Calling for Backup: Changing Law Enforcement Culture So Officers Are Not Afraid to Ask for Help

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Send me another unit 10-33 Requesting backup Signal 00 Roll cover Officer needs assistance Officer needs help

Chances are, you have uttered at least one of these phrases before, and you have responded to countless similar requests from others. While the exact terminology or urgency of the requests may vary, at their core, each request communicates the same basic concept: Additional resources are needed (or, I need help).

Calling for backup is appropriate in many different circumstances. Sometimes we need specially trained personnel or specialized equipment. Sometimes we just need another officer or two and sometimes we might need advice or guidance from someone who is more knowledgeable or experienced. Perhaps we need help this instant (or sooner) or maybe we help nearby just in case. Calling for help is a simple, yet elusive, way to help improve safety and minimize risk in all kinds of situations.

There are situations where we don’t have time to wait, we don’t have the opportunity to ask for help, or help is simply unavailable. But often we avoid calling for backup even when we can. The idea that we should ask for help when help is available applies well beyond the on-duty uniformed patrol officer. It applies broadly to almost everything we encounter in law enforcement, including when we are acting as supervisors, managers and commanders.

Most of us want to help. We are eager to lend a hand. We will quite literally drop whatever we are doing and run as fast as we can to get there. Yet many of us remain uncomfortable asking for help or guidance; and some of us flat out refuse to ask, except in the most dire situations.

Does it really matter? Does our profession actually discourage asking for help? And if so, what can we do improve the situation?

Does It Really Matter That We Don’t Ask for Help?

Our failure or refusal to ask for help when help is reasonably available can contribute to us getting hurt or killed. Depending on the situation, not asking for help can also costs us in other ways, including the loss of coveted assignments, court cases, careers, reputations, money and relationships.

We know that our actions and decisions will be thoroughly examined and evaluated after a tragedy. We try to make well-reasoned decisions that we can effectively explain and defend later—even if things go terribly wrong. One of those decisions is whether to ask for help. As the following scenarios illustrate, whether we ask for help can and does matter very much.

  • When you wake up in the hospital with debilitating injuries to see your spouse and kids sitting nearby, would you be able to convince them that your decision to disregard backup and respond in alone was reasonable because there were several non-emergency calls pending and your backup officer was due off soon?Calling for backuo - Lexipol
  • After you reasonably use deadly force, are you certain that you could effectively explain and defend your decision to stop that felony suspect (who was known to be armed) by yourself instead of waiting for another officer?
  • Will your boss be understanding when you are in front of a jury explaining the hasty personnel decision you made on your own about your subordinate’s medical leave, off-duty social media use, pregnancy or disability?
  • How forgiving would the public be if, because we “did not want to bother them,” we decided not to call the fire department to the crash scene and it turned out that it was not just steam escaping from that trailer after all?
  • How will the media portray our decision not to call the bomb squad for help with that brown package that we had reason to think was suspicious when it blows up and injures someone?
  • Could you look a mourning spouse in the eyes and defend your decision not to use the tactical team to serve that warrant at the violent drug dealer’s house because, as you put it to your team of investigators, “We have guns and badges too”?
  • How well will you sleep when you realize that the young girl’s only chance at justice is all but gone partly because you thought that you could conduct the sexual abuse investigation just as well as the detective who normally works those cases?
  • How forgiving do you expect the victim’s family to be when they realize that the most powerful evidence of the predator’s guilt disappeared because you thought you would check it out yourself before calling the forensic examiner because, after all, you know a thing or two about computers?
  • How will you feel when you realize the thing that most people will remember about your stellar 25 years of service will be the multi-million dollar verdict that was returned against the department all because you weren’t sure whether that tidbit of information was important enough to justify a supplemental report and you didn’t think it was necessary to ask anyone?
  • As you sit at the funeral of your dear friend, will you be certain that you did the right thing by not calling for help when you were concerned she was suicidal?

Does Our Profession Discourage Asking for Help?

There are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon. But it appears that the culture of our profession generally discourages officers, managers and commanders from asking for help. On one hand, we want and need officers who are generally self-sufficient. We need people who are willing and able to jump right in the middle of chaos and try to take some degree of control. We require officers to solve problems and to make well-reasoned decisions—sometimes with very little information and time to think. But what about those situations when we have more facts, time to think, time to gather additional information, and the opportunity to call upon additional resources before we act? Calling for Backup - Lexipol

In many departments, police officer job descriptions don’t mention that officers are required to use discernment and to summon additional specialized resources when appropriate. Further, many training evaluations list “trainee relies on others to make decisions” as an example of unacceptable performance. From the very first interactions with our agency and continuing throughout their careers, we seem to be telling officers that calling for backup is not a good thing.

What Can We Do to Change Our Culture?

It is not enough to merely tolerate asking for help. We must strive for a culture that actively encourages people to ask for help, whether in the form of backup, specialized resources, advice or sometimes even professional counseling. We must convince each member of our department that we recognize them as imperfect humans, incapable of knowing all or being all, and as we do this we should remember that our actions in dealing with those who make honest mistakes will speak louder than our words.

As leaders, we will not be able to eliminate the deep-rooted pride that keeps certain officers from asking for help or the deeply held belief that asking for help is a sign of unacceptable weakness. But we can and should do something. We can start by adopting policies that provide guidance on when asking for help is appropriate and even required. We can reinforce these policies by ensuring that our job descriptions, field training reports and performance evaluations reflect this core function. Finally, we should never let a day pass without taking the opportunity to teach our personnel what our policy says, what it means and how to apply it.

DONALD R. WEAVER is the Training Director for Lexipol and an attorney who specializes in law enforcement matters, including officer representation, police training and risk management. He spent 13 years as a police officer in Missouri and California and has worked various assignments including patrol, SWAT, overt and covert drug investigations, street crimes, forensic evidence and policy coordinator.