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Operating on Cruise Control

I just returned from providing training to a group in Southern Ontario, Canada, whereas I shared an incident from my time on our tactical team in Law Enforcement and the comment made by one of the learners forced me to further evaluate the situation from my past.

Firstly, I’ll share the incident with you to establish context which was prefaced when one of the learners had asked if I had ever shot someone in my 31 plus years of service.


At the time of the incident, I was a municipal patrol officer assigned to our tactical unit at the turn of the millennium. On the date in question, we were working evenings and responding to a domestic call with potential weapons. The subject was known to our service with a history of violence and drug offences as well as identified as having AIDS because of his personal drug use. As is protocol, we were setting up containment so that the crisis negotiator may call in and mediate a peaceful surrender when one of the officers was compromised and the situation escalated. The subject, upon identifying police presence grabbed a knife from the kitchen and ran into the living area in which his pregnant partner was situated.


As a result of the exigent circumstances, we were forced to abandon containment and dynamically enter the residence. I was at the rear of my cruiser in the process of readying a shotgun for containment purposes when this occurred and subsequently transitioned to my sidearm as I ran up to the front of the house. To enter the front, I was required to push past three uniformed officers, who were standing along the stairs to the doorway, and entered the living room to the left of the entrance with another officer from my team and the patrol supervisor. We were immediately faced with the subject who had placed the butcher’s knife to the abdominal area of his partner and elevated the situation from a domestic to hostage. Standing approximately five feet from the subject with his partner between us, I then began to request that he drop the knife and step back from the female while continuing to have my firearm drawn and directed at his head which was the only part of his body exposed to me.


The negotiations continued for several minutes as the subject refused to comply and demanded that we leave the residence to which we informed that that was not an option at this time. It should be noted that the pistols that we were carrying at the time of this incident were the Beretta 96D which is a semi-automatic .40 caliber. Why this is important is that the firearm had a long trigger pull as well as a hammer which would cock and fall to strike the firing pin. Again, this individual had recently been diagnosed with AIDS and was only a shadow of his formal self as the symptoms were in full effect and he believed to be terminal. In many situations, such as this, when an individual believes that there is nothing more to live for and they want to take their life but can’t do it on their own, whether for religious beliefs or personal reasons, will often commit ‘suicide by cop’.


As tensions continued to rise and the subject threatening with the knife to cut his partner and in turn injure the fetus, I requested one more time for him to drop the knife and received a derogatory response. I then placed my index finger on the trigger and slowly began to squeeze observing the hammer as it started to fall back. Halfway through the trigger pull, the subject dropped the knife and stepped back as he was then apprehended by the other tactical team member who was in the small room with me. I then reacted and eased the pressure off of the trigger, returning the hammer to the seated position and took a deep breath.


The student who initially asked the question, then replied, “that is control!’. My response at the time, was, “no, that was the training”, which now that I have had time to re-evaluate the incident is partially correct. Honestly, I can neither tell you what I was thinking at the time nor what the subject saw at that moment to make him reconsider, even though we can guess on both counts.


I was actually ‘operating on cruise control’. Through 6 years of prior training imbedded through shoot/no-shoot scenarios, my sub-conscious was able to identify the difference between the threat and non-threat, then correct the action in motion before I even realized what I was doing. Many have identified similar situations where they felt like they were operating on “auto-pilot”. This usually happens because the training supports real world applications.


Take driving for instance. How may times have you been able to narrowly avoid an accident and ask yourself, “how did I get out of that?” It’s the same principle but based on experience. The more we are subjected to stressors and precursors to those stresses, we become inoculated and more efficient at avoiding or reacting to those events. This process is also referred to as developing resiliency.


Again, it comes down to the training that you received and your personal experiences. Having said this, one can benefit from performing ‘table-top’ exercises, where you evaluate certain realistic situations that you may face individually or as a group. In a group dynamic you may brainstorm how each and everyone of you would potentially deal with that situation taking into consideration skills and knowledge. Everyone could benefit from each others input.


All this comes together in what we refer to as Recognition-Primed Decision Making (RPDM). In 1985, Gary Klein and others began to study professions involving decision making in high-risk situations. What they discovered was that in each situation we recognize certain cues and indicators that form patterns and allow the individual to choose a single course of action to achieve the desired outcome. This is often done as the individual runs a mental simulation based on experiences including pervious training.


To enhance training and prime the RPDM, we apply the three R’s. Realistic, Relative and Repetitive. Just because your training is realistic, don’t assume that it’s relative.

After the events of 911, many tactical teams across Canada began putting an emphasis on conducting entries onto and in airplanes. Although the tactics were sound, realistic and were being done quite regularly, many of these teams have never had to enter a plane nor did they have jurisdiction on federally controlled airports. I’m not say that they shouldn’t practice the tactics as they would benefit entries onto subway cars, transit, and Go Trains, but to focus on more relevant training based on their demand calls. As a result of this trend, basic skills diminished while others, non-essential, prospered.


As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, we also need to trust our intuition. By doing so, we will be more efficient at recognizing


and responding to the situation. Through analysis, we will verify that our intuition is appropriate to that situation. Look back at the situation that I shared and how this process facilitated my response.

One can say that it was personal control but understanding the full picture, we can say that it goes much deeper than that.

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