S.O.R.T.I.E. - Special Operations Rescue Tactical Interdiction Expeditions

Police Survival

By Walt “Butch”Hendrick and Andrea Zaferes

Drowning is a common problem in today’s world. Anyone, even lifeguards, can drown. Oddly, we seem as a society to not truly understand the anyone-can-drown concept. In fact, we burden many of our public safety personnel with the misconstrued concept of what a hero is. The hero concept is dangerously based on whether or not a person was foolish enough to attempt a water related, or other type of rescue, recklessly endangering his or her own life, and possibly the lives of others. Would-be heroes all too often drown themselves trying to perform a rescue beyond their personal or team capability. A person drowns while trying to save someone else. He or she dies trying to be a foolish hero. Remember, dead is forever. But the media and eulogy will both remember him as a great person, a hero.

Heroes do not recklessly endanger their own lives or the lives of others. Even with the minimum necessary training, equipment and personnel resources an in-water rescue can still go wrong and a rescuer can be killed. Without these three necessities, the probability of disaster is very high, and not only is the life of the would-be rescuer endangered, but so are the lives of the victim(s) and other rescuers, who now must also save the would-be rescuer.

There are several lawsuits taking place around the world today against public safety personnel, that truly try the concept of rescuer and hero. Perhaps there are times when we ask, or expect, too much from our local public safety agencies, police, fire, EMS, and Coast Guard. These lawsuits are taken against personnel who made the safe decision not to go in the water, because they did not have the minimum necessary training, equipment, or personnel resources, and because doing so would recklessly endanger their own lives.
Let us review a past case history that took place in New York to better understand similar situations elsewhere in the United States. A male individual physically resists arrest and flees. He finds himself at the edge of the Hudson River. Police request him to stop. The individual proceeds to enter the water. Upon suddenly finding himself in water where he can no longer stand up, he yells “I can’t swim, please help!”

     Does the non-water rescue trained, non-lifeguard police officer, without any training in restraining a perpetrator in the water, have a responsibility to endanger his own life to enter the water and perhaps find himself suddenly in a full in-Water attack situation?

The answer is a resounding “No.” In fact, do any police officers, fire fighters, or even lifeguards, have
a responsibility to endanger their personal safety in this situation? Again, the answer is a definite “No.” Any lifeguard will tell you that even a six year-old panicked child can drown an adult would-be rescuer. And even the best, award-winning lifeguards are not trained to approach or rescue a possible alert, aggressive attacker. They are trained to save weak, non-alert, or aggressive, panicked drowning victims whose only goal is to save themselves, not escape prosecution or purposefully injure anyone who approaches.

In the New York case the perpetrator did lure the police to one area and then proceeded to swim to another point, climb out of the water, and escape. He also nearly drowned a police dog, who was not trained or prepared for a water operation.

When a woman, who claimed to Witness the event from her porch over 1,000 feet from the incident was interviewed, she was very hostile towards the police. She stated that they tried to drown the man by chasing him into the water, and then they did not attempt to rescue him when he was supposedly drowning and calling for help. She had no concern for the officers who did not have personal flotation devices, cold water exposure suits, any water rescue training or any rescue equipment; let alone self-defense training for handling a violent criminal in the water.

As one of our lead trainers, patrolman Ken Balfrey, pointed out during a staff discussion of this problem, suppose the perpetrator had Navy Seal or Ranger training, as once happened in his district. Such a person is trained to drown people, and even a well trained lifeguard would stand little chance against such a person. Such a perpetrator may even have training in pulling personnel out of an inflatable boat to drown them.

What if the perpetrator had a knife or a gun, both of which will work in the water? How is the law enforcement, fire, EMS or other rescue personnel to know whether or not the perpetrator is faking drowning or is really drowning?

If a perpetrator ends up drowning a would-be rescuer during a rescue attempt, will the perpetrator be charged with first degree murder? Or will the defense lawyers get him off by saying it was an accident and the officer should not have gone in without the minimum necessary equipment or training? Perhaps the police department would even be sued for endangering the life of the perpetrator for chasing him into the water. This sounds like an atrocity, but it has happened and is happening.

Let’s do whatever it takes to make sure none of this happens. Every law enforcement, fire, EMS and other public safety agency should have clearly written standard operation procedures/guidelines for these types of incidents stating that such personnel will not go in the water, or on the ice, after a conscious perpetrator under any circumstances, or unless the personnel have the proper rescue and in-water defense/restraint training, equipment and personnel resources.

And very importantly, the public and public service officers should be taught not to ask, or expect, public service personnel to recklessly endanger their lives.