The Jeff Cooper Principles: Changes Needed in Personal Defensive Preparedness

“The final weapon is the brain.  All else is supplemental.” John E. Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)

As 2009 draws to a close, yet another mass-shooting incident has dominated the headlines.  And once again police themselves have been targeted.  Statistically, 2009 is turning out to be one of the most deadly years in recent times for the ambushing of law-enforcement personnel throughout the country. Because the threat environment has changed, there also should be a conscious shift in preparedness. In fact, global trends in violence show that targeting police is one of many terrorist tactics that may provide the behavioral model for increased violence toward police in the United States itself.

In the morning hours of Sunday 29 November 2009, four Lakewood, Washington, police officers were preparing for their shift when a lone gunman entered the Forza Coffee Shop with the express purpose of killing them.  Unaware of the imminent threat, Sergeant Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards were engaged in conversation and schedule planning when Maurice Clemmons approached them and opened fire.  Targeting only the police officers, Clemmons left other patrons and employees unscathed.

Clemmons’ record of criminal violence was a long one, and he had more than once in the past talked about his hatred of police. The biggest unanswered question in the Coffee Shop incident, therefore, is this: What changed in Clemmons’ psyche to cause him to even attempt such an attack against an apparently overwhelming force of four armed officers?  Clemmons is now dead and unable to answer that question.  But, even as the still ongoing investigation continues revealing various related facts and circumstances, it seems obvious in retrospect that Clemmons had fully intended to survive his assault.  In fact, he had arranged an escape plan, with the alleged pre-attack collusion of an accomplice standing by in a getaway vehicle. 

In addition, the four officers apparently were unaware of the threat Clemmons posed until he made his intentions clear by aiming his gun and firing at them. He was able to get close enough to hit at least one or more of the officers, in fact, while they remained seated. The officers who were not immediately hit began their personal reactionary processes and at least one of them was able to struggle with and severely injure Clemmons before succumbing to injuries.

In the preceding month just a few miles to the north – i.e., in Seattle – Police Officers Timothy Q. Brenton and Britt Sweeny were ambushed in their patrol vehicle while discussing police reports; Brenton died in the attack.  The Seattle assailant, Christopher Monfort, also had manifested a deep hatred of police. This salient fact was first mentioned in academic papers, which were followed by the bombing of four Seattle police cruisers and culminated in the assassination of Officer Brenton and attempted assassination of Officer Sweeny.

One week after the Lakewood murders – i.e., on 6 December 2009, in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania – Police Officer Michael Crawshaw was assassinated in his patrol vehicle, awaiting backup before answering a domestic-disturbance call up the street.  In both of these incidents, Lakewood and Penn Hills, the officers were carrying out their duties in a manner consistent with those carried out every day by hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout the United States and, in fact, in almost every other nation in the world.

Much earlier in 2009, four police officers in Oakland, California, were murdered while carrying out a “routine” traffic stop.  The following month, in April, two police officers were ambushed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while responding to a 911 disturbance call – in which the assailant also killed a third responding officer.  Only 20 days after that, two deputy sheriffs in Okaloosa, Florida, were murdered while attempting to arrest a suspect, on domestic violence charges, at a local gun club.

The Long & Violent History of Criminal Attacks

Ambush attacks on police officers throughout the United States are a reality of one of the many threats that have faced law-enforcement officers for more than two centuries – i.e., since the murder of Greenville, South Carolina, Sheriff Robert Maxwell in 1797.  According to data available in the records of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), this year’s police shooting fatalities are up an alarming 21 percent from 2008. The NLEOMF statistics do not differentiate ambush situations by type, but the number of “multiple-officer” shooting fatalities is up from four in 2008 to 15 this year (December not included).

The trend is clear, and police officers throughout the country must adjust their collective threat consciousness accordingly. More specifically, they must change, and elevate, their mental conditioning to avoid being surprised and overwhelmed by the sudden display of an assailant’s violence.

Fortunately, there is an answer ready – seven of them, in fact. In his book on the Principles of Personal Defense (published by the Paladin Press in 1989), the late Lieutenant Colonel John Dean “Jeff” Cooper, USMC, discussed seven key defensive principles that he said should be engrained at the very core of each officer’s survival mindset. He summarized those principles with seven words: Alertness; Decisiveness; Aggressiveness; Speed; Coolness; Ruthlessness; and Surprise. Following, compressed and paraphrased, are brief summaries of how, and why, adherence to Cooper’s principles can switch the combat advantage from their would-be assailants to the police officers themselves.

Alertness: The baseline of situational awareness.

Here, Cooper discussed the personal defensive application of what he described as the Color Code of Mental Conditioning – in which colors ranging from white to red reflect degrees of situational awareness.  Police Officers on- or off-duty should consistently maintain a state of relaxed alertness – also referred to as Condition Yellow. Officers should be constantly aware of their surroundings, recognizing that hostilities may erupt from any direction. Condition Yellow is the baseline of situational awareness.  Even when in the company of fellow officers, or alone in the patrol car, constant “relaxed alertness” is vital.  Given recent trends, unusual behavior or activities should cause the individual officer to elevate his or her mental alertness to a state of heightened awareness, or Condition Orange.  In the context of a “routine” patrol, Condition Orange is a general or specific state of heightened awareness. If another person approaches an officer’s patrol car, the officer should heighten his or her awareness to the potential that the approaching person may have murderous intent.  From a level of heightened awareness the officer can better scale up – if and when warranted – to a defensive response, or Condition Red, in reaction to an assailant’s deadly actions.

Decisiveness: Applicable to “any given situation.”

One frequently recommended way of achieving Decisiveness is having a personal defensive plan for any given situation.  In developing ad hoc plans, it is important to consider the particulars of the situation and ask “What if?” If an officer is sitting in a restaurant (asking himself (or herself) “What if an armed person comes in?”), he or she should simply play out a short defensive script to that scenario in his/her mind. This is not paranoia; it is situational preparedness.  In the event a deadly-force situation does develop, the officer already has a personal defensive plan in mind. 

Aggressiveness: Mental preparation is mandatory.

This and the remaining Principles of Personal Defense specifically apply to deadly-force situations, and recognition of that fact is an essential component of personal preparedness. Police officers are expected to stop aggression. They certainly must avoid initiating aggression; however, in response to the combative aggression displayed by a potential assailant, they must be mentally prepared to appropriately escalate their own defensive aggression. In the Lakewood tragedy, for example, Clemmons’ aggression was apparently much greater than that displayed by the four police officers.  The evidence suggests that at least one officer, who was able to seriously injure Clemmons, was ramping up his own aggression to meet that shown by Clemmons. After being attacked, particularly in a premeditated ambush, the counter-attack must be explosive enough in nature for the officer attacked to gain, or regain, his/her personal-survival advantage.

Speed: Swift and decisive action needed.

When conditions develop to a point in which life-saving defensive actions are necessary, time is not on the officer’s side.  Police officers must in almost every deadly-force encounter, therefore, react almost immediately to the life-threatening actions of the assailant. In other words, the officer must act out his or her defensive plan, swiftly and decisively, from any position and in any environment, including while seat-belted inside a parked or stopped patrol cruiser with an attack coming, in a worst-case scenario, from the left rear area behind the car.

Coolness: The prerequisite to controlling the environment.

An ancient eastern philosophy holds that, before one can control his environment, he must first learn to control himself.  Control over one’s emotional state is vital in employing sound tactics and mounting an effective defense.  Having a personal plan in mind and maintaining situational awareness are the vital foundations of self control. Cool-headedness is particularly difficult to maintain in an ambush situation, but most ambushers anticipate swift and easy success in their attack.  The alert officer – with a plan in mind for a counterattack and the controlled escalation of accurate aggressiveness – will overwhelm the mental preparedness of all but the most ardent ambusher.  Coolness of one’s mindset could be simply expressed as “I knew this could happen, and I am prepared!”  At a deep subconscious level, coolness may seem to be an almost “out of body” experience in which sound training and mental preparedness appear to happen automatically.

Ruthlessness: Personal survival is at stake.

The sixth Principle must be considered in the context of coolly deliberate survival determination.  An ambush is a personal assault directed against a specific person or persons.  For police officers, the immediacy of their defensive survival responses must be an absolute and unwavering commitment to thwart the deadly intentions of the assailant. After a deadly ambush has been initiated, the officer’s best response is to swiftly carry out his or her defensive plan with a ruthless commitment to personal survival.   One must keep in mind the possibility that the personal defensive plan may not involve a firearms response per se – but instead may involve, for example, using the patrol vehicle as a defensive weapon, or as a way of evacuating the field of fire.  In any instance, the same ruthless and unwavering commitment to the course of action taken is essential to survival.

Surprise: Counter-intuitive, but it works.

Most assailants seek to use the element of surprise in their attacks. Employing the element of surprise in a defensive context, therefore, is often the best way of seizing situational advantage.  In an ambush attack, turning the tables on the assailant’s situational advantage is especially critical.  Surprise is achieved by acting in a manner that an assailant is not likely to expect.  A classic military counter-ambush technique is to attack the ambusher. Although it seems counter-intuitive, an aggressive counterattack often surprises and unnerves the attacker.  The police officer’s personal defensive plan should therefore consider incorporating an element of surprise.  In a restaurant situation, for example, the surprise element may be simply diving for cover before engaging the threat.  The assailant is likely to expect his quarry to remain stationary. But a swift, decisive, and surprising move may unnerve the attacker and turn the tables in favor of the police officer.

The trend is clear: Violent attacks against police officers, despite their frequent numerical advantage, are multiplying in recent years.  Criminals, including terrorists, will probably continue and further increase such attacks in the coming year.  Police officers can change the grim statistics of the past several years to their advantage by shifting their personal defensive-preparedness mindset to focus more specifically on ambush-attack situations.  Through a swift and effective defensive response, alert and personally prepared police officers will deny these vicious criminals – who lurk in almost every major city throughout the nation – the opportunity to carry out their murderous assaults.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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