Handling Dynamic Encounters...Go Get Him, Or Set Him Up To Get Him...With An Adaptable Response

Some have described and compared police encounters as either static or, dynamic. It’s my view that there is no such thing as a static police encounter. All encounters whether they progressively evolve over a longer period of time or erupt rapidly in a short period of time, without warning, circumstances surrounding law enforcement encounters are all dynamic. Time is moving forward, circumstances changing and the ability of responders to adapt to the ongoing circumstances is always critical.


“Mastering speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of a large enemy’s inability to keep up. Use a philosophy of avoiding difficult situations. Attack the area where he doesn’t expect you.” ~Sun Tzu the Art of War

In handling dynamic encounters, the phrase "time criticality" is often discussed. In this discussion there is often a miss-conception that to put time on your side, you must force the issue or, force the subject into action and always advance your position by moving forward. Speed is the essence of conflict, but speed does not always mean moving fast physically. It means preparing so you are in a position of advantage, which gives you time, hence speed.

Sun Tzu's definition of speed is often misconstrued and shown through quick responses such as; doors being immediately kicked in upon arrival. You see knee jerk reactions to the report of a single gunshot and immediate entry made without knowing anymore than the fact that a gun went off. You see it in tactical responses and approaches to various calls for service where the possibility of danger exists. You also see it in responders traveling at high rates of speed across cities and towns or running as fast as they can into an office, in an effort to get to the scene quickly. No thoughts taking place, no observing, orienting, deciding and acting as to how you will approach, "just get there" is the apparent goal. The responders end up in the driveway or in a room without any critical thought to potential violence, being an outcome, of forcing the issue. Individual responders approach rapidly in circumstances where its clearly understood (or should be) the adversary has the advantage and are not actively engaged in deadly actions. Or worst case from my observations, respond in circumstances where not much thought at all has gone into who does or does not have the advantage, they just GO GET HIM!

I understand adrenalin and emotional responses, to high risk encounters. After all, our entire goal is to protect those we serve from harm and in an effort to do so we responders feel an overwhelming urge to rush. I have been there and responded emotionally myself. The problem is rushing in recklessly, when its un-necessary, creates more of a problem instead of, solving the problem. This problem is reinforced because we have succeeded in a lot of these situations and have mistaken "good luck" for "good strategy and tactics."

Rapid response and forcing the fight are viable options in our professions. There is a time and place for the strategy and tactics of dynamic response. They are not the sole options. Sometimes action required is holding a position, or backing off a decision, when circumstances change from active to inactive. The focus on this article is not to solely criticize our responses but instead to shed some light on the 2,500 year old premise of Knowing when to press the fight and when not too, so we gain the strategic and tactical advantage.


“Victory comes from knowing when to attack and when to avoid battle.” ~Sun Tzu, the Art of War

"Go Get him" verses "Set him up, to get him"

The first question that must be asked in deciding what type of response is necessary in the types of situations, law enforcement respond to, should be, "is Immediate Dynamic Action Required?" If lives are in "imminent" jeopardy, then the answer is yes... If it is they are in danger but there is no imminent threat to life, then the option may be a non-dynamic scaled response. For a safe resolution, in either scenario the circumstances do demand immediate action. That immediate action does not necessarily mean immediate physical or face to face conflict. If there is no clear imminent threat of loss of life do not force conflict but do not be passive. How do we take action if we are not face to face? John Poole in his book "Phantom Soldier" states; "That action must do two things: (1) further friendly strategy, or (2) attack enemy strategy. By attacking enemy strategy, victory can often be won before the battle starts."

To further friendly strategy in a progressively unfolding set of circumstances where there is no "imminent threat" to life or serious bodily harm, we can prepare for and handle unforeseen circumstances by:

  • Establish command and control
  • Gathering information (Environment and Individual (S)
  • Keep everyone informed
  • A clear mission intent is known by all
  • Position entry/arrest teams (2-man, 4 man, response teams (SWAT)
  • Position an over watch
  • Set up perimeter containment and security
  • Prepare to negotiate
  • Prepare to adapt to changing conditions
  • To further the friendly strategy it is important to note that the overall commander "TRUST" subordinate team leaders to make decisions. Place individual teams, in positions of advantage of their choosing and allow them to act when, from their position they see opportunities present themselves or, the situation suddenly escalates to that of imminent threat to life or serious bodily harm. Oftentimes there is no time to seek permission to take appropriate action. This is critical to seeking the advantage and why we must have prior training and trust established in an organization. This lack of trust and thus an inability to adapt, is why we see a lot of law enforcement responses go bad. Obviously communication and continued updates of changing conditions throughout response teams is paramount.

    Putting the friendly strategy in place allows us to "attack the enemy strategy" by containing and or confusing him. His options are few, and time, in most cases is now on our side. We can now as long as conditions do not change to life threatening status, use tactics such as communication and negotiation in an effort to subdue the adversary. The subject may simply see he has no options and give up, or impatience may put adversary in a disadvantageous position, we can exploit to gain advantage.

    If the situation does change rapidly, our preparation and holding back allows adaptation and transition to an appropriate action quickly, to gain advantage and control. Sun Tzu in the Art of War said: "If it is not in the interest of the state, do not act. If you are not sure of success do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight the battle." The employment of strategy in an effort to subdue the enemy without fighting is achieving the best possible results at the least possible cost.

    An example of a scaled response to potentially dangerous set of circumstances: I am looking for a distraught young man who threatened suicide. In this process I checked the surrounding neighborhood for signs of the young man to no avail. There is a large park in the neighborhood so I parked my cruiser and got out on foot to take a look around. In the park I was approached by a woman and her young child who pointed to an area of the park about 500 yards away. She said, I just saw a man with a knife throwing it at trees. "its important to note we had just had a murder in the park about a month earlier that shook the small community I work for." She described the man as about 5' 9" 165 pounds, brown hair around 30 years old. She also said he was mumbling incoherent words and appeared "drunk."

    I was in full uniform and as I approached. I noted a section of trees and brush, not very thick but did offer some concealment. I approached quietly through this area and put myself in a position to observe this man. I observed the knife in his hand, him throwing the knife at the tree, retrieving it and throwing again. I noticed a bicycle with a six pack of bud light bungee corded to the bike rack and an open beer on the ground next to the bike, the subject occasionally gulped from. I also noted he was unsteady on his feet and believed him to be somewhat highly intoxicated...I said to myself we have potentially dangerous situation here, man with knife, highly intoxicated, with unusual, not normal behavior of throwing a knife at the tree repetitively, in the park, at the time of a recent unsolved murder.

    Because of the clandestine approach I was given time to make decisions, call for back up and set up a tactical clandestine response by two back-up officers and wait till we were positioned advantageously. Myself and back officers had time to confer and decided we would wait till he tossed the knife at the tree and then approach him tactically. We did and initially the subject on seeing us looked at the knife and then slowly processed his options, it appeared, from his facial gestures and overall body language, and realized that he was out numbered and offered no resistance. We placed the subject into protective custody, he had nothing to do with the murder in the park nor did he have anything to do with the original suicidal youth that put me in the area in the first place.

    I often ask myself what would of, could of happened if I decided to just walk up to this guy in full uniform from 500 yards away, in clear view, allowing him the opportunity to observe me and make his own plans. I do not truthfully know for sure what that outcome would have been. I do believe however the fact that we took a clandestine and tactical approach and outnumbered him 3-1 had a great impact even in his state, on his deciding to comply.

    This scenario and response seems, rather obvious yet look around you at fellow officers or, check the officer down memorial page and you can clearly see that these, most basic strategic and tactical concepts are not being utilized consistently by responders. They put themselves in bad positions because they want the situation resolved and resolved now! The results of such actions are paid at too high a cost, with loss of life.

    Some other examples where we could use these strategies whether a person is armed or unarmed, and is in some form of conflict that we must bring resolution to, are:

  • Mental illness
  • Distraught family members
  • Physically isolated
  • Armed not actively engaged in imminent life threatening actions
  • Dynamic Responses


    “You must use total war, fighting with everything you have. Never stop fighting when at war. You can gain complete advantage. To do this, you must plan your strategy of attack.” ~Sun Tzu, the Art of War

    A situation turns dynamic when a person puts lives at risk. The protection of life is our priority, always. If the circumstances change or we are suddenly put into a spontaneous set of conditions where life is threatened then, dynamic responses are required. Action is now the critical component to seizing and maintaining the initiative. The tactical decisions you make will determine outcome of the situation. In this case you must react and put a "mental plan" into action to stop the threatening circumstances. The plans you develop and decisions you make will be based on implicit information and tactical judgment. Your knowledge, training and experience as well as the equipment you have will need to be considered in your decision making options.

    An example of a robust (dynamic response) to potentially dangerous set of circumstances: The call came in as a man with a sword trying to get into the house to kill his father. We all responded rapidly to the address in question and the first arriving officer reported the subject had left and was headed towards his own home about 2 miles from the incident location. The officer reported the subject was armed with a Japanese short sword and had tried to stab his father, who was somehow able to keep him out of the house. The screen, to the door was sliced and stab marks were in the door from the sword. Important information relayed from the officer at the scene which told the story of an emotionally/chemically induced violent state.

    While in response to the suspects address a detective radioed that he was out with the subject in the driveway of his home. Upon arrival the subject was in the car on the passenger’s side with his wife behind the wheel and child, in her arms. The suspect was shouting at the detective who had the subject held at gun point. The detective was positioned on the driver’s side in an attempt to get the wife and child out of the car, who were too scared to move. Myself and another officer immediately approached the passenger side. We both tactically kept our guns holstered as we knew the detective, had us both covered. The sword could not initially be seen but both his hands could, and they were clear at the moment. We opened the door and immediately took the subject, who struggled and fought, off his feet to the muddy ground and controlled him physically and then handcuffed. The Japanese sword was in the car between the seat and the console.

    The intuitive decision in the heat of the moment was made to act and control the situation by taking this suspect into custody. We believed that due to his emotionally charged state, he had already attacked a loved one his father, the potential harm to his wife and child outweighed the option of waiting him out. My gut at the time was that he was indecisive yet still emotionally charged and unpredictable and the opportunity to take control was presented... This gut feeling was based on the circumstances at the time... We acted upon intuitive judgment based on the current condition taking place at the moment, without harm coming to anyone.

    I have often thought this case over and asked would it have been a better option to wait and negotiate? As in most standoffs negotiation is very successful, but this set of circumstances was still unfolding rapidly, the subject was emotionally charged and not thinking clearly. He was confused and caught off guard by the detective who initially located him, we arrived seconds after the detective and while positioning ourselves, quickly tactically conferred and then approached, as part of a plan. Allowing the subject time in this scenario, I believe would have given the initiative to him. The Japanese sword was in the car, but not in his hand. It would only take a fraction of a second for him to regain control of the weapon; meaning the wife and baby were in imminent jeopardy of death or serious bodily harm. All of us on scene in an after action review felt after critical analysis this particular set of circumstances warranted a robust dynamic response.

    Some other examples that require dynamic responses are:

  • Spontaneous attack or ambush
  • Suddenly come under attack (Progressive turned Dynamic)
  • Active shooter who is, or in the process of shooting victims
  • Hear screams with shots fired
  • Screaming do not hurt me, do not kill me
  • Violent crimes in progress (life in imminent jeopardy) subject takes tactical advantage
  • So called routine, better referred to as unknown risk circumstances turned life threatening
  • High risk car stops
  • Alarms with evidence of a break
  • Arrest and detainments
  • Responding to calls for service
  • Domestic disturbances
  • Field interviews and street encounters
  • Etc, etc, etc.
  • It is my belief that we law enforcement professionals all too often needlessly rush, use dynamic responses, in circumstances where a non-dynamic (scaled) response would clearly better our position of advantage. We have to reconsider the way we do things in an effort to keep ourselves and those we protect, safer when responding to situations. If an individual is no longer in position to harm others then the conditions requiring high risk intervention has changed and a more scaled, cautious solution should be pursued.

    We should depend upon our complete knowledge of the circumstances, combined with our knowledge of conflict, strategy and tactics and seek the advantageous position. How we set up and take advantageous positions, our responsiveness and ability to transition to the changing conditions and our ability to attack the adversaries’ strategy and maneuver him to an advantageous position for us are keys to success. A thorough understanding of all this will enable us to gain the advantage and if at all possible win without fighting.

    It is important to understand we are making decisions based on the ongoing circumstance and not on yesterdays approach, an all too often route we in the law enforcement professions take. Utilize your experiences to help you read the situation via your observation-orientation-decision and action cycle (TheBoyd Cycle) and adapt to the present moment conditions. The circumstance we respond too are dangerous and in the heat of battle, it is difficult to curtail emotions and slow the process down, yet in my opinion the vast majority of circumstances require just that, slowing down.

    We must have presence of mind and develop individually, the ability to read the situation. Some circumstances the response is obvious, others not so. For certain, all conflict is ridden with uncertainty, chaos, disorder, confusion and is unpredictable. To know when to use non-dynamic verses dynamic tactics is a skill that takes practice and time to develop. Your intuitive sense as to what’s happening can be enhanced through available time, to gain deeper knowledge of the situation. Even a few seconds, a fraction of a second, can make the difference between a good or bad tactical decision. So whatever time you have available take it. While responding gather as much information as you can, think about the possible problems and quickly run them through your mind with plans to handle them. Think about proper approach and basic tactical concepts such as cover, concealment that can give you the advantage of time through a clandestine approach... Time critical, speed, does not mean rush a reckless response; it means get the time advantage through information gathering and preparation and positioning.

    Next time you hear the term "time is of the essence, we have to do something!" Just what is that "something" we should be doing? Is it "GET HIM" a blind emotional rush into circumstances forcing an issue, or should it be "SET HIM UP TO GET HIM" a strategic and tactical response that puts us in a position to win. There is a time for each type of response. Knowing the difference, controlling emotions (mental calmness) being flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances and make good decisions, in dynamic encounters is the key to successful and safe resolutions.

    Stay Oriented!

    Fred