are not new, and most law enforcement personnel learned about them while in the academy. However, for some reason the lessons can fade with time, and research has shown that lethal assaults may occur as a result.

Deploying an Appropriate Use of Force

Using necessary force is critical in protecting officers and ending violent assaults. In the Line of Fire noted that when initially assaulted, personnel considered it appropriate to wrestle or tussle with an offender, but had difficulty determining when they were fighting for their lives. Further, officers explained that they took time to recall their departments’ approved policy before deploying deadly force. In some instances the recollection was too late. To this end, agencies should develop clearly articulated deadly-force policies and test personnel on their knowledge of these policies.

Conducting Searches

Although complete searches comprise a bedrock principle in policing, officers still are critically assaulted when their search does not reveal a carefully concealed weapon. In the Line of Fire explains that personnel assaulted with a hidden weapon reported a reluctance to search offenders who appeared dirty or addicted to narcotics. The hesitance by male officers to search the groins of male subjects also was noted. During interviews, offenders expressed knowledge of this and reported that they normally hid weapons and contraband in their groin area.

When searching members of the opposite sex, some personnel hesitated to thoroughly search subjects. Male personnel reported a reluctance to search female offenders and a desire to avoid these situations due to possible complaints and a lack of department directives. Officers also explained that finding contraband disrupted their search and that they diverted to an arrest without continuing to look for weapons. Officers should stay on task and conduct a thorough, lawful search to ensure that all weapons for which there are grounds to search are located. Departments should stress the importance of proper searching techniques in a variety of situations. Clear policies will govern searches on prisoners and offenders of the opposite sex.

Waiting for Backup

James Sheets, a former police lieutenant and an officer safety awareness training instructor with the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program.
James Sheets, a former police lieutenant and an officer safety awareness training instructor with the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program.

Officers often face situations that require an immediate law enforcement response—circumstances when they must act decisively regardless of geographic area or availability of other personnel. The research suggested that personnel who had backup readily available were assaulted and critically injured when they acted without waiting for it. Violent Encounters explained that officers must consider the consequences of acting alone and weigh the risk versus the reward. Law enforcement personnel who participated in the study In the Line of Fire noted that their desires to make an arrest or prevent an escape outweighed their concerns for personal safety. Recommended training would encompass exercises to assist officers in discerning when the use of backup personnel would increase their safety. Training should incorporate reality-based scenarios to prepare personnel to respond accordingly.

Following Procedures

In the Line of Fire noted several behavioral descriptors of assaulted officers. A recurring theme was deviating from established policies and procedures. Not following procedures during traffic stops, arrests, searches, prisoner control, or radio communication or failing to wait for backup were identified as critical areas for concern. Disregarding procedures may place officers at a disadvantage. Killed in the Line of Duty explained, “…41 percent of victim officers made improper approaches to suspects or vehicles, and 65 percent were unable properly to control persons or situations.” Understanding this, officers can help improve their chances for survival.

A priority for all law enforcement agencies is ensuring the use of current best practices in training methods. Agencies can strive continually to stay abreast of new methods, literature, studies, procedures, practices, concepts, court decisions, and equipment. Adherence to proper training can minimize officer risk. Violent Encounters noted that in-service training should reinforce officer safety principles learned in the academy.


Although not all encompassing, these factors represent constant themes listed by officers who have been assaulted and who participated in the aforementioned studies. The research indicated that training is critical in helping to mitigate risk in all relevant areas. Personnel who survived critical assault incidents credited safety training, which had been repeated and practiced extensively, as having been a key factor for survival. Law enforcement personnel should take all training seriously and seek the value in every training evolution.

Officers who participated in this research stated that they did not realize the importance of these exercises. Agencies need to emphasize that training helps personnel to respond appropriately to the demands of the profession and better serve the communities they are sworn to protect.

James Sheets, author of this Officer Survival Spotlight, can be contacted at 


1 A.J. Pinizzotto and E.F. Davis, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Killed in the Line of Duty: A Study of Selected Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers (Washington, DC, 1992); A.J. Pinizzotto, E.F. Davis, and C.E. Miller III, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, In the Line of Fire: Violence Against Law Enforcement (Washington, DC, 1997); and A.J. Pinizzotto, E.F. Davis, and C.E. Miller III, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation’s Law Enforcement Officers (Washington, DC, 2006).