What a Difference 30 Years Makes E-mail
I am what a lot of people refer to as "an Old School, Old Dog." I've been in the business of corrections and police work since 1977. When I went to school, criminal justice was known as police science.

The instructors were all retired or active cops and each taught in their area of expertise. The range instructor was a retired F.B.I. agent who taught us to get the most out of the 18 rounds we had. There was no excuse for not hitting your target, and each shot had to be accounted for. We learned defensive tactics from another retired Fed, and learned a kick-ass wrist-lock that beats anything I've learned since.

We learned what, at that time, was state-of-the-art investigation, interrogation and evidence gathering techniques. I went forth into the world of 1977 with more knowledge than my predecessors, knowing that none of the "book-smarts" equipped me for what was waiting.

After 30-plus years in corrections, Sheriff's departments, and police departments, I've seen a lot of changes in training, tactics and equipment. When I started, the average cop on the street carried a radio about the size and weight of a brick. It had three channels and the nearest telephone was in a call-box. Batons were either the new nylon or the old hickory sticks. A pair of handcuffs and a key ring with a few keepers were on the standard leather Sam Browne belt. Some carried mace, and almost all had a .38 revolver with an extra 12 rounds, often in a dump pouch.

When speed loaders came on the scene, it was almost revolutionary. Squads were sometimes equipped with a wire cage, and a 12 gauge pump shotgun was mounted between the front seats. Computers were something that was seen only in science fiction movies. The only contact with dispatch was through a radio that could pick up "skips" from across the nation. Body armor was mostly unheard of and only special teams had access to it.

Now, when I go out on the street, I have a nylon belt that holds a semi-auto pistol with 45 extra rounds, a collapsible baton, glove pouch, radio case, Taser , OC spray, cell phone , handcuffs, and a transmitter for the in-squad video system. I wear body armor that in hot weather stick to me like mayonnaise on toast, yet I wouldn't consider going on-duty without it. The squad car is a rolling office, with computers, video, printers, radios and an enclosed plexi-glass back seat. Accompanying the shotgun is a rifle and a trunk full of emergency equipment.

The average street cop or corrections officer goes out with more gear and better equipped than most old-timers could imagine. The education standards are much higher, and the training and academies are more inclusive. In essence, officers on the street or in the prisons today are better prepared for survival than anytime in the past. Yet, with all of these improvements, officer safety and survival is often hampered by the biggest killer of all-complacency.
It is complacency that makes a street cop ignore training and go into a situation with the knee jerk reaction, "I've been here before and it's always the same old crap."

Yet, that same-old-crap can turn into a steaming pile of disaster in a heartbeat. It's complacency that allows a C.O. to walk with their hands in their pockets, onto a rec. field full of inmates because of the preconceived notion that nothing ever happens. It's complacency that kills or injures us when we drive or respond to an incident ,whether on the street or in the joint, and forget that there is a world of other things going on that still requires our attention. It's complacency that makes us ignore the fundamentals.

I, along with everyone reading this, am guilty of allowing complacency to ride along with me. I have been in situations that, but for the grace of God, could have turned against me. I count it as luck that they didn't.
Ask yourself how many times you did not wait for back-up? How many times was it that I didn't take the time to shuffle through the previous shift's reports to see what happened before I came on duty? How many times has my radio battery died in the middle of nowhere? How many times has my squad radio been turned-down so I wouldn't have to listen to calls that weren't mine? How many times have I gone to the same, old address and dealt with the same-old-people and let my guard down because nothing has happened there before.

As a street cop and a supervisor in the prison, the issue of complacency and its dangers cannot be stressed enough. The adage "always be aware of your surroundings" should be our mantra. Situational awareness should be preached and preached. We should never go into an incident without ever had gone over the situation in our mind. When you're sitting in your squad car or housing unit, play the "what-if" game in your mind.

What if I go to Joe Trailerpark's house and he comes out with a gun, or a knife, or what ever? What if I get to the accident and power lines are across the car? What if I'm taking count and a fight breaks out? What if an inmate grabs me and tries to pull me into their cell? These are all real possibilities. If you play out the scenarios in your mind that you might have to deal with, you will be better prepared. Plan your course of action. Plan your response. Plan your escape route. Plan to survive. That's the best outcome for any situation.

Above all, remember: complacency kills.

-Keith Hellwig
Captain, Wisconsin Department of Corrections
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