Law Enforcement Combat Thinking


Given the violence directed at law enforcement, comparisons can be made with military actions, since both are dangerous jobs.  Military lessons learned in combat zones can be used by law enforcement in dealing with stressful incidents.  Such stressors include officer involved shootings and severe assaults.  According to the U.S. Marine manual, “the key to combat survival is preparation”.

Combat survival via preparation is something that LEOs should keep in mind.  Preparedness on so many levels can be a successful factor in surviving tragic incidents.  Combat is a thinking man’s game; you need to rely on skill and proficiency versus fate and destiny to ensure your survival.

Officers who are faced with highly-stressful situations reflect that stress through either physical or psychological changes. Under great stress, individuals react differently.  Officers often experience some degree of sensory distortion during extremely traumatic events.  Some LEOs experience muscles tensing and an increased pulse rate. Some officers “freeze.”

The more that LEOs are prepared (both mentally as well as physically) with intensive training, the better the outcome will be.  You cannot fake endurance when in a fight.

In reviewing thousands of incidents of soldiers or police officers facing life and death situations, one issue is consistent:  the desire for survival. They refused to accept the notion their situation was hopeless. These officers had prepared themselves by managing their fears and emotions, while cultivating a mindset which chooses a positive outcome.  A good axiom for an officer is “I will never give up”.  The “warrior mindset” made the difference in choosing to survive.  Unfortunately this is not always the case, as many are so severely wounded that they are beyond emergency medical aid.

In law enforcement, certain things can go south in a matter of split seconds.  Officers should focus on quickening cognitive skills to more effectively take action to overcome an adversary. A significant component of cognitive training is repetition and intensity.

Consider the intense operational training of Navy SEALS to demonstrate how stressful situations become second nature to this elite fighting force.  The ability for officers to become skilled at such things as shoot and move, taking protective cover, can become second nature.

One Navy SEAL motto which states “Train Hard Fight Easy” is something to consider when training ourselves.  However, elite military training is unlike law enforcement (except for SWAT activities) because the LEO deals with civilians and is under a completely different legal engagement structure.  Certain principals can, however, apply back and forth between the professions.

So much has been written on tactical thinking which can assist officers to enter into a proper frame of mind or to get their game face on quickly.  Experience shows that officers have a mental picture and engage in tactical thinking when responding to a man with gun call. They run various scenarios through their brain prior to arrival on scene.

However, it is also the ability to act quickly when dispatched to a seemingly inconsequential complaint, only to have things quickly escalate, which means the difference between life and death.   It is this proper vigilance which allows an officer to take control decisively and resolutely.

With a tactical philosophy, officers must consider all options and strategies available to them when confronted with potentially hazardous and perilous situations.  There is a direct need for mental preparedness and a developed thought process to plan for unexpected danger.


During most calls, people will comply with dispatched officers. This is not because they view an officer as highly skilled, but rather because of what the officer represents.  Law enforcement personnel must remember that their safety and wellbeing on the streets depends on them. It is no one else’s responsibility.

Officers must be confident in their skills, aptitudes, and competence.  This confidence only comes through different methods of training.  Every aspect of training must be taken seriously.  We react the way we train.  Training is not just what a department provides; it is also what you do on your own time, i.e. rest, exercise, visualization.

Good, habit-forming behaviors can aid in forming proper survival skills.  So many officers do physical conditioning, which is worthy.  However, let’s not forget mental conditioning, such as calming self-talk and visualizing a response.  Officers need to learn to be composed, focused, and in control in high-stress situations.  These are traits which we can develop over time and through events in both our professional and personal lives.

Military and law enforcement personnel must be physically, mentally, and tactically ready to wade into a fight. They must be ready to encounter injured or dying innocent citizens and efficiently neutralize a threat so that no one else will be injured.

LEOs must possess an aggressive combat mindset.  We must be able to screen out distractions and commotion under tremendous stress.  We must maintain readiness to go into harm’s way and continue the mission at hand, possibly against great odds which complicate issues.  These are the type of people society considers heroes for what they do for the country or community.

A key reminder is for officers to always believe they can survive, and that they are prepared and trained for the very worst.  A good saying to repeat is “I know how to survive, I can survive, and I will survive”.   Officers must develop a combat mindset – a desire and willingness to do whatever it takes to come out on top. We all have a duty to encourage and support one another through such difficult times.  Encouragement among peers can remind us of the dangerous business we are faced with.

Charles Dahlinger has served in the Army as a Reconnaissance Specialist.  He is a police officer with over 25 years of experience. Chuck was a PhD candidate in the past with graduate studies in Criminology.   He can be reached at [email protected] for training seminar information.

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