Anyone who has ever played a bad guy with murder on his mind in well-crafted scenario training says it’s an incomparable learning experience. Scott Buhrmaster, vice president of operations for the Force Science Institute, is no exception.
“Having the opportunity to observe a traffic stop from the “other side” of the approach over and over again for several days can certainly be enlightening,” Buhrmaster says. “It can give you a rare opportunity to spot examples of officers unwittingly making themselves vulnerable and therefore yield valuable survival reminders that can keep other officers safe.”
Buhrmaster played the driver suspect during FSI’s ground-breaking vehicle stop study reported in Force Science News [2/25/13]. More than 90 officer volunteers from various agencies approached his car one at a time, three times each, on what they believed was a “routine” traffic stop for speeding. During the contacts, Buhrmaster, seated behind the steering wheel, unexpectedly produced a pistol from a concealed spot near his right leg on the third approach and fired blank rounds at each officer.
The study monitored the officers’ reactions and attempted to gauge which response was least likely to result in injury or death for the surprised LEOs. But as he waited for the right moment to attack, Buhrmaster picked up on valuable subtleties and was reminded of others that are not part of the official research record.
Recently, he shared highlights of his observations with FSN. These can make an effective review for roll call training.
“The way the experiment was structured, I had to attack at some point and I had to catch the officer by surprise, without my gun being detected. So I was under pressure to assess how the officers’ behavior might affect my actions,” Buhrmaster explains. “I began ‘reading’ officers by watching their approach in my rearview mirrors. Their speed and stature gave me cues right away.
“If they came up real fast, in a hurried fashion, they gave the impression they just wanted to get the stop over with. They seemed too anxious. Too slow, they came across as unsure, overly cautious.
“The ones I read as least vulnerable walked with a medium-speed, determined gait and an erect stature. Not overly aggressive, just confident–and watching me. The impression that they were fully prepared to control the contact gave me pause.”
Buhrmaster says the officers he judged (accurately) to be hardest to catch off guard were those who “spoke confidently and with good projection and were to the point and professional in their verbiage” on initial contact (“Hello, sir. The reason I stopped you is…”).
They did not smile and did not engage in superficial banter (“Hello, sir. How’re you doin’ today? I’m sorry to bother you….”), yet did not come across as aloof, disinterested, or demeaning. “They were procedural without being unthinking or unaware. Their impression was one of determined professionalism, full of confidence and control. They made me think they were not going to be easily lured into my distracting dialog.”
In contrast, officers who seemed “overly friendly–enthusiastic smiles, apologetic tone, demure posture–came across as vulnerable. Their focus seemed to be solely on keeping me from getting upset with them for having stopped me and they appeared to have lost their focus on their own safety considerations.
“I distinctly read them as wanting to move through the ticketing process as amiably as possible. They appeared to be intently focused on the fact that they were upsetting me and were looking for ways to defuse the emotional agitation but they did not appear to be focused on remaining aware of the potential for an assault.
Note: Officers who deliberately, and often effectively, use a good-ol’-boy guise as a ploy on criminal patrol-type stops need to remain conscious of their risks and tactics, because a committed killer could be emboldened by this demeanor.
A noticeable number of officers did not ask to see Buhrmaster’s right hand, even though it was hidden from their point of view. It was touching or gripping a 9mm semi-automatic between his leg and the center console. “A number of officers looked toward that area repeatedly, but did not ask to see that hand. It appears that their inability to see it was obviously troubling to them but they seemed unsure as to whether they had the right to order me to reveal it. This gave the impression of vulnerability.”
Those few who did immediately ask Buhrmaster to make his hand visible “gave me great pause initially, because they seemed tactically astute.” But then most were satisfied when he merely placed his hand on his thigh. And the even smaller minority who told him to put it on the steering wheel for the most part didn’t remain conscious of the safer positioning for long.
“Within 10 to 15 seconds, they were focused on what I was saying and I could let my hand slide back to my thigh and then to the hidden position on the gun,” he recalls. “It was obvious their situational awareness from a tactical perspective had deteriorated and their level of preparedness for a potential attack was diminished. I was able to wait for the very best time for me to produce the weapon and launch an attack.”
OFFICER HAND PLACEMENT
In some cases, officers’ own hand positioning played to the suspect’s advantage. “Several put their hands in positions where they couldn’t likely draw their sidearm quickly if I presented a threat,” Buhrmaster says. Some, for example, gripped their ticket book firmly with both hands on approach and during initial contact. Others kept their thumbs hooked inside their duty belt. Still others stood with their hands crossed over one another in the center of their chest.
“These positions gave me the impression the officers were too relaxed and unprepared for trouble,” Buhrmaster says.
In this scenario, the driver played the role of a “sovereign citizen” who rejected the authority of law enforcement to stop him. When asked for driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, he presented officers with a sheaf of official-looking documents attesting to his “immunity.”
Instead of ignoring these bogus papers and saying “This is not what I asked you for,” a number of officers focused intently on reading what they’d been handed, in some cases looking up and away in contemplation. Some who called for backup turned their head completely away from him when using their shoulder-mounted mic.
“They took the bait of my diversion,” Buhrmaster says. “They were locked onto the paper or the radio and not on me and what I was doing. It seemed that I had control over what they were thinking about and was successfully confusing them, making them more vulnerable.”
Those who quickly realized the “documents” were irrelevant and were not sucked in to the suspect’s gambit “gave the impression that they were stronger and harder to get the edge on, more intimidating targets from my standpoint.”
GO FOR IT
“Incorporate playing the bad guy as part of your training,” Buhrmaster advises. “I’d never had the opportunity to do it in this depth before, day after day, and it was a very eye-opening experience. You can hear about the suspect’s perspective in a classroom or perhaps even from an offender himself, but you need to put yourself in that place to really feel it–and to realize how officer actions are the key to control and survival.”
[Click here to watch a Discovery Channel video segment on the Force Science Traffic Stop Study]
Editor’s note: We want to again thank the many officers who volunteered to participate in the Force Science Traffic Stop Study. Their willingness to do so was an invaluable contribution to keeping fellow officers safe and for that we are deeply grateful.