Officer Survival Spotlight
Officer Perception and Assault Prevention
As training instructors with the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program, my colleagues and I travel the country teaching police personnel about officer safety awareness. As one topic, we cover the behaviors exhibited by officers who have been feloniously assaulted. To this end, behavioral descriptors were identified by the LEOKA Program and explained in three groundbreaking studies: Killed in the Line of Duty (1993), In the Line of Fire (1997), and Violent Encounters (2006).1
As part of our instruction, we display a list of common behavioral descriptors (e.g., friendly; hardworking; service oriented; willing to use force when justified; unwilling to follow rules regarding arrests, transports, traffic stops, and backups; confidence in the ability to read persons and situations; and survival of past incidents). Then, we ask students to identify four of the descriptors they think have proven constant across all three studies—that is, the four behaviors most likely to contribute to a law enforcement officer being feloniously assaulted. We then narrow the list and ask the students to identify the number one behavior present among officers feloniously assaulted. Again, the officers offer their opinions, and, more often than not, we find that the most popular response is that the victims did not follow rules regarding arrests, transports, traffic stops, and backups. At this point we reveal the number one behavior according to the facts we have gathered from our evaluative studies: Officers feel that they can read persons and situations effectively.
I study the officers’ expressions when this key behavior is revealed. Most of them are genuinely surprised that an officer’s perception—or, more accurately, misperception—of an offender was identified as the primary reason that officers in these studies were assaulted. The Violent Encounters study noted that qualities, such as being easygoing and looking for the good in others, merged with the belief that an officer can read others, have proven to be a recipe for disaster. Statistics from the studies indicated that officers who perceived an offender as compliant believed the individual did not constitute a threat. This misperception caused officers to lower their guard, creating an opportunity for them to be feloniously assaulted. Police personnel who were feloniously assaulted described the offender as compliant or nonthreatening. Of the offenders who assaulted these officers, 62 percent stated that the officers appeared surprised, unprepared, indecisive, or afraid. Conversely, 64 percent of the officers stated they were unaware that an attack was imminent. These percentages clearly demonstrate that officers misread subjects while the offenders correctly read the officers’ complacency and attacked. The Violent Encounters study offered suggestions on how to counter these misperceptions.
Mr. Sheets is a former police lieutenant and an officer safety awareness training instructor with the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program (LEOKA).
Officers cannot operate at all times in a state of hypervigilance, concerned with whether or not they are misreading offenders. While officers need to make assessments of offenders, exercising proper law enforcement procedures also affords protection from both the perpetrators and the misperceptions of the officers.
One particular case study in Violent Encounters emphasized this point. An officer escorting a prisoner removed the individual’s leg shackles and used an improper handcuffing technique while the individual received medical treatment. After an initial assessment, the medical staff asked the officer to escort the prisoner to another examination room. The officer noted the offender appeared physically smaller and weaker than himself, so he removed the handcuffs. Also, the officer described the offender as passive because the prisoner had complied with every command without saying a word. The officer escorted the prisoner down the hallway, with the prisoner walking on the side where the officer carried his weapon. The offender noticed that he had easy access to the officer’s gun. At this point the offender turned and assaulted the officer, removed the firearm, and engaged with the officer in a life-or-death struggle for control of the weapon. Fortunately, other officers in the building responded and helped gain control of the offender, which saved the officer’s life. The research suggested that incidents like this can be mitigated.
The case study demonstrated that an officer’s misperception of an offender can cause complacency, which often results in a felonious assault. The effects of misperceptions can be overcome by following proper law enforcement procedures and adhering to training. All three of the studies noted that failure to follow prescribed law enforcement procedures was a contributing factor to a felonious assault of an officer. Even though the officer in the case study perceived the offender as nonthreatening, practicing proper handcuffing behind the back and following proper police procedures during prisoner escort would have limited the offender’s opportunity to attack.
Training also is a critical element in overcoming misperceptions. Adherence to law enforcement training mitigates potential risk. In the study In the Line of Fire, the authors noted that repetitive officer safety training is critical. Violent Encounters stated that supervisors constantly should reinforce safety principles during recruitment and in-service training. Regardless of officers’ perception of subjects, police personnel should apply their training during law enforcement interactions. Killed in the Line of Duty documented that victim officers had deviated from their training during approaches to vehicles and suspects and that this failure was a contributing factor to their deaths. Although training cannot eliminate risk, adherence to law enforcement training will minimize an offender’s opportunity to assault an officer who mistakenly has identified a dangerous offender as nonthreatening.
Officers need to assess every situation they encounter and every contact they make based on their law enforcement training and experience. In Violent Encounters, a constant theme among officers feloniously assaulted was the point at which they initially perceived offenders as nonthreatening or as good people, which led to complacency. Even if officers’ perception of an offender is correct, they always should use proper law enforcement procedures and never deviate from training.
Mr. Sheets can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 (Clarksburg, WV, 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 (Clarksburg, WV, 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 (Clarksburg, WV, 2006).
“The Violent Encounters study noted that qualities, such as being easygoing and looking for the good in others, merged with the belief that an officer can read others, have proven to be a recipe for disaster.”