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The question of aiding an officer when in distress

POSTED November 9, 2011 9:18 a.m.
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There are occasions when police officers, particularly when acting alone, may need bystander assistance during resisting arrest situations, when an officer is being physically attacked or during physical fights. Assistance may also be needed when it takes more than one person to affect an emergency rescue or during other similar critical incidents. Knowing when to help a police officer can be difficult to determine, but there are times when desperate situations may require some kind of citizen assistance. It is unwise to become engaged in the conflict as long as the officer appears to be in control of the situation.

An example of when an officer benefitted from citizen assistance was several years ago when one of our officers was attempting to take a person into custody. The person began resisting arrest, the officer was alone and pinned by the suspect momentarily when a citizen driving by saw what was going on and stopped to assist. There are times, for example, when a lone officer needs to perform CPR, or has to pull a victim from a burning vehicle with no time to wait for additional responding emergency personnel to arrive. Every second counts in these situations, so it is important to comply with the officer's request with no hesitation and to do exactly what he or she requests. These officers are highly trained and they know what to do and what not to do.

Usually when officers are in an urban environment, it will generally only be a few moments before other emergency personnel arrive on scene. But those few critical moments may be exactly what are needed to save a life. In a rural environment, where an officer is imperiled or otherwise needs assistance to save someone's life, citizens who assist may find themselves involved for longer periods of time before other law enforcement personnel responding from a distance away arrive on scene.

This is not only about officers being personally imperiled; the fact that law enforcement personnel carry loaded firearms and other weapons makes it in everybody's best interest that those weapons not fall into the hands of a criminal.

It would be a mistake to discuss this issue solely in the context of assisting law enforcement personnel as they carry out their duties in critical situations; in the broader sense this is about helping your fellow human. Last month, a security camera caught footage of a toddler being struck by two vehicles and lay bleeding in the street as about a dozen people passed by and did absolutely nothing. The child was finally picked up by someone but sadly, she died a week later. There are other occasions when people do the right thing, as was the case several months ago in Utah, when a group of bystanders all worked together (along with one police officer) to physically lift a vehicle in order to free a motorcyclist who was pinned underneath the wreckage of a burning car.

Generally speaking, when a police officer needs assistance and is able to ask for it, the citizen's role will be clear. It may be that the only help needed is a simple call to 9-1-1, stating the officer's location, a description of what is happening and information about the suspect(s) involved. I do not suggest physically "jumping into" a situation where a suspect is physically resisting arrest and fighting the officer unless specifically called upon by the officer to do so. In a situation when an officer is unable to speak, immobilized or unconscious, those situations suggest that able-bodied bystanders would take action as the circumstances would reasonably dictate. In the years that I have been a police officer, I have seen citizens, time and time again, make the right decisions about when and how to help. It boils down to common sense and a willingness to "get involved."

In summary, the decision to render aid to an officer involves many variables, and in many instances, that decision may be difficult unless the officer is able to specify what he or she needs at that particular moment. When in doubt, the single most important thing a person can do is call 9-1-1. Also, if circumstances permit, you can also ask the officer if you can help in any way.
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