What does it mean to refine? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary tells us that it means, “to improve (something) by making small changes.” Over time, I have done this with various actions related to common police tasks. It is important to identify the actions that are related to a task for various reasons; one of those reasons is that it makes it easier to refine your skill. Specifically, one of the actions that you can refine for your safety—is being “guarded.”

When you manage a police scene, safety is one task that is always included in your response; sometimes with direct actions and other times it’s in the background, but it is always present to some degree. For example, when you are writing a ticket, you make it a point to look up every few seconds so that no one can walk up on you. This is an obvious action of being “guarded.”

Most of us practice the physical actions related to being “guarded”—like keeping your gun side away, maintaining proper distance, not standing in front of a door, etc. Part of the reason these physical actions are commonly practiced is because they are trained and we can see each other doing them daily. When we are able to see others doing physical actions, it makes it easier to refine the manner in which we perform the same action. This can also affect us negatively (but that’s a topic for a different day).

We all know that we should remain alert, especially when we are in uniform. This is the mental side of being “guarded.” We are also taught this in training, but being mentally “guarded” is a bit tougher to reinforce because it is not always tangible. When an action is more difficult to observe, it will tend to be more difficult to achieve the refinement that is possible for its physical counterpart.

Besides being aware of your surroundings, being “guarded” includes reacting to what you observe or have knowledge of. I’m not talking about when something is obvious, like when you look into a vehicle on a traffic stop and you see a gun within reach of an occupant in the car. I’m talking about reacting to the subtle signs of a situation. The subtle signs of a situation could take the form of information, location, and/or circumstance that should prompt the officer to modify his or her approach when possible. For some, this may be something that you already do; for others who are new or have become desensitized to the dangers of the job, this could be helpful to reinforce.

If you notice something, even if you think it is something slight, don’t ignore it. There may be a timing element in your response, but you need to take whatever action you think is necessary to mitigate the danger that a situation may cause you or others at the scene. Specific actions may include clarifying information, requesting additional cover, repositioning yourself, controlling a person’s movements, communicating with other officers, etc. This is the refinement that I want to highlight in the way you practice being “guarded.”

Being “guarded” is not just physical actions, but also mental actions. I hope reinforcing the mental aspect of being “guarded” will improve the proficiency of your response and help you stay safe while managing police scenes.

Erick Richards is the author of The Officer’s Brain: Raising Your Police Scene Management IQ. He has more than twenty years of experience responding to situations as a police officer. He is currently assigned as a patrol supervisor for the Dallas Police Department. You can find him at www.theofficersbrain.com.