During the past two months, we have had two officers killed (U.S. Border Patrol and Lakewood, Colo., PD) and one critically injured (Memphis, Tenn., PD) in friendly fire incidents. Remarkably, all three of these victims were in full uniform at the time they were shot. Friendly fire incidents have claimed dozens of lives over the years and the fact that the cause of death was a result of the actions of a fellow officer only serves to make a tragic situation all the more heartbreaking. Identification of officers vs. offenders, or any other person, under high stress is a continuing problem fraught with a high level of danger and potential for deadly mistakes.
The incidents mentioned in the opening are all under active investigation and the lessons learned will hopefully serve to prevent further losses. For now, it’s important that we review some key areas that can help lessen the possibility of friendly fire. To add to my own thoughts on the matter, I reached out to Jeff Chudwin, President of Illinois Tactical Officers, and R.K. Miller, a highly respected tactical trainer with decades of real-world tactical experience. Both are longtime Law Officer columnists and between them have almost 70 years of involvement in tactical situations and training.
It isn't unusual to see uniformed officers shot by other officers during active shooter training. When asked why they fired, the response commonly is "I saw a gun and fired.” Look for the breakdown in these situations and address them. As you train, so you will perform. Consider a “look-at-the-whole” approach as opposed to “look-at-the-hands” approach so that you can take in the entire situation to allow for identification and full context of the moment.
We have to train our officers how to respond in plainclothes, off duty or anytime out of uniform to commands from uniformed officers. They must be acutely aware that they're much more likely to be perceived as foe rather than friend. The burden is on them to actively identify. Discuss this frequently with emphasis that a badge on the belt can't be relied upon for safety.
If you’re a plainclothes officer involved in any type of incident, you must avoid “reflexive spin” (turning around with gun in hand toward the officers) and follow instructions immediately and precisely. Even with dealing with your own agency you can't count on being recognized.
If dispatch is aware of plainclothes officer involvement, this should be clearly broadcast to all responding units.
Communications are always critical. Keep in mind our latest losses involve personnel in full uniform and at least one of them took place in darkness. Know who else is on scene and their position.
Avoid cross-fire situations and recognize potential cross fire positions as you respond and engage.
Shoot what you know, not what you think.
The Bottom Line
There are three major points of responsibility and potential for breakdown: the shooter, the victim and the agency (training and policy are critical). They all play a very significant part in shooting situations. Consider your role and make sure you do everything possible to minimize the potential for a friendly fire incident.