Blue Line

It Couldn’t Happen To Me

Injuries and deaths in policing are often caused by failures of mental conditioning and lapses in several safety-critical practices.

December 23, 2016  By John Walker

Recognizing them and how they influence tragic outcomes, and integrating that into police training programs, can reduce their frequency and severity. Regular reinforcement can also be an effective preventative tool. Their fundamental elements have direct applications to other occupations and activities such as seafaring and motorcycling.

Some of these practices and methods have been thoroughly documented in Charles Remsburg’s book The Tactical Edge: Surviving High-Risk Patrol (1985).Although it has been around for several decades, injuries and deaths still result from failures to be cognizant of and consistently apply these practices and methods.

The 10 fatal errors
These tend to vary between police jurisdictions. The original list was published after a spate of police fatalities in the 1970s which initiated a whole new paradigm in ‘officer safety’ training.

  1. Complacency, apathy
  2. Getting caught in a bad position
  3. Not perceiving danger signals
  4. Relaxing too soon
  5. False perceptions and assumptions
  6. Tombstone courage
  7. Fatigue and stress
  8. Not enough rest
  9. Poor attitude
  10. Equipment not maintained

Four highway patrol officers were killed in less than five minutes after a ‘routine’ traffic-stop in Newhall, Calif. One of the surviving felons was interviewed in prison. Asked why he killed the officers, he reportedly chillingly answered, “They were so stupid they deserved to die.”


In another example, several police units responded to an armed robbery call. An officer driving a marked highway patrol unit collided with an unmarked investigation unit, resulting in a fatality. The uniform officer tragically assumed that the unmarked unit pulled over to allow him to pass. He would have been conditioned by normal traffic situations and likely assumed that ‘vehicles in front always pull over when police emergency lights/siren are actuated.’

Unfortunately, the unmarked investigative unit received updated information about the robbery and pulled over to make a U-turn. The driver assumed the officer driving the marked unit had received the same radio message, but unfortunately they were on different channels.

The awareness spectrum
An effective situational awareness and perception management system known as the “Awareness Spectrum” identifies five levels of awareness and perception control originally referred to in Tactical Edge: Surviving High-Risk Patrol.

  1. White: Situationally unaware, daydreaming, unfocussed, mind in neutral
  2. Yellow: Alert, observant but relaxed, scanning, observing, attentive to the situation, broad focus
  3. Orange: Potential threat, volatility, increased alertness, focus narrowing on threat area
  4. Red: Imminent high risk danger, life threat ening, very narrow focus on source of the threat, hands, knife, gun, vehicle, etc.
  5. Black: Overwhelmed by fight/flight stress (panic, paralysis) visually overwhelmed, loss of focus and inability to make a decision.

A police officer writing parking tickets in a suburban supermarket lot is an example of going from condition white to black. A clearly distressed and aggressive individual approached the officer, according to a witness, and began shouting. The officer ignored the situation, turned his back on the individual (the source of threat) and continued with the ticket.

He was possibly in Condition White, used to abuse and likely had a myth construct that ‘this is mundane, boring work; nothing ever happens on a Sunday here.’ Suddenly the distressed man pulled out a knife and ran at the officer, who turned around and immediately went to Black – fight/flight stress overload. He dropped his ticket book, put his hands in the air, did nothing to protect himself and was stabbed to death.

The witness reported that it all happened in seconds and that the officer appeared “blank/ stunned” before being killed.

On a much grander scale, the sinking of the BC ferry Queen of the North provides another good example of an awareness spectrum failure.

The ferry departed Prince Rupert at 8pm March 22, 2006 on its regularly scheduled service to Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island. Several hours later it failed to make a 109 degree course correction at an established way-point along the route and ran aground on Gil Island at a speed of 15.5 knots, sinking about 1 hour and 17 minutes later. Two of the 59 passengers on board were never found and eventually declared dead.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigation found that human error was the central cause. Only the 4th Officer (4/O) and the Quartermaster 1 (QM1) were on the bridge during the crash. They had music playing in the background and were chatting about inconsequential things while the ferry cruised along on autopilot. An internal report concluded the 4/O called in a course correction 13 minutes earlier but failed to act on it.

At about 0020 the 4/O saw trees ahead and moved to the aft steering station.

“Just before the crash, the 4/O screamed at the helms-woman to make a bold course correction – a 109-degree turn – and to switch off the autopilot,” reported the Vancouver Sun. “The QM1 helms-woman responded that she did not know ‘where the switch was located.’ The autopilot disengages simply with a single switch and would have been operated numerous times by [the helms-woman].”

It is likely that both the 4/0 and QM1 were in Condition White (situationally unaware) and when the 4/O screamed to turn off the autopilot she immediately entered a Condition Black (high-stress fight/flight) response, losing her capacity to locate and operate the switch.

A police officer responding to a Los Angeles bank alarm on a very hot day was observed shouting at a woman wearing a full length leather coat in close proximity to the bank. When she did not respond he ran up to her shouting “please get into cover, there is an armed bank hold-up close by.”

The woman, who had just robbed the bank, shot and killed him with a sawed-off shotgun hidden under her coat.

The officer’s likely Myth construct was ‘women don’t rob banks.’ He probably did not perceive the danger signals from the unusual heavy leather coat being worn on an extremely hot day. Compounding this, his situational awareness would have been affected by narrowed perception associated with the fight/ flight reactions in responding tragically for all the right reasons.

My personal myths
I failed to manage my own myths in a experience that almost resulted in my death. It was a pitch black night and I had enjoyed a few drinks with my Ulysses Club group in a Australian campground. Disregarding warnings about animals on the road, I decided to ride my motorbike back to my motel. The road was in excellent shape with wide sweeping corners. What could possibly go wrong?

My personal myths at the time were ‘It couldn’t happen to me’, ‘I can handle it’,’I have years of training and experience’ and ‘I’ll wake up on the ride’.

Since kangaroos are mostly nocturnal and tend to graze in more open spaces, I felt quite safe and rode slowly, shifting from awareness condition Orange to Yellow while riding down a long downhill stretch with rough high-bush on either side. I began to pick up speed and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a kangaroo jumped out of the bush above me and landed right on my windshield.

My survival stress reactions kicked in immediately and it all seemed to happen in slow motion: my visual acuity magnified so much that I could, for a second, see the tiny hair roots on the kangaroo’s haunch.

I hit the road hard within seconds, but still pumping with survival adrenaline and feeling no pain, I lifted my 240 kg Triumph motorbike up effortlessly and walked it across to the side of the road. The windshield and head/side lights were gone, the instruments shattered and the ignition cables ripped out. It was a mess, but I was as high as a kite with stress chemical alertness and strength and felt OK.

The shakes and pain kicked in shortly after but I was alive. It did happen to me!

John Walker began his career as a merchant navy officer and spent 10 years under contract to the RCMP researching, designing and delivering a wide range of human factor operational and managerial programs. Contact:

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