Vol. 78, No. 2Featured submission

Two officers holding guns.

Avoiding fatal consequences

Mental conditioning survival strategies in policing

Maintaining the most appropriate level of situational awareness can help prevent fatal errors. Credit: RCMP


A spate of police fatalities in the 1970s triggered a new paradigm in officer survival training. In one tragic incident, four highway patrol officers, each with less than two years policing experience, were killed by two heavily armed criminals during an assumed routine traffic stop in Newhall, Calif.

In his survival guide, Tom Kohl described it as one of the darkest days in law enforcement history. A subsequent investigation of the Newhall massacre found that the officers had not received adequate field training.1

This article will describe three practical mental conditioning methods that are reinforced today in operational safety training, and provide real examples from police officers to illustrate how they apply.

These methods are thoroughly documented in the book Tactical Edge by Charles Remsberg.2 Although the methods have been taught for decades, they're worth revisiting.

The 10 fatal errors

An online search will uncover numerous lists that identify mistakes that police officers make and how to avoid them. The following 10 fatal errors bear repeating:

  • Complacency, apathy
  • Getting caught in a bad position
  • Not perceiving danger signals
  • Relaxing too soon
  • False perceptions and assumptions
  • Tombstone courage
  • Fatigue and stress
  • Not enough rest
  • Poor attitude
  • Equipment not maintained

Example: False perceptions and assumptions

In this example, police were responding to an armed robbery when a fatal accident occurred. During a high-speed pursuit, the officer driving a marked highway patrol car collided with an unmarked police car. The driver assumed that when the unmarked vehicle in front of him pulled over to the side of the road, it was to allow him to pass. In normal traffic situations, he would have been perceptually conditioned that "vehicles ahead always pull over when police emergency lights/siren are activated." A likely assumption was that other police units were on the same radio frequency.

In reality, the unmarked car in front was pulling over to make a 360-degree turn after receiving updated directions. That driver may, in turn, have assumed the officer driving the marked patrol unit had received the same radio message. Tragically, they were on different radio channels.

The Awareness Spectrum

In Tactical Edge, Remsburg outlines an effective situational awareness and stress perception management system known as the Awareness Spectrum, which identifies five levels of awareness and perception control. Maintaining the most appropriate level of awareness is crucial.

  • White: situationally unaware, daydreaming, unfocused, mind in neutral
  • Yellow: alert, observant but relaxed, scanning, observing, attentive to the situation, focus broad
  • Orange: potential threat, volatility, increased alertness, focus narrowing on threat area
  • Red: imminent high-risk danger, life threatening, very narrow focus on source of the threat, hands, knife, gun, vehicle
  • Black: overwhelmed by fight/flight stress (panic, paralysis), visually overwhelmed, loss of focus and inability to make a decision

Example: Lack of situational awareness

A police officer was writing up overdue parking tickets in a suburban supermarket lot. According to a witness, a clearly distressed person approached the officer abusing and shouting at him. The officer was seen ignoring the person and turned his back to the source of threat, continuing to complete the ticket. He may have been in "condition white," thinking this is mundane, boring work: "Just another rant about a ticket."

But the distressed man pulled out a knife and moved very quickly towards the officer who turned around and panicked ("condition white" to "black": fight/flight stress overload). He dropped his ticket book and put his hands in the air. The witness reported that the officer, although armed, appeared stunned and did nothing to protect himself. He was fatally stabbed.

Officer safety statistics show that a hostile person with an edged weapon can move 11 feet (3.4 metres) in one second.

Myths and false beliefs

Interviews with police officers about fatalities and serious injuries suffered by their shift partners have revealed that the injured officers held certain beliefs that reduced their levels of alertness or appropriateness of response to an emerging danger.

While some of these beliefs may at first appear outdated, many continue to be held and have led to fatal outcomes in recent years:

  • It's only routine
  • There are two of us/I have backup
  • Nothing ever happens on a Sunday
  • They're only kids
  • It's only a traffic violation
  • It couldn't happen here
  • I can handle it/stress doesn't affect me/I'm armed and trained
  • Women don't fight or commit violent crimes

Example: Women don't rob banks

In this instance, a police officer was responding to a bank alarm on a hot summer day. A bystander saw him shouting at a woman, who was in close proximity to the bank and was wearing a full-length leather coat. When she didn't respond, he ran up to her and warned her to take cover. He was shot and killed by the woman, who had just robbed the bank and was concealing a sawed-off shotgun under her coat. Did the officer believe that women don't rob banks? Possibly. He also didn't perceive the long heavy leather coat being worn on an extremely hot day as a danger signal.

Today, counteracting extreme fight/flight stress, awareness/perception errors and myth constructs through mental conditioning has become a key focus in police officer survival training. But more can be done to ensure fatal consequences are prevented.

Detachment supervision

It's critical that supervisors of operational police identify and communicate potential fatal errors, awareness issues and myths that could place team members in danger, and discuss and review them regularly. The RCMP's Incident Management Intervention Model, known as IMIM, is an ideal context for this.

Police officers need to be updated with information about who they are dealing with in their patrol zones and what risks they face when encountering them. Too often, violent attacks on officers are caused by misreading behaviour. An apparently quiet and compliant person can be deeply hostile, for instance. Any crucial officer safety information should be handed over during shift changes and followed up with posts, emails or other methods of communication.

Immediate supervisor

If the supervisor doesn't communicate what's happening in the zone, police officers may not communicate it with each other, either. And they won't be in the best position to respond appropriately to potential dangers. The supervisor must get beyond the paper work and get out on patrol to observe, support and ensure members are doing their jobs as safely as possible. Critically, they must follow up with officers if action needs to be taken.

Ongoing training

At every pre-shift watch briefing, a developmental and/or training item can be reviewed and discussed. This way, every police officer is exposed to some type of recurrent training at the beginning of each shift.

Mental conditioning techniques could be reinforced in an operational context. The topics, supported by the shift supervisor's experience, would reinforce the consequences of making fatal errors such as 'getting caught in a bad position.' It could complement field-scenario training, possibly long forgotten, such as how to safely approach vehicles or homes, and how to be vigilant about where they stand, how to knock on a door, and so on.

In conclusion

Fatal incidents validate the importance of ongoing tactical and mental conditioning training. Police officers face deadly threats as the horrific fatalities in Mayerthorpe, Alta., and more recently in Moncton, N.B., demonstrate. The IMIM introduced at the RCMP's training academy and made mandatory for all its police officers, is a significant step in managing risk.

Additionally, avoiding the consequences of fatal errors, maintaining the most appropriate levels of awareness and challenging personal myths are valuable constructs that are easily reinforced and highly effective when coupled with effective supervision and tactics.

John Walker has researched, designed and delivered operational and managerial programs for Canadian and international police agencies. His topics include stress and trauma management within hostage negotiation, ERT training and crisis intervention.


1 Kohl, Tom. Staying Alive on the Job - A Survival Guide for Peace Officers, The California Newhall Incident.

2 Remsberg, Charles. Tactical Edge: Surviving High-Risk Patrol. Calibre Press, 1985.

With contributions from A/Commr. Frank Richter (Ret.), S/Sgt. Bill Shumborski (Ret.) and Sgt. Jean Caron (Ret.).

Date modified: