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A good deed with tragic results: A view from the sidelines

All people in crisis — whether mentally ill, under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, or simply having a traumatic time in their lives — are potentially dangerous


A prisoner transport van departs from the Baltimore City Detention Center, in Baltimore.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Earlier this month, a woman committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with an Illinois police officer’s gun while he was giving her a ride to the hospital. Stephanie Hicks, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, managed to get hold of the officer’s gun from his holster and turn the gun on herself.

As I view this incident from the sidelines, I feel that several points need to be discussed that look at the wider issues that can apply to us all, no matter what the final investigation determines.

First and foremost, this is a tragic story. It illustrates the need for officers to conduct a practical risk assessment even when assisting the public. The officer was trying to provide a public service to a person in need. This woman was obviously in a bad place. All people in crisis — whether mentally ill, under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, or simply having a traumatic time in their lives — are potentially dangerous.

Using Jeff Cooper’s Color Codes (see image below), an officer should be at Condition Orange — ready to act — when managing people in crisis. Crisis Intervention Training Tactics are important, but an officer needs to be constantly ready to shift gears to keep everyone safe.



Item number two: Weapon control is always critical, especially in close-quarter situations like this one. Any person, any time can attempt to disarm an officer. In this case, the person turned the gun on herself. She could have just as readily turned the gun on the officer. An officer always needs to be ready for a disarming attempt.

Although this incident originated with a street contact by an emotionally disturbed woman to a police officer, it has applications to correctional personnel. It involved the transportation of persons in a squad car.

Correctional personnel are constantly making a prisoner transportation to court, to the hospital, to another correctional facility. They are in uniform and armed. If a citizen needs help, they will flag down the officer whether s/he is driving, walking on the street, or moving through a public building.

Correctional personnel need to be able to balance the needs of this citizen needing help and the security of the prisoner. Most often, this is limited to a radio call to the local law enforcement agency to handle the emergency. Remember that this request for assistance may be part of a planned escape attempt. Remain alert, do what you can safely do, but remember your primary responsibility is for the security of your prisoner.

Additionally, when armed, you need to remember that anyone - even a restrained prisoner has and may attempt to disarm you. Position yourself to keep your firearm out of reach of both prisoners and other persons. Stay alert.

Finally, prisoners need to be transported in the back seat, seat belted in, and in line of sight at least from the rearview mirror at all times.

Yes, although this incident happened to a police officer in a street situation, it has lessons for correctional personnel.

Our thoughts go out to both victims of this tragedy — the woman who died and the officer. What the officer was trying to do was to just help a woman in need. We just need to make sure that we keep everyone safe in the process.

As Jack Hoban likes to say, officers need to be protectors. We must always remember that we need to keep ourselves physically, legally, and psychologically safe in order to do our job.

Protection begins with you.

Experience, expertise and communication skills are the criteria by which a defensive tactics instructor is judged. By these measures, Gary T. Klugiewicz is recognized as one of the nation’s leading control systems analysts specializing in the Use of Force.