Essay: Officers must remember they get only one mistake

Barbara A. Schwartz

As a law enforcement officer, you only get one mistake.

No other occupation on the planet gets only one.

At graduation, when the department issues you a badge and uniform, tey should give you a certificate that reads: Good for only one mistake.

In law enforcement, when you use up that one, single, solitary mistake it can get you dead.

Academy and in-service training crams your brain full of tried-and-true tactics and techniques to keep you from making that fatal mistake.

At times, circumstances dictate that you can use force, sometimes deadly force, to keep from expending that one mistake.

With the threat of ambush around every corner, let this article serve as a reminder, a kick in the butt, for you to remember that you get only one mistake.

If you’re lucky, you will survive your one mistake.

When you don’t, you get dead and your loved ones get a flag to take home to hug and curl up with instead of you.

Take time to review your officer safety and street survival training, keeping in mind that you only get that one mistake.

Look for and attend training on your own. You are ultimately responsible for how well prepared you are and how you will perform when faced with a threat to your life or another’s life.

Remember, under stress you will sink to and perform at the level in which you were trained.

Review with your loved ones what you want and need them to do if you are forced to engage during an off-duty incident. Carry a card that gives your family, friend, or a stranger instructions to call 911 and identify you as an engaging off-duty warrior.

And always, ALWAYS, carry off-duty.

In this world where a Pennsylvania state trooper was gunned down walking into work, where four officers were ambushed in a Lakewood, Washington, coffee house, where two NYPD officers were blindsided by their assassin while sitting in their RMP, every police officer must be aware of his/her surroundings every moment of every day.

 There is a fine line between awareness, hypervigilence and outright paranoia.

 As a police officer you have to utilize all three depending on the situation.

 The first book written on the topic of officer survival was titled “Officer Down Code Three” written by LAPD Detective Pierce Brooks. On the last page of the book Brooks quotes then FBI Director Clarence Kelly who wrote in his “Message from the Director” in the Feb.1, 1974, issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin:

 “But, even with safeguards, the stark fact remains that many law enforcement encounters – particularly during patrol – are unpredictable and explosively lethal to the officer. He must constantly remind himself that there is nothing routine in law enforcement duty. He cannot shirk that duty even when it – as it frequently does – propels him suddenly and without warning into the jaws of grave human conflict. At these dangerous times, an officer’s only companion is his alertness.”


 The bottom line, in these dangerous times, to avoid that one mistake, you must maintain your alertness throughout your shift and daily life.

 Put your cell phone away when not inside the station. Write your reports in the officer work room when possible. Leave yourself an out in traffic. Stop well behind the car in front of you so you can pull out if need be. Vary your patrol routine. Ride with a partner so one of you can watch your surroundings while the other is typing on the MDT. Call out in pairs. Better yet, save money and calories, and pack a lunch and eat inside the station.

 Remember to always employ contact and cover tactics.

 Search first, search more than once, never stop after finding the first weapon. Wear your body armor and add trauma plates. Practice regularly with your duty and off-duty gun and keep your guns clean and maintained. Wear a backup weapon and practice drawing it.

 Don’t let “tombstone courage” be the mistake that gets you dead. Asking for backup isn’t cowardly, it’s intelligent.

 These safety tips are elementary—taught in the academy. But it never hurts to review them because you only get that one mistake. Don’t let it get you dead.

 Cut out the banner below and affix it to the visor in your shop to remind you to not use up your one mistake. Y’all be careful!


This article was inspired by, and is dedicated to, my friend R.M.

Barbara A. Schwartz devotes her life to writing about the brave officers of law enforcement.