One of the greatest pitfalls for law enforcement officers is the crossfire, or taking positions that put them in the line of fire of other officers. Officers with only a few years on the job have done it hundreds of times. We all have, but avoiding crossfire takes only a little forethought, along with some roll-call training in order to put it into practice.
Dangerous felony stops or other encounters are not the only scenarios where officers need to take such precautions. Once officers program themselves to avoid crossfire, they will automatically take alternative positions when deploying at any incident. Sometimes the approach makes this difficult, i.e., two patrol vehicles entering an alley from opposite directions. However, if at all possible, the officer or officers in one of the vehicles should leave it and change their position as soon as possible upon arrival, to avoid a potential crossfire.
The second worst position officers can take is to bunch up together, as on a firing line at a shooting range. Although this is far better than the crossfire position and is, in fact acceptable, it gives the suspect(s) the advantage of being able to see the officers and fire in one general direction. How many past incidents are coming to mind?
The solution to avoid these disadvantages is for one or more of the officers at a scene to flank the suspect(s) if possible—and it almost always is. However, it must be on only one flank, or we’re back to crossfire; and if possible the flanking officer should be looking into the safest direction in which to fire in case he or she has to.
The key is the “L” formation, and it should be used whenever a person is confronted, whether during a field interview or an arrest, either of which can result in a shooting. Cover makes the “L” formation even better. If one officer is interviewing a subject, a backup officer should stand behind a mailbox, telephone pole, or other available obstacle. Even partial concealment is better than none, as a suspect may not be able to distinguish it from cover (concealment won’t protect you, but cover will).
In addition to a psychological advantage, going into an “L” position also allows the flanking officer to see more of the suspect, which is important if he or she is hiding a gun or knife in their waist at the small of their back. If the suspect turns to prevent you from seeing behind him, it should be a warning flag. Don’t let him get between you and your partner and create crossfire. Your “L” must remain flexible and fluid with positions able to be reversed! If more than two officers are on the scene, two can remain more or less together forming a shallow “V,” while the third remains at roughly a 90-degree angle from them. The third officer can also move in circular fashion to form a double “V,” standing between the other two officers.
Of course, gunfights will almost always become fast moving. If the “L” becomes compromised during such a case, officers must be prepared to adapt and overcome. What if a crossfire engagement does occur? Moving to get out of it is best, but if this is not possible, one or both officers can go kneeling or prone to fire at an upward angle at the suspect, with any stray bullets fired by one officer going over the other.
At night, blinding white light from the two sides can go a long way in helping to control the situation. If such light is produced by headlights from patrol cars, so much the better. Just remember not to walk between the light source and the suspects, as it will give your position away. If you approach the suspects, turn off your headlights and use your overheads if you have them, or let the other officer(s) provide flanking light.
The “L” works not only when responding to incidents but for stakeouts as well, and it doesn’t have to be horizontal. One or more officers inside in an “L” and others on a roof overlooking the entrance with others down the sidewalk creates multiple “L’s” to put the suspect at a great disadvantage and prevent the officers being in the line of fire. Again, remember that officers on the outside can’t be on both sides of an entrance or exit, as this will create a crossfire situation.
Does the “L” formation have to be perfect? Of course not. If executed to the max, your “L” may be only a “V” because of physical barriers, but it will serve the purpose just fine and maybe even slightly better. On many occasions, I have driven my patrol car up over a wide sidewalk next to a building to form a “V,” with headlights and spotlight on the subject of a late night traffic stop in backing up another officer. In such an instance, I would normally exit, go around the rear of my car and take a position next to the passenger side, better to see the suspect passengers and the inside of their car. When a subject finds himself or herself inside of an “L” formation, they have a feeling of being surrounded, especially if blinded by light, and are less apt to attempt to overpower or attack an officer. If they do, however, they can be quickly dealt with if the officers remain vigilant.
How far should your “L” extend? Good question, and the short answer is far enough, but not too far. I’ve always considered myself a better shot than a suspect, so if feasible, I’ll go to wherever there’s cover within reason. I suppose as least 15–20 feet would be my recommendation, but this would depend on many variables; the officer on the scene has to make that decision.
Even if you’re an accomplished shot, remember that most targets don’t move, but people do; hitting moving targets is an art in itself, just as being able to shoot on the move, so practice both if possible.
Carrying high quality flashlights is a must any time of the day, as those from BlackHawk, Insight Tech-Gear, SureFire and other companies can go far to stop or win by fighting with light. Every officer should have two lights, as then he or she will always have at least one. How to use your light is just as important, but techniques used in fighting with light will have to wait for another chapter.
From now on when you deploy in any incident, no matter how insignificant it may seem, don’t forget to “GO TO ‘L!’”
BlackHawk Products Group
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