Officer Survival Spotlight
Arrest Situations: Understanding the Dangers
People may find it surprising to learn that felonious killings of officers each year most often occur during arrest situations.1 I did not know this until I joined the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program after serving as a uniformed officer for 18 years.
Data collected by the LEOKA Program from 2003 to 2012 showed that 535 officers were feloniously killed within this 10-year period. Of the victims 124 died during arrest situations, comprising approximately 23 percent. The same time span saw 581,239 officers assaulted. Arrest situations accounted for 18 percent of the assaults that took place.2
The numbers demonstrate how these officers were hurt or killed, but it is critically important to look behind the scenes and explore why these incidents happened. Understanding why can change officers’ mind-sets to better prepare them to avoid or survive potentially deadly encounters.
The desire to remain free is a primary motivating factor for why offenders decide to attack an officer. In one LEOKA study, researchers asked offenders to identify their intentions at the time they assaulted officers. Nearly 40 percent stated they wanted to avoid arrest.3 Comments made by the offenders during interviews capture this sentiment. One said that the officer would have to kill him “before he locks me up.” “Trying to take my freedom away from me, you’ll die, you know.”4 Another offender reported that he “was looking at doing at least 8 years in the joint,” and he “really didn’t want to go to jail.”5
Once offenders believe they face arrest, the risk increases that they will attack. Offenders do not have to explicitly hear they are under arrest; it simply could be their perception.6 They may perceive an arrest is imminent when an officer arrives at the crime scene, conducts a traffic stop, or interacts some other way. If officers believe every situation they encounter could result in an attack, it puts them in the right mind-set to prepare for or prevent an assault.
Mr. Philip D. Wright, a retired West Virginia state trooper, is an officer safety awareness training instructor with the FBI’s LEOKA Program.
In one study two-thirds of the offenders facing arrest were looking for an opportunity to assault or kill the officer.7 Because of findings like these, the LEOKA Program developed the Officer Safety Awareness Training (OSAT) course, offered to law enforcement personnel to train them in understanding why attacks occur. Throughout my travels across the United States leading OSAT courses, I have met officers from agencies of varying sizes and resources.
While speaking with law enforcement personnel I have found that most of them say they received some type of training on arrest situations (e.g., defensive tactics, handcuffing) during the certification process to become police officers. Several of them have acknowledged that they participated in additional, updated, or more effective training. However, most of the officers also reported they do not handcuff according to their training.
Training prepares and equips officers with the techniques and procedures to perform their duties without being critically injured or killed. When law enforcement personnel deviate from the methods they learned, opportunities arise for offenders to assault them. LEOKA case studies found some common procedural errors, including acting alone prior to the arrival of backup, placing vehicles improperly during traffic stops, neglecting to notify the dispatcher of traffic stops, not thoroughly searching offenders, and handling prisoners without proper restraints.8
All officers train for arrest situations, yet these instances accounted for almost a quarter of officers feloniously killed over the past 10 years. Some attacks cannot be prevented despite the employment of proper procedures. However, I still wonder how often officers have deviated from areas of training, creating an opportunity for assault.
As expected, LEOKA case studies have included several arrest situations during which the use of proper procedures saved officers’ lives. For instance, one officer attempted a misdemeanor arrest when the offender took his firearm. As the officer reached to grab the weapon, the subject fired one round, striking the officer in the chest. The force of the round hitting his body armor knocked the officer back approximately 6 feet. At that point the officer did not have a weapon, and the offender was shooting at him, so the officer relied upon his training. The officer stated he was trained to close in on the weapon and regain control, but only if the offender was nearby. After being knocked away the officer felt closing in no longer was an option. So, he did what his training indicated as a second option—he sought cover. As the officer ran for cover, the offender discharged four more rounds, striking the officer in the leg, thigh, arm, and back. The officer believed that seeking cover, as recommended by his training, saved his life.9
As soon as officers decide to arrest someone, they must follow training procedures before, during, and after the arrest to prevent vulnerability. No singular profile exists of an individual who feloniously assaults or kills law enforcement officers.10 An arrest for a minor infraction of the law can result in an assault against an officer. During an unplanned encounter an officer often does not possess prior knowledge of the violator’s willingness to use force and violence.11 Officers must maintain the proper mind-set every time they put on the uniform. Understanding that every situation could result in an assault gives officers the upper hand. They owe it to their families and themselves to make every effort to return home safely after each tour of duty.
Mr. Sheets can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Based on more than 40 years of research and data collection, the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program provides free Officer Safety Awareness Training (OSAT) to local, state, tribal, federal, and international law enforcement agencies. The goal of the LEOKA Program’s OSAT course is to provide relevant, high-quality, potentially lifesaving information to law enforcement agencies that focuses on “why” an incident occurred, as opposed to “what” occurred during the incident. Training does not address tactical issues. For more information or to request an OSAT course in your area, please access the link below or e-mail the training staff at email@example.com.