Badge Placement Affects Survival Odds For Plainclothes Cops

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When officers who’ve just finished a shooting exercise gather around and an instructor holds up a “no-shoot” target that looks like it’s been riddled by machine gun fire, that’s a sobering moment.

Especially when the officers now see that the target sports a badge.

Some flat out deny they fired any mistaken rounds. But after running hundreds of officers through decision-making exercises in which at least one sudden target represents an out-of-uniform cop with a badge openly displayed, Sgt. Ward Smith knows the disturbing truth: Without awareness training, the average in-service officer will fire on the “friendly” form before realizing it’s a fellow LEO.

Smith, supervisor of the Kansas City (MO) PD’s firearms training section and a certified Force Science Analyst, has completed a two-year study of this phenomenon that’s highly relevant for off-duty, undercover, and other plainclothes officers who become involved in a hot crime scene while armed–as well as for uniformed personnel who respond to such scenarios.

“When you’re in street clothes with your gun out in an enforcement situation,” Smith concludes from his findings, “where you place your badge–at your beltline or hanging from your neck–may directly affect your chances of surviving when you’re confronted by a responding officer who does not personally recognize you.”

Research results: A center-mass display is safer.

“A COLD FEELING”

The study evolved, Smith told Force Science News, after KCPD experienced a blue-on-blue shooting in 2010. A uniformed officer carrying an AR-15 was mistaken for a suspect by a colleague with a shotgun as both responded in dim light to an armed-person call.

The misidentified officer lost part of a thumb to a shotgun pellet–better than losing a life, of course, but alarming enough to send a “cold feeling in the pit of the stomach” to trainers in the firearms section who wondered what they could do to prevent a recurrence, Smith says.

As ideas evolved for integrating the problem into annual in-service firearms training for the department’s nearly 1,400 sworn personnel, Smith and his instructors settled on testing how badge placement might affect quick recognition of a no-shoot, friendly target. Namely, would officers respond differently when confronting the same target dressed in civilian clothes with a Kansas City police shield fixed to the beltline vs. hanging on a chain around the neck?

During the training year of 2011, the staff monitored more than 900 officers to find out.

TEST SETUP

In the department’s indoor range, the research team hung fiberglass tarps to create eight shooting bays, each outfitted with two turning targets. The targets were 2-D, full-color, life-size photographs of male and female subjects, some threatening and some not. Included were armed targets that had a silver KCPD badge affixed either to the figure’s belt or hanging from a simulated chain at chest level.

The targets were programmed to simultaneously turn toward officers being tested for variable amounts of time (between one and three seconds) as they progressed among the bays. Officers were instructed to “take appropriate action”–to scan, to move and use cover, to discriminate under time compression between shoot and no-shoot targets, and to fire until adversaries were defeated.

Shooter-to-target distance was about 24 feet, and about half the encounters occurred in reduced light, equivalent to the illumination within 50-60 feet of a standard residential streetlight. Officers in dim-light situations had to “manipulate a flashlight appropriately.”

During a briefing before the exercise officers “were informed they would be responding to assist undercover and plainclothes officers in an arrest situation,” Smith explains. Thus, “Even though all the badge targets were armed, they were considered no-shoot. We stressed the need to identify each target and officers were warned that they’d need to pay close attention and be alert.”

The researchers’ hypothesis was that fewer targets with chest-level badges would be shot at, because Kansas City cops are trained to focus on center mass as an aim point and thus would be more likely to quickly pick up on a badge positioned there.

FIRST YEAR RESULTS

During testing the first year, 920 officers were sampled. Each fired about 125 rounds in the exercise, primarily using Glock 22 duty weapons. By Smith’s estimate 65% shot at least one badge-bearing target. “Some of those initial targets looked like someone had cut loose on them with a machine gun,” he says.

“Lighting conditions were a big factor in how officers performed. But the location of the badge on the target proved to be an even bigger determining factor as to whether these no-shoot targets were fired at or not.

“This matched our hypothesis that belt-level badges would draw more fire, but it was surprising to see badge placement was as big a factor as it turned out to be.”

Specifically:

  • Overall, a no-shoot target with a belt badge was six times more likely to be shot than one with a neck badge.
  • Even under full-light conditions, belt-badge targets were hit 1,272 times, compared to 196 hits for neck-badge targets.
  • Under low light, belt-badge targets were hit 5,288 times, with neck-badge targets taking 843 hits.
  • Combining both badge-placement locations, the no-shoot targets were four times more likely to be shot under low-light conditions than in a bright-light setting.

DEBRIEFING

After each shooting session, “we collected the targets and brought them to a classroom so the officers could see what they looked like,” Smith says. “We wanted to cut through any denial and imprint an awareness factor on the people who shot badly.

“Some officers were very upset, especially those who work undercover. They were asking, ‘How can I live with this kind of risk? How can I look my spouse in the face and promise I’ll be safe out there?’

“We put the responsibility back on the shooters. We asked them, “How do you think this happened?’ and we had some very thoughtful dialogue. Officers continued to talk about all this among themselves when they went back on patrol. It became a hot topic of conversation, and there was peer pressure to perform better to reassure your fellow officers that they could trust you.”

IMPROVEMENT

Smith and his team repeated the exercises during in-service for 2012, compiling results from 923 officers this time, most of them veterans of the 2011 experience.

“When they came in, we went over the previous year’s results before they hit the range,” Smith says. “We reminded them to scan, to evaluate each target very quickly, and to make sure what they were shooting at.”

The results showed significant improvement.

Shots mistakenly fired at belt-badge targets still far outweighed those striking chain-badge targets under both full-light and low-light conditions. But the total numbers of inappropriate shots fired were down remarkably.

  • Hits to brightly lit belt-badge targets plunged 82% and to neck-badge targets 88%.
  • In low light, belt-badge targets drew 90% fewer shots and neck-badge targets showed a 92% reduction.

“Just making officers aware of the blue-on-blue risk can have very positive results, as this study shows,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. “Officers often fail to consider that they might confront another officer in civilian clothes and not recognize him as a friendly. Exposure to the problem in a memorable way can be valuable training with life-saving impact.”

He commended Smith and his team for their “scientific rigor” and expressed the hope that the study will motivate other trainers to pursue meaningful experiments involving real-world problems.

Smith, in turn, credited his Force Science certification for giving him and his staff “the confidence and inspiration to attempt this study and the challenge to constantly look for new answers to old questions concerning modern-day law enforcement.”

RECOMMENDATION & FUTURE FINDINGS

In light of the two years’ findings, the KCPD “has amended policy to direct members to discontinue use of belt badges and move to a neck-badge configuration.”

Yet as valuable as that stratagem is, he acknowledges it’s not a panacea, given that even a badge at chest-level will not be helpful when a plainclothes officer is challenged from the side or back, for example.

More on resolving blue-on-blue threats is expected to be learned before long when results of a study that Force Science launched several months ago are announced. That research, now in its final stages, is exploring factors other than badge placement, including the verbal and physical actions that seem most effective in protecting an officer in civilian clothes whose law enforcement affiliation is not immediately recognizable.

Sgt. Smith can be contacted at: Ward.Smith@kcpd.org

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