Police officer safety during on duty downtime

by Scott on December 28, 2009

With recent police murders in Seattle and Lakewood there has been a renewed concern for officer safety during on duty downtime (meals, report writing, visiting with other officers).

Officer safety during these events can be distilled down to four core themes:

  • Awareness and Attention
  • Plans and Roles
  • Positioning
  • Equipment

Awareness and Attention

Most officers have often been taught Jeff Cooper’s color coded awareness chart. This chart is good for teaching the general concept of police awareness levels but in this situation, it appears overly simplistic. It doesn’t take into account the fact that you can be in a high level of awareness but still not observe something that happens near you. An example is tunnel vision during a gunfight. You are in a high level of awareness but your attention is exclusively focused on the bad guy. You probably won’t notice other things happening around you.

Dr. Laurence Miller recently gave a more accurate and detailed explanation about attention and awareness.. He describes a training regimen to create a broad attention span for downtime so that officers can focus their attention not just on conversation, food, or reports but also maintain external awareness. This external awareness provides an early warning system for possible threats.

Plans and Roles

Awareness of a possible threat is only half the battle. You also must be prepared to act.

John Farnum makes an excellent point here (To access this link you will need a Police One logon for restricted users). Designate one officer as contact officer if anyone comes toward you during a meal or other downtime. That contact officer is responsible for getting up and intercepting anyone walking toward your group. Most people just want to engage you in a short conversation by asking for directions or inquiring about a legal question they have. However, people can camouflage their intent. Using a contact officer maintains control of the situation and reduces the exposure of the whole group.

The remaining officers should have two plans ready:

  1. an immediate action plan for a gunfight
  2. a plan for when the contact officer needs assistance because the contact has deteriorated.

Beyond those plans it is always good to discuss other possible scenarios like robberies, active shooters, or disturbances that walk in the door.


Putting yourself in a position of advantage is always important but especially when your attention is not as narrowly focused as on a call.

Some points to consider:

  1. Sit facing any entrance points or choke points as Trigger Pull mentions
  2. Put distance between yourself and those choke points as a reactionary gap
  3. Have a point of cover nearby or know where cover is
  4. Know where the closest escape point is to keep from being contained.


Johnny Law points out that many officers are in uniform in public after a shift without a gun. I have seen it too. I have also seen some take off their gunbelt and vest during meals. If you are in uniform you must have your gun and vest on, period.

In Summary

It is obvious that we don’t need to overrelax during on duty downtime. When someone approaches close enough to get an accurate shot at you or within striking distance are you aware of it? Do you or someone else immediately confront them? Are you prepared with equipment, a position of advantage, and an immediate action plan? Seattle Police Officer Benjamin Kelly was and it saved his life.

Every time you sit down to eat, take a quick look around. Find the most likely point a bad guy will enter from and keep an eye on it. Look for the best cover or escape option available. Designate a contact officer. Think of what your first few actions will be if something occurs. Wear your vest and gunbelt. These are simple actions that will prepare you without being hypervigilant.

Further Reading

Letter by Jeff Chudwin reflecting on the Lakewood Killings
Four More Cops Killed: Where is the outrage? by Dean Scoville
Ambush Survival Tip: Scan and Process by Lt. Dan Marcou (To access this link you will need a Police One logon for restricted users)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred Leland December 28, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Spot on post!

Now all we need to do is develop the good habit of telling ourselves to stay alert and aware…A relaxed but “Superior Situational Awareness” is the crux of survival and winning! It takes “individual initiative” to make the difference.

Jeanette K. December 30, 2009 at 11:24 am

These are all great tips, but isn’t pretty difficult to stay alert at all times during downtime? I guess just having the idea that something could happen in the back of your head will help.

Ian O'Connor December 30, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Who in the lord’s name takes off a vest and duty belt in public while eating? I’d have to say something if I’ve seen one of ours do that. The only Officers in this area who wear a uniform with no duty belt are DA Police going to and from work and our county jailers, who are not Police, but have a uniform like a Deputy.

tom January 2, 2010 at 2:21 am

Another tip I would add.

If you are going to meet 4-5 other officers for lunch/coffee break, don’t sit together in one large group. If those 4 officers were separated enough to divide that attackers attention perhaps 1-2 may have had enough time to react. I always try to find a separate but adjoining table when I meet my co-workers for a bite. Close enough to talk, but separate enouth to not be one large cluster.

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