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Fundamental Tactics – It’s About Time!

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By Kenneth Merrell

When discussing tactical fundamentals, it’s important to recognize that most of them have a military origin. In the early 1970’s, while stationed as a Military Policeman at various Marine Corps installations, I participated in cross training between the military and civilian law enforcement. This cooperative relationship has continued, paying huge dividends for both. Many tactics used in civilian law enforcement by specialized small units evolved from small-unit tactics honed by our military. Over the years civilian law enforcement has taken these fundamentals and refined them to serve their particular mission. As our military continues to deploy to urban areas throughout the world, these refined tactics are increasingly being taught back to them by civilian law enforcement elements. There is no getting away from this kinship.

Care should be exercised when pointing this out because historically military tactics have been seen as aggressive and offensive. Often, the idea of how our military operates is based on the last military movie we saw. Because this misconception may be true for someone sitting on a grand jury as well, it can…

place an officer at a disadvantage of perceived obtrusive behavior. When this happens it often results in police tools being overly regulated or taken away.

This article in no way stands to be instructive in nature. It is not my intent to tell any agency how to do business. There are obvious differences in military missions and goals of the average police department. Paramount among these differences is the fact that our average policeman is not working in a combat environment. The patrolman is not on an offensive. Therefore he is equipped and trained vastly different. However, when we get past the feathers and fat, and down to the bare bones of tactics, there are a number of tactical fundamentals universal to any scope or environment that do not change no matter what the objective. The best way to make these points relative to police officers is simply to break down what we want to accomplish and which fundamentals best reach these goals.

Tactical Fundamentals

One has only to pick up an issue of any law enforcement publication to find an article on police tactics. Many of these analyze a particular event or are focused on a specific force option or piece of equipment. Still more focus on special weapons and tactics and the small units that employ them. Rarely is there a discussion on the tactical fundamentals universal to individuals and teams that carry out the bulk of police work. As with any endeavor, the fundamentals are usually a set of actions that we can normally depend on to provide a sound foundation for achieving goals. In a tactical sense, to breach a fundamental is to induce a tactical error. When we talk about fundamentals in our favorite sport, it brings to mind the tried-and-true basics that we can normally rely on. As sportsmen, if we stray from fundamentals, we increase the possibility of committing errors that can contribute to us losing a contest. This is sort of okay in sports. We can go back and work on the fundamentals and try to do better next time. Unfortunately, if police officers make a tactical error there very well may not be a next time. This is why working within a set of tactical fundamentals is so crucial.

Scheme of Maneuver

Fundamentals should be designed to allow us to maximize our strengths while exploiting the weaknesses of an adversary. Tactically speaking, we refer to our strengths as surfaces and to weaknesses as gaps. When developing tactics, we began with the premise that every individual or group of individuals has surfaces and gaps. As such, the fundamental design of our tactics should be to avoid surfaces and exploit gaps. We call the actions designed to achieve this fundamental purpose maneuver. Webster defines tactics in military terms as “the science or art of deploying military or naval forces and maneuvering them in battle.” “Any maneuvers for gaining advantage or success.” “A plan, procedure, or expedient for promoting a desired end.” Our tactic is our scheme of maneuver. In layman’s terms this is simply having our plan. We say that having a scheme of maneuver (plan) is our first tactical fundamental.

Having a plan on what an officer is likely to encounter has to be the centerpiece of his tactics. Tactical responses to common encounters are established and practiced periodically through basic and mandated continued training to achieve and maintain a desired degree of proficiency. These tactics will normally focus on responses to common or specific encounters such as car stops, arrest procedures and searches. Training for these types of encounters is designed for the officer to establish the initiative and maintain it throughout the process. As a result, he is better able to control the sequence and timing of all events within the encounter. Tactical fundamentals represent a foundation from which reliable plans can be developed.

What happens when an officer never has, or loses the initiative? What does he do when he is responding to someone else’s initiative? Normally when I read or hear of encounters where it has gone bad for the officer, I hear things like,“well there was nothing he could have done in that situation that would have changed the outcome.” As police trainers, we know it is impossible to prepare specific responses for every possible contingency an officer may face. However, it is unacceptable to assume that there are some incidences for which nothing could have been done to prevent. The absence of a plan is complacency, and we all know complacency kills. Fundamentals establish responses that are useful in chance encounters as well. These plans can counter the dulling effects of complacency and become second nature in their application.

Trading Space for Time

Tactics are goal-oriented and must be offensive or defensive in nature. The fundamental purpose of any defense is to trade space for time. This is our second tactical fundamental and will hold true for any defense regardless of weapons used. If someone throws a punch at you and you duck, what have you done? You have traded space for time. The universal application of this fundamental is evident in driving and force option training. If you drive defensively, your fundamental purpose is to ensure you have enough space to have the time to apply various techniques and countermeasures. If you do not drive defensively, nothing else you learn or know is going to matter because you will not have time to do it.
Often as a police officer you will be called upon to drive aggressively. Can we do both – drive defensively aggressively? Absolutely! All we need to do is stick to the fundamentals. In this case, this means that the more aggressive we become, the more space and time we will need. In a use-of-force situation we will often have to gain distance/space to have time to apply one of our force options. Still there will be those times when we must immediately become aggressive. For example, in those rare occasions when we need to “go aggressive” with a pistol, does that mean it is no longer being used defensively? Of course not! It just puts it on the officer to “CYA.” That is, “Can You Articulate” the totality of circumstances that made your actions reasonable?


Seize and Maintain Initiative

Once we use defensive tactics to trade space for time, what do we do with the time gained? The third tactical fundamental is to seize and maintain the initiative, the fundamental purpose of an offense. At some point, we have to seize the initiative and maintain it to win. Defense is a losing strategy if we fail to use the time gained effectively. We can not defend forever and should not plan to do so. Only when we are in position to dictate the pace/timing of the action are we in command of what events will take place. Depending on the situation, there are literally scores of tools available to law enforcement to do this. Every officer should have those situational-appropriate tools – tools he is very good with and has total confidence in. When the decision to apply these tools is made, it is done swiftly and decisively. Preferably these tools should be used to exploit gaps, but can be effective on a surface as well.
When a surface is applied to a surface (strength against strength), we get into an encounter of attrition. As such, size and other physical assets are more likely to matter. In this case, the strongest, most prepared or most knowledgeable will usually prevail. This is much less true when a surface is applied to a gap. When you have identified an opponent’s weakness and seized the initiative as to dictate the events, you will generally nullify his strengths, knowledge and preparation. Think about it? Isn’t this what an adversary has done to an officer in a surprise or chance encounter? If we can achieve some space to gain the time to seize the initiative, we effectively return the favor. Most gaps in individual and group encounters can be categorized and identified ahead of time through training and experience.

Immediate Action Measures

Each year statistics indicate that over 50% of the officers killed incidents happened with handguns at distances of less than 10 feet. Many of these were attributed to tactical lapses in search or arrest procedure. However, a significant number of these shootings were the result of surprise or chance encounters and ambushes. The transition from defense to offense requires an immediate action. Although immediate-action measures, when undertaken with a pistol, (still by design, a defensive weapon) appear to be offensive, they are simply going aggressive with defensive tools and actions.

Fundamentals do not pigeonhole us into any one action but rather focus on the goal of the action. For example, when presented with an unexpected or threatening chance encounter, we have only two choices – an immediate offensive or defensive action must be undertaken. Our military practices immediate-action drills as quick responses to chance encounters. This tactic is designed to cause an immediate disruption of the attacker’s actions. It is done with preplanned maneuvers to immediately go aggressive and seize the initiative or defend and gain distance for time. We have to remember that terms such as near and far are relative terms, based upon the environment in which we are operating. In a military setting, with a near attacker – normally, we will seize the initiative from the attacker by initiating suppressive fire on the target, while charging directly into his position. In a well-orchestrated ambush where we are flanked, our scheme of maneuver has been to charge into the nearest aggressor’s position and use it to mount a counterassault on the remaining position. In a combat environment and armed with some of the best assault weapons ever made, this is a tried-and-proven tactical fundamental. Again, there is no definitive in tactics, but this one is pretty good off-the-shelf.

The reason there is no definitive in tactics is simply because everything can be countered. As soon as we get too comfortable with our tactics, a counter will dictate further development. If the attacker is far, we lay down disciplined suppression fire on the target and move out of the kill zone. This is a defensive maneuver and is much better suited for the weapons and environment from which police officers are working. After all, the officer is not in a combat environment nor is he on an offensive. These factors normally give the police officer more lag time in his responses. Additionally, he is normally armed with a pistol. Even with high-capacity magazines, the average duty pistol is still only defensive in nature. Although military and civilian law enforcement are in different environments with different missions and weapons, both will find the same defensive tactic useful. Why? Because both have the same immediate need – to trade space for time. This fundamental purpose of defense is an old tactical tool that has never outlived its usefulness. The purpose of the disciplined suppression fire is to disrupt the attacker’s actions while you move. These two actions, suppressive fire and movement, make up our defensive scheme of maneuver.

Addressing Fear

No discussion of tactics is complete without addressing the element of fear. As a Marine I was taught that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to overcome it. Fear eats up time and therefore must be overcome quickly. The four things that overcome fear are: discipline, morale, esprit de corps and proficiency. If anyone is to overcome fear in a life-treating situation, all four are a must-have. Discipline is already there within the four basic weapons safety rules, our agency rules and regulations. We train to operate with these guidelines because we know they are important for protection of the officer. We have to believe in them and adhere to them. We have to maintain discipline if we are to maximize the effectiveness of our responses while in peril.
This has the added effect of keeping our badge out front. This is the only way it can protect us. Anytime we jump in front of it we are effectively putting ourselves before the badge we wear and as such all bets are off. A disciplined response will guide you past fear. Morale should always be high on any organization’s list. This is simply a sense of being right. Unfortunately, the law enforcement community can sometimes have problems with this for a number of reasons. Dealing with the worst part of society and seeing the worst in people on a regular basis can make it tough to maintain high morale. It is up to the leadership to recognize the necessity to counter its debilitating effects on personnel.

A leader can readily identify a lack of morale in an organization and a good leader will not take the problem lightly. A lack of morale can and does manifest itself in tactical lapses. Knowing that we are the good guys can propel up past fear.

Esprit de corps simply addresses a sense of camaraderie. The camaraderie of the law enforcement community has always been very strong. When we lose loved ones and people close to us, it’s like being hit in the gut. We can hear of a fellow law enforcement officer being lost and feel the same pain in the gut and we didn’t know the officer. That is camaraderie. I don’t have to refer to a dictionary footnote on this one because I know that every officer who reads this will know what I am talking about. If we are not there for anything else, it is for each other. This will and has often driven many officers past the obstacle of fear.

Proficiency is an absolute. When we apply any tool of force we must have the confidence and skill to apply it correctly and swiftly. Being proficient with the tools of the trade will also serve you well in overcoming fear. Once we overcome an initial bout of fear, we gain time to reshuffle the deck and stack it in our favor. That is, seize the initiative dictating the pace and conditions of the encounter. This is our offensive scheme of maneuver. Of course we still need to know techniques and specific applications. However nothing you know is any good if you do not have the time to apply it. Let’s get back to the fundamentals of tactics. It’s about time!

About the Author
Ken Merrell spent 27 years in the US Marine Corps. For 10 years, he was a Military Policeman, Patrol Supervisor and Watch Commander and another 17 years with the Criminal Investigation Division as a Criminal Investigator and Chief Investigator. Highlights of his Marine Corps career include four years as a Drill Instructor and four years as the director of the Gunnery Sergeant’s Course at the Marine Corps Staff Non Commissioned Officer’s Academy. A veteran of the first Gulf War, Ken holds a bachelors degree in Criminal Justice from San Diego State University and a Masters in Forensics from National University. For the past seven years he has served as a Weapons Instructor with the Orange County, California Sheriff’s Department’s Tactical Training Center.

This article was originally published in The Police Marksman magazine.

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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.

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