The Ten Deadly Errors, Plus...Failure to Learn, Failure to Anticipate and Failure to Adapt

Offcier Down Code Three

Any officers, looking back several years or perhaps longer, to their basic academy days, can still remember officer survival classes that highlighted the “10 deadly errors” an officer can make. Any of these errors can lead to the death, or serious injury, of law enforcement officers or their partners. The “10 Deadly Errors” still hang on the walls of most police academy's, across the country. My understanding is they originally came from the book, Officer Down, Code Three, by Los Angeles Homicide Detective Pierce Brooks, which he wrote back in 1976, some 42 years ago.

After attending “too many” police funerals, Brooks compiled a list of errors that were being repeatedly committed in officer-down cases.

The ten deadly errors are important factors for cops to consider, for sure, yet 42 years later, police continue to repeat these mistakes. My critical question is despite being KNOWN. these errors and their important lessons, as definitely being factors in police officers getting killed in the line of duty, is there something more we must consider, something more we need to do, that goes beyond knowing them?

Lets take a look the ten deadly errors, a short definition of what they mean and then lets talk about what I believe are the critical aspects of failure to learn and apply the lessons, failure to anticipate threats, and failure to adapt to changing conditions, that influence or ability to focus our attention on developing and applying the proper mindset and tactical prowess, so we reduce these errors:

  1. Your Attitude: If you fail to keep your mind on the job while on patrol, or if you carry problems with you into the field, you will start to make errors. It can cost you or other fellow officers their lives.
  2. Tombstone Courage: No one doubts that you are brave, but in any situation where time allows – wait for backup. You should NOT try to make a dangerous apprehension alone or unaided.
  3. Not enough rest: To do your job you must be alert. Being sleepy or asleep on the job is not only against regulations, but you endanger yourself, the community and all of your fellow officers.
  4. Taking a bad position: Never let anyone you are questioning or about to stop get in a better position than you and your vehicle. There is no such thing as a routine call or stop.
  5. Failure to recognize danger signs: you will come to recognize “danger signs” ­ movements, strange cars, warnings that should alert you to watch your step and approach with caution. Know your beat, your community, and watch for anything that is out of place.
  6. Failure to watch hands of a suspect: Is he or she reaching for a weapon or getting ready to strike you? How else can a potential killer strike, but with his or her hands.
  7. Relaxing too soon: The “rut” of false alarms. Observe the activity, never take any call as routine or just another false alarm. It’s your life on the line.
  8. Improper use or no handcuffs: Once you have made an arrest, handcuff the prisoner properly.
  9. No search or poor search: There are so many places a suspect can hide weapons that your failure to search is a crime against fellow officers. Many criminals carry several weapons and are able and prepared to use them against you.
  10. Dirty or inoperative weapon: Is your firearm clean? Will it fire? How about ammunition? When did you fire your weapon last so that you know if you can hit a target in combat conditions? What’s the sense of carrying any firearm that may not work?

Obviously these ten deadly errors are listed to get an individual police officer to think about the job and its dangers. Hell, with all due respect to these ten deadly errors, I would argue there are more errors. just as deadly but often not seen as so. I will call them "THE TEN DEADLY ERRORS, PLUS...

One best way of doing things mindset: Following policy and procedure, checklist, SOP, school solution, or practice so intently, an officer fails to adapt his approach. As Charles "Sid" Heals says in his fantastic book "Field Command:"

“In point of fact there is no perfect solution to these situations and therein lays the root of the problem. Because there is no one right answer some conclude that there is no wrong answer; there are just some better than others. This reveals a sad but true state of affairs in that many law enforcement tacticians lack even the rudimentary understanding of any supporting science for making sound tactical decisions and would be hard put to quote a single source, theory or doctrine to justify their decisions. Without an understanding of the factors and influences in play tactical decisions must be based on the factors and influences in play, tactical decisions must be based on impressions, suppositions and conjectures. In the medical field these tacticians would be the functional equivalent of witch doctors. Tactical terms, like tempo, fog or friction are no more unfamiliar to them than medical terms such as lavage, dermabrasion or hemodialysis. The simply apply what worked the last time without any idea why the preferred course of action in one situation can be a recipe for disaster in another.”

I would argue that a centralized command structure that stifles initiative and the decision making and problem solving capabilities of officers is a deadly error as officers hesitate in taking a course of action as they think inwardly "what's the boss going to think, if?" When they should be adapting and taking action while thinking outwardly at the problem and what's going to happen now? It by far the time to train our officers to a high level of professionalism. It by far the time, once we have trained and developed them to trust them to do their jobs. Policing has been researching and discussing decentralized control as a command structure for over 40 years. Lets adapt, and get it done!

Another error is trying to "control" everything when we should be working towards positioning ourselves tactically so we can shape and reshape the conditions. As Col, John Boyd says don't just be a reactor. Be a shaper too. This is so important to policing and speaks to our lack of considering sense-making ability and being able to size up situations so we understand the type of problem we are facing, adapt and develop effective courses of action that exploit an adversaries ability to make sense of what we are doing. All too often police just do what they were told or trained to do. They react and do this with no understanding as to why they are doing it other than the fact that they were told or taught it. Being a shaper means we must be able to actually size up situations, so sense-making must be developed. Once we understand what's going on when then work and experiment to solve the problem, adapting as necessary to shape and reshape the environment and our adversaries mind. These ideas work on people as Boyd points out:

Terrain doesn't fight wars, Machines don't fight wars. People do and they use their minds. We must learn to compress our own time while stretching out an adversaries time to distort his O-O-D-A Loops.

How we train: Most law enforcement agencies have settled for mere adequacy in individual and small-team skills—we can do better. Police officers often had little understanding of the reasons tasks were performed a particular way. Police officers are overly reliant on process, not focused enough on results (true in training, but also in planning and leading). Most institutional training had a mechanical, check-the-box feel and was focused on throughput. Most training was governed by inputs (hours, ammo, etc.) rather than outcomes or results. There is also a pronounced tendency at all levels of law enforcement to control by rules—each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, etc.) Police Training Must Shift to Teaching Cops How To Think Instead of Telling Them What To Think.

In my opinion the list of deadly errors (10 or more, whatever you prefer), or the order they are listed in is unimportant. Reading them and even putting them to memory mean little to your survival, unless of course they become part of who you are. Knowing the ten deadly errors, plus don't mean "shit" if your not applying them. Its very important NOT TOO look and think about them individually.

Mindset (attitude), tombstone courage, not enough rest, taking a bad position, failure to recognize danger signs, failure to watch hands of a suspect, relaxing too soon, improper or no use of handcuffs, no search or poor search and a dirty or inoperative weapon, one best way of doing things, centralized command structure, trying to control everything, and how we train, are all part of the human dimension and the strategic game of interaction when the circumstances, subject and officer engage (deadly mix). Any attempt to remove or ignore the human dimension is courting with disaster.

Many factors unfolding in tactical encounters influence the human dimension. These factors are always present and always interact with one another and always effect the outcome. Training, education, experience, maturity, emotion, bias, discipline, fatigue, temperament, etc. all influence the ten deadly errors, plus... Misplaced confidence, ignoring or not recognizing these influences or the signs and signals of an impending conflict has us courting disaster and unprepared.

We must learn from our policing history, anticipate potential threats, and adapt and apply the lessons learned to the underlying influences if we are to be successful in our efforts to win at low cost. How we develop our people matters! Reading this piece, posting the ten deadly errors, plus on a wall, putting them to memory, telling those we train about them over and over and over again, getting them all right on a multiple choice exam, mean little if this learning and knowledge is not applied to the street. It means little if this knowledge and learning don't lead to cops anticipating dangerous problems and adapting their course of actions (tactical options) based on direct and indirect experience in accord with the unfolding circumstances they find themselves in now. The "Ten Deadly Errors" was penned 42 years ago and the pen picture always looks perfect, the written word has a bad habit of making things look easy, but our history prior too and in the 42 years since on this topic shows clearly there is much, much, more to winning than knowing! What say you?

Stay Oriented!

Fred