I recently read an excellent article by Richard Fairburn about Jeff Cooper’s work on the color-coded levels of awareness. It got me to thinking about my own training and the ways I subconsciously use different levels of awareness while on patrol. I realized how badly neglected the transition between conditions orange and red is.
Poor transitions end lives and careers. Think about the last officer you knew who got hurt on the job. If it wasn’t a back injury, it was probably because they were in an interview mindset when the suspect was in attack mindset. Think about the last officer you knew that got fired. If it wasn’t political, then it was probably because he or she was in a fight mindset when the situation called for an interview mindset.
It’s not that these officers didn’t know how to operate at different levels of force and awareness, but they got hung up in the shift from one to the next. As Phil Messina once told me at during a handcuffing class, “We get hurt in the transitions.”
The shift from condition orange to red is the most dangerous. What follows are some observations I have found useful and I hope you will, too. Even if you have a different priority of actions or think you will do something else during the transition, as long as this gets you thinking about it then the time I spent writing this will be worthwhile.
I have spent my entire adult life studying fighting. That doesn’t automatically make me an expert, but it does mean I have an interest in the subject beyond the average person. It also means I have a depth of knowledge when it comes to trying to subdue someone who is trying to hurt you.
I am currently a line officer/patrolman/beat cop. That just means that I am not basing my comments on videos or reports or academic texts. Tomorrow night, I will put on a vest and my uniform and report to roll call. I’ll make traffic stops, serve warrants, answer 911 calls. It’s very unlikely the next time I use my cuffs it will be in a well-lit area with only one suspect. I’ll make mistakes. My squadmates will help cover those mistakes and I will do the same for them so that no one gets hurt.
Above all else, I try to be practical, so everything in this article will be something I do myself because I use it and it works, or because I tried not using it and failed.
But What Do I Do?
You’re on a call. It’s a domestic. You have the parties separated and they are relatively calm. Suddenly, the complainant’s brother pulls up in the driveway. He skids to a halt, jumps out of the car and announces that he’s had enough. You, being a good officer, recognize that conditions have changed and you need to change to deal with them.
We all know that going from condition orange to red means the danger is here, a threat has been identified, and we need to be in a heightened state of awareness. But what does that mean, practically? What are we supposed to actually do?
- Breath. As deep and slow as you can. Keep your heart rate from spiking. Make sure oxygenated blood is getting to your brain so you can make good decisions.
- Get your hands up. If you are in condition orange, hands should be at least above the waist.
Many good officers fall into the habit of hooking their hands on their belt and give the reasoning that it keeps their hands close to their gun. But getting to your gun doesn’t keep someone from punching you or stabbing you or shooting you at close quarters. Practice and find a way to keep your hands up naturally.
(Note: The best bouncer I ever knew was 5’6” and 140 lbs. I always knew when he was in condition orange dealing with a customer because he would “pray” for them while he was explaining the rules; he would put his palms flat together just about chin level. I never saw any punch quick enough that he couldn’t intercept it because his hands were already where they needed to be.)
- Bend your knees. We get nervous and tired and we lock our knees out. It’s easier to stand like that, but if we need to block, jump, run, or move off the X, we have to bend our knees first. It only takes about a quarter of a second to do it, but why not get a quarter of a second head start?
- Be mindful of what is coming out of your mouth. It does nothing but benefit suspects to know they can get under your skin. The surest way to let them know they’ve got power over you is to start name-calling. I’ve fallen for it myself, and I can clearly remember the twinkling in the guy’s eyes when I switched from calling him by his name to some other less-polite nickname.
Bottom line: It isn’t tactically sound. It’s just another way to let them see you sweating. Be outwardly unshakable.
The Event Horizon
Where should your focus be when condition orange changes over into red? I’ve poured through all the training manuals have access to, and they talk about watching the hands and waist and eyes of a suspect. But these are things we should be watching anyway. Focus is more than just where our eyes should be. Focus includes all our senses and more. Focus is about what is at the front of our mind, what we are concentrating on.
Where should our focus should be? On the event horizon.
As our stress levels rise, our attention naturally narrows, or focuses, on a perceived threat. It’s a great concept to have 360-degree awareness and be able to process every sight or sound you sense, but in practice, humans focus on a threat. That threat may be a balled fist, or it might be as subtle as a sharp intake of breath, but an officer needs to be paying attention to pick up on it.
The event horizon is the point just far enough out that you can actually do something about what you are sensing but not so far out that you are missing things. As the pace of events pick up, that horizon moves closer both physically and in time.
If you’ve ever mountain biked or trail run you are familiar with this even if you don’t know it. If you are sprinting through the woods for fun or in pursuit of a bad guy, you know that you can’t look at your toes are you will run smack into a tree.
Likewise, if you let your attention focus 50 – 100 feet ahead, you will trip over a root or slip on a patch of wet leaves. There is a sweet spot in the middle where you can move at a really good clip, not because of how physically fit you are, but how mentally fit you are. That’s the event horizon. It works the same way in a fight or any other rapidly evolving situation.
How do you get good at it? Practice, of course. Long runs where you can zone out and daydream are great for the cardio, but horrible for mental fitness. Try an alternative activity that requires you to be mindful of your task and to find the event horizon.
For me, it’s boxing. Whenever I start thinking too long-term while I’m sparring, my good friend helps me out by punching me. When my focus gets shortsighted and I lock in on the first punch, but don’t plan for the rest of the combination, he helps me out again.
It doesn’t have to be boxing or judo, though. Racquetball, trail running—even basketball—all will give you a great workout while helping exercise your mental transmission, that mechanism that lets you shift gears in a rapidly evolving situation.
The transition from condition orange to red is a neglected area in our training. There are things we can do both long term and short term to address this.
It starts with a discussion. Debrief with your squad after those calls that maybe could have gone better. Your list of physical and mental reactions may be different than mine, and that is okay. From this point forward, though, make sure when you train someone on awareness levels that you give them clear physical and mental adjustments to help them be successful.