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When a gun matters: irrational attacks regularly lead to the death of police officers.


IN THE PAST, THE CARRYING OF firearms by security personnel was accepted and unquestioned. Police and security officers were perceived as similar, and many security officers were in fact former police officers.

In recent years, however, security managers have realized that many security officers do not need to be armed. An officer assigned to a CCTV or alarm panel in a secure environment has no particular need for a handgun, nor does an officer whose duties are exclusively to monitor a shipping department or a manufacturing facility's tool or supply room. These jobs do not involve direct contact with unknown persons and are essentially administrative.

This perfectly rational line of thought has often been extended past the point of reason, however. It has become stylish to profess that security officers, as a rule, do not need firearms at all to be effective. While that may be true with many security assignments, it is not true when an officer has a responsibility to confront intruders or apprehend certain criminal offenders.

As any experienced police officer knows, the largest element of danger involved in such situations is that the officer has no way of knowing the suspect's criminal history, motivation, or mental and emotional condition. Although an officer might think a shoplifting suspect is only a misdemeanant due to the property value involved, the officer would have no way of knowing about several factors that could dramatically escalate the seriousness of the situation. The offender, of course, would know about such factors.

For example, the theft of even a cassette tape would be enough for a parole violation, so the offender could easily equate an ensuing arrest with several years' imprisonment. The offender might know of existing warrants for his or her arrest and reach the same conclusion. Many states classify repeated theft offenses, regardless of value, as felonies. A convicted thief probably knows that and has been warned by an attorney or sentencing judge.

An officer investigating a suspicious car in a parking lot could easily be interrupting a rape or drug deal. The non-employee who appears lost in the hallway could be a despondent husband intending to kill his estranged wife who works at the facility. These situations may seem unlikely, but they are exactly the types of situations that regularly lead to the death of police officers.

Security managers cannot depend on the rationality of the suspect to avoid deadly altercations between criminals and security officers. If an irrational attack is one that does not improve the attacker's overall situation, then most attacks on police officers are totally irrational. However, the irrationality of the attack was of little comfort to the 78 law enforcement officers killed in 1988.

The dynamics of these attacks do not change simply because of the different authority bases and job descriptions of police and security officers. Once the personal interchange between a dangerous suspect and an officer has begun, the officer represents either a frustration of the immediate goal or a return trip to a correctional facility, regardless of the wording on the officer's shield or identification card.

Once the suspect commits to the attack, it is generally too late for an effective disengagement by the unarmed officer. FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics state that the average duration of a law enforcement gunfight is approximately 2 1/2 seconds, although that figure is debated in some circles. From 1979 to 1988, more than 56 percent of police officers killed by suspects using firearms were within five feet of their attacker, and more than 74 percent were within 10 feet of their attacker. Although no statistics are kept on security officer fatalities, it is hard to imagine any significant differences.

The incidents in which officers are killed are too fast and close for a security officer to save himself or herself simply by abandoning the situation. Moreover, the prospect of calling and waiting for the police in such a situation is ludicrous. If a security officer's duties require confronting or apprehending unknown persons, the officer must be appropriately armed and trained. The alternative is to require the officer merely to observe situations and to call the police to investigate or apprehend intruders. The officer would have to call the police for all such situations, not just the ones that seem dangerous, since there is no way to know who is dangerous until the attack has begun.

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION ABOUT the use of firearms by security officers is that firearms are being used to protect property. Extending that logic, firearms are unnecessary if officers are not going to shoot people simply to prevent thefts.

Such a belief is erroneous. The firearm does nothing more than enable an officer to protect himself, herself, or others while he or she is protecting property. Deadly force can never be used to protect property.(1) Deadly force can only be used, even by police officers, to defend oneself or another person from death or serious injury.(2)

The value of the property protected is significant only to the extent that it invites intruders. If an officer is expected to confront unknown persons, the officer's safety must be preserved regardless of the value of the property he or she is protecting.

Certainly prevention and planning are the essence of providing security, so it is possible to overemphasize the confrontational aspects of the business. Security officers spend only a small amount of time in confrontation. But confrontations fill only a small part of police officers' workday as well, and few people suggest that they not carry firearms. The great majority of a police officer's time is spent on service or reporting duties, as is a security officer's time. Both face the constant possibility of violence, even if it seldom manifests itself.

In that regard, the difference between an armed police officer and an unarmed security officer is the ability to fulfill what most people perceive to be the ultimate duty of that officer. That duty is to stop a deadly, unlawful attack on an innocent person before that person is seriously injured.

Security professionals take for granted the differences between police and security officers; however, employees and guests expect protection. If an employee were concerned about a threat to his or her life due to a domestic problem, would he or she be told, "Don't worry about it; we have security officers to protect you"? If the security officers at the company did not have that ability, would the security manager be willing to acknowledge that fact to the employees he or she is charged with protecting? An unfulfillable commitment to provide security could be very haunting during litigation over failure to provide adequate security.

The keys to an effective firearms program are quality training, appropriate policy, quality equipment, and high personnel selection standards. Cutting corners with any one of these requirements is fatal to the program's effectiveness.

These factors all bear directly on another factor image. For any uniformed officer to be truly successful, he or she must project a competent, helpful, professional, and approachable image. A handgun is no impediment to such an image. In some cases, a uniformed officer appears to be a gun wearing a person; in others, the firearm seems only an incidental piece of equipment.

When questioned on that subject, Pete Denlinger of Bank One in Columbus, OH, who manages a progressive armed guard force of approximately 30 officers, stated: "Our employees do not look at them [the security officers] as police officers. They talk to them and ask them questions in a casual manner, so we do not feel that we have an image problem at all."

That difference comes from officer bearing, which is a product of training policy, personnel selection, and equipment. An obsolete, cheap holster that permits the gun to stand away from the body is more conspicuous than a modern, secure holster that rides firmly and close to the body. On that subject in particular, an emphasis on budget rather than quality is easy for anyone to detect, regardless of whether the observer can put his or her finger on exactly what that difference is.

Training should meet or exceed the state standards for police firearms training. Training standards for security officers should be just as high as those for police officers since the dynamics of the confrontations are identical.

One subject that should be included in training concerns public perceptions of armed officers and the officers' mannerisms in regard to the firearms. Image can be enhanced by training officers not to allow their hands to rest on their guns during conversations or to engage in other practices that draw undue attention to the firearms. Safety training should address day-to-day situations, unlike the traditional hunter-oriented courses.

The firearms policy should state in simple terms when the use of deadly force is permissible, and it must meet the constraints set forth in Garner v. Memphis. A policy that directs officers to shoot to wound or otherwise attempts to sidestep the deadly nature of firearms should be avoided. Consultation with an attorney specializing in homicide and wrongful death law is a necessity. The purposeful display of a firearm must be addressed in such a way as to discourage unneeded brandishing of the gun while not causing an officer to hesitate unduly when he or she legitimately feels endangered.

Personnel selection issues are obvious. Persons with a tendency toward violence or who have criminal histories or records of instability must be excluded, as must those who may not possess weapons under federal or local laws. A compensation package adequate to attract qualified applicants is essential. Of course, compensation is a constant battle for any manager, particularly in the security field.

The purpose of this article is not to advocate across-the-board arming of security officers or discredit managers who have decided not to arm officers or have had that decision forced on them. Its purpose is to encourage reflection on and reevaluation of the issues addressed. That way, a security manager can be more certain he or she has made the correct decision for the circumstances and has not simply followed a trend. Security managers must be satisfied with nothing less if they are to avoid providing only an illusion of security.

(1) Such force can be used to protect nuclear devices, under the theory that doing so is necessary to protect life.

(2) Garner v. Memphis, 471 U.S., 105 S. Ct., 85 L. Ed. 2d, 1985. Also, People v. Crouch, No. 101936 (March 3, 1989); 45 CRL 2179 (June 7, 1989), Michigan.

About the Author ... Bert DuVernay, CPP, is a staff member at Smith & Wesson Academy in Springfield, MA. He has worked in public and private law enforcement and is a certified firearms instructor. He is a member of ASIS.
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Author:DuVernay, Gilbert A.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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