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When I talk with veteran police officers about what has made them successful in their careers, many bring up the fact that with five, ten, or fifteen years on the job, they have seen so much criminal activity that they have become pretty capable of identifying people who require attention. But with the rising threat of officer ambushes today, how does an up-and-coming officer become capable of ensuring their own safety without the opportunity to gain those five, ten, or fifteen years of experience? Preventing officer ambushes begins by learning how to establish the norm that exists for the areas and situations you encounter every day.

In our book Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life, my co-author, Jason Riley, and I discuss how the Marine Corps Combat Hunter program was designed to help Marines recognize the pre-event indicators to attacks so that they could deal with threats proactively instead of being forced into a reactive situation. This approach to recognizing criminals and attackers starts with an acceptance of the underlying premise that the behavioral cues that will cause a criminal to stand out from the crowd are always contextual. Even though they will be identifiable using universal and uncontrollable elements of behavior, because “threat” cues are situational, improving an officer’s ability to understand and define that context, the baseline, is the most important step in the process of ensuring officer safety. This is required before we can start to talk about pre-event indicators to violence. While recognizing anomalies is the goal, being an anomaly is a relative term. To stand out, you have to stand out from something. That something is the baseline for the areas and the situations that you encounter everyday.

One of the reasons why veteran officers are typically more capable of identifying criminals is because of the experiences they have accumulated over their years on the job. With this extensive database of scenarios encountered, they are able to intuitively size up a situation and know whether something is normal (part of the baseline) or not normal (an anomaly worth investigating.) The challenge is in passing those experiences and that understanding of events on to younger officers. Since these skills have often been developed and accumulated through countless hours on the street, it has historically been a problem to quantify and package that intuitive understanding of the baseline into a concise and mutually understood terminology so that more junior officers are able to benefit from that knowledge.

While a vocabulary to clearly define the baseline may have previously been considered unattainable, the advances that the Marine Corps made in the creation of the Combat Hunter course overcame that obstacle. The initial vocabulary that the Marines created in this program has evolved and been improved based on feedback provided by police officers who have come through The CP Journal’s Tactical Analysis ® program. By understanding how to read the collective mood for an area, explain how people relate to their environment, assess groups of people as well as individuals, the baseline can be defined using a very explicit terminology.

By using the vocabulary and breaking situations down into their component parts, we can shorten the learning curve for new officers to understand what is happening around them and help to ensure their safety. This is how we can empower these younger officers to quickly recognize those that stand out. This is what can allow them to take informed action and do so with more time available to protect themselves from the threats they encounter on the streets.