Don’t Be A Drag
Considerations When Attempting To Control Subjects Inside Of A Vehicle
At the core of police work is the internal drive to catch the bad guys. How we go about getting him or her into custody is a very situational thing. This can be accomplished with thorough investigation followed by summons in the mail, or at the most basic level, laying hands on the defendant and bringing that person before the court to answer charges.
Of course, going hands on carries with it a certain amount of risk to the officer, but if we rely on training, sound tactics and common sense thinking our risk can be reduced.
Training Law Enforcement Officers Can Be Challenging
Training law enforcement officers can be challenging because of the unending variety of situations in which we find ourselves in on a daily basis. The scenarios can be unique and something outside the norm of typical response tactics, but the key to winning those scenarios almost always lies in the mind of the officer on the scene.
When training law enforcement students, I’ve stressed the importance of mentally considering the “what ifs”, and how you would respond. Working through those unique situations might help you to approach real life incidents with a more common sense solution, possibly overriding the natural “predator-prey” instinct that is present in many of us.
Scenarios That Can Lead To Officer Injury
In this article, I would like to discuss a particular scenario that can lead to officer injury, yet may not be initially considered as a threat. It occurs when a law enforcement officer attempts to arrest a subject inside a vehicle and is subsequently dragged alongside the vehicle as it goes into motion.
It happens more often that you think. A simple internet search will reveal the frequency that it occurs. Just take a look at the following incidents that took place during the time span of only a few weeks:
- A police officer reached into a car to arrest the driver. The suspect grabbed the officer’s arm and placed the car in reverse. The officer suffered cuts to his hands and wrists.
- A police officer approached a female motorist previously reported as an erratic driver. When the officer attempted to turn the car off, the driver put the vehicle in gear, dragging the officer about ten feet. The officer was not hurt.
- A police officer was responding to a report of suspected drug activity. He was pulled into a vehicle he approached by its front-seat passenger and dragged about 50 yards. The officer suffered an ankle injury and abrasions.
- Two police officers conducted a traffic stop for a speeding violation. As they approached the vehicle, they instructed the driver to turn the vehicle off and remove the keys from the ignition. When he refused, the two officers leaned into the vehicle, at which time the operator hit the accelerator and drove off, dragging the officers for about 100 yards before the operator crashed into a parked car. One officer sustained shoulder and back injuries while the other suffered a foot injury.
- Police stop a suspected stolen vehicle. The driver attempted to flee the stop, dragging an officer for half a block before he was able to free himself from the vehicle. The officer suffered a lacerated hand and shoulder injuries.
As you review these events, what to you seemed to be a contributing factor for why the officers were injured? You could conclude that in some cases, that it was the conscious decision of the officer to reach into the vehicle and attempt to control the occupant(s). On other occasions, the officers were close enough to the vehicle to be either physically held by one of the occupants, or become entangled on a portion of the vehicle as it was driven from the scene. It was fortunate that no police lives were lost in any of the above incidents, but that has not always been the case.
Potential “Red Flags” To Officer Safety
Some would argue that if we don’t train officers in vehicle removal techniques, it would impair an officer’s ability to arrest a non-compliant subject. While I agree that it is important to train the tactic of removing an arrestee seated in a vehicle, I also feel that it is critical to balance the decision to use such a tactic against the totality of the circumstances. Questions to be considered as you ponder such a move include: What is the objective you are trying to accomplish at that very moment? What options are available to you prior to “breaking the plane” of the interior of the vehicle? Does that option make sense tactically?
We exist in a world of moments. Our decision making skills must be focused and we need to be constantly searching for potential “red flags” to our safety. In many violent encounters, there are often opportunities to observe pre-attack cues that are given by the subject either verbally or non-verbally. As these indicators begin to build, so does the danger. When that danger presents itself, we may only have fractions of seconds to choose a response option. In the potential chaos that follows, have we inadvertently placed ourselves at greater risk of injury by acting out of emotion instead of training?
The Compliance Baseline
In a vehicle stop situation, we can begin to evaluate the risk to our safety in the first few minutes of contact with the operator. This can be accomplished by setting a compliance “baseline”. All decisions and actions moving forward are evaluated by the subject’s initial willingness to comply with the officer’s directions. Every subsequent action (or failure to act) potentially moves the level of danger off the baseline.
When debriefing students at the conclusion of scenario training, I like to take a few minutes to “walk” officers through this concept. I find that moment of officer/subject contact during the incident and help them to establish that as their baseline. I then guide them through the events that follow, stopping at each danger cue that may (or may not) have been perceived. Each time I ask the officer: “Did the danger level go down, stay the same, or go up? And then this happened…..” This exercise helps the student to evaluate as to if he or she used the correct force option, or if there is a need to improve their tactics.
One of the simplest methods to set the compliance baseline on your approach is to request that the driver turn the wheels toward the non-traffic side of the berm and turn off the engine. Now envision what you would do if the operator refused. Has your danger level gone down, stayed the same, or gone up? Non-compliance could indicate that your violator does not want to give up the ability to flee.
When it becomes clear that there is a certain level of non-compliance from your subject, what’s next? It’s important to act based on sound tactics instead of an emotional response to the situation. Ask yourself the following:
- What is the reason for stop/investigation or severity of the crime?
- Is the person under arrest? Did I call for back-up? Can I wait?
- What do I see? Are there multiple occupants – contraband – weapons?
- Can the vehicle move right now? Is the vehicle engine running and is it in gear?
- How can I gain access to the subject? Will I have to open a door or go through a window? If I have to use force to enter, how long will that take?
- Where am I standing? Can I get struck or caught on the vehicle if it suddenly moves?
Use the answers to form your response. If there is an opportunity to quickly seize the subject and remove that person without the vehicle going into motion, make the decision and commit. If all else fails, use cover, immediately disengage and fall back upon your training in high risk stops.
Beyond the Traffic Stop
Similar injuries occur to officers who are attempting to extricate persons following a pursuit. When the pursuit stops, either by crash or surrender of the operator, how many of us make that conscious decision to close the gap and forcefully remove the suspect(s) from the vehicle? Before you made that decision, were you absolutely certain that the vehicle was immobilized? On far too many occasions, we’ve seen pursuits temporarily stop, only to resume when the driver sees an opening. It could be at this point that an officer is struck and/or dragged.
Never place yourself in a position directly in front of, or to the rear of a vehicle that could go into motion at any moment. Aside from the immediate personal danger you could be in, think about what you may have to do in an attempt to stop the vehicle? Would deadly force be an appropriate option? How would that decision withstand scrutiny at a later time?
Remove the Emotion
We know that during “high stress” situations, there are a lot of things happening inside your brain. The physiologic changes that occur during stressful moments can have a direct impact on perception and motor skill performance. Anger and frustration can be factors which fuel our physiological arousal (adrenaline and fight or flight response) and may cause us to miss threat cues. Impulsive behavior induced by stress can lead to action without consideration for the consequences and is often rapid, premature and excessive.
One of the techniques that can aid in preparing for a tactical response is known as Tactical Performance Imagery. This is a performance enhancement technique where an officer uses his or her imaginal abilities to create a simulation of tactical skills, responses or situations to maximize the quality of relevant physical, emotional and cognitive responses.
There are some keys to making mental imagery or mental rehearsal work well. The first is to image the scene or skill in all five senses. Think about what you see, hear, feel (both physically and emotionally), taste and smell. Using all five senses makes the experience more real and like the actual situation. The imagery should always be of a successful action. It is important to image alternate occurrences and even things being a surprise or going badly; but you never stop there. Always image what you might do in that bad situation (even if it is not a great choice) so you are prepared with some alternate action. Image (and feel) yourself in emotional control, smoothly and confidently executing your actions, even when faced with an inflammatory situation.
No one wants to see the bad guy get away. More importantly, no one wants to see an officer get injured by someone intentionally (or unintentionally) using a vehicle as a weapon. It is critical to consider this scenario and utilize techniques such as Tactical Performance Imagery to help override that natural urge to “grab ‘em” when you’re faced with a flight situation. Rely on the training you’ve received in high risk vehicle stops, pursuit driving and decision making. Set a compliance base line with your subject and respond accordingly with sound tactics when that person does not follow your direction.
Author’s Note: Grateful appreciation is extended to Michael J. Asken Ph.D. for his assistance with this article.
Nothing in this article is intended to replace your agency’s existing policies and training. For complete guidance on proper procedures, please consult your agency commanders as well as local, state and federal guidelines.