Staying Alert and Cooper's Colors

October 31, 2017

Staying Alert and Cooper's Colors

by Ian D Scofield

Off-duty and overtime shifts tend to be a time we feel we can relax from the constant state of alert that we maintain when on-duty.  That’s natural though, you feel the job has been done and it is time to calm down.  This is true but only to some degree.  But you should always remain vigilant.

An officer in Ohio was recently assaulted while working an off-duty security detail in Ohio.  This detail was in full uniform.  A couple of teenagers came up and assaulted him to get her gun.

There are different states of situational awareness.  Knowing the levels, knowing which one you are in, and taking control of your awareness is crucial.  Especially when you are a law enforcement officer.  Let’s take a look at situational awareness in the form of Cooper’s colors, a color system that allows you to identify what level of awareness you are in.

None or White

The lowest level of situational awareness is white.  White means that your guard is down.  You aren’t paying attention to what is going on around you, and you are completely relaxed.  When you are outside of your own house you should never be in a white.  This means that you are not prepared for any threat, and you could easily be caught by surprise.

Some professionals will also argue that you should not be in white while you are at home.  However, properly preparing your home will allow you to be more relaxed at home.  This includes security cameras and/or a security system, along with planning for should something happens.

You should never be in a white state of situational awareness while in uniform.  Even in the police station, there are multiple different threats that can appear in a station house, from a criminal smuggling a gun in to a deliberate attack on the station.  This has happened in the past.

A good example for many to understand is that the person who is always in the white is the sheep, the one that the sheep dog protects by having an elevated level of situational awareness.

Basic Yellow

Yellow is the lowest level of situational awareness that you should be in when outside of your house.  Those who are in a yellow level of awareness are still relaxed but they are keeping track of what is going on around them.  They know who is close to them and who is watching them.

A good example of yellow is keeping track of your surroundings.  When you enter a restaurant, you should always pick a safe table.  One that allows yourself to see the entrance, limits who can be behind you, and gives you the optimum exit route.  This doesn’t mean that you go overboard, you just try to secure the best option available.  You won’t leave a restaurant just because they don’t have the seat you want.

When an attack comes in yellow, you should not be caught complete unaware.  You should have some idea of where the threat is to come from and what to do.  This doesn’t come from constant planning but from having a set of developed plans of what to do should a situation arise.

Law enforcement officers on duty should never be bellow yellow.

Elevated Orange

Something has set your sense to alert when your mind goes into orange.  You are not quite sure to the nature of the threat, but your radar is trying to pin point it.  Orange could also mean that you have been made aware of a potential threat to your district or jurisdiction but it isn’t a likely threat.

At every contact and incident that you respond to throughout your shift, you should be in a state of elevated orange.  The contact may not be a threat at the moment, but that has the potential to change.  As the academy teaches you, every contact is a fluid situation that can go one way or another.

An important note about going to orange is that you can’t let the rest of your surroundings be minimized for one threat.  You don’t know if once, you have determined a potential threat may exist, another one isn’t out there.  Protests are a good example of this.  Once one person turns a protest violent, the rest are likely to become just as combative.

Orange is the level at which you should be expecting an attack.  The attack may not be imminent, and you might not know its exact nature, but you should be looking for it.  Your vigilance in orange should allow you to detect the attack before it arrives.  In some cases, it is okay to be in orange and have your firearm drawn.

Threat Red

Red is the condition you switch to when a possible concern moves to an active threat.  It does not mean that you are going to start emptying your magazine.  Your response will be in level with the threat.  So if the individual presents you with lethal force, you would respond in kind.

Situational awareness level red means that your threat is now the majority of your focus.  Your training at the academy and post-academy should have prepared you to not get tunnel vision at this point.  This is a high-stress situation where you are focused on a threat so naturally your mind wants to put every last ounce of attention towards said threat.  100% focus on the threat is dangerous, because they could just be masking the approach of another threat.

In red you should already be in a tactical position.  If you are not, you need to start tactically moving towards that position without compromising your personal safety.  A tactical position will depend on your situation but will often include solid cover and/or reducing the ability for threats to come from other directions.

At the red level of awareness, you should be ready to defend yourself mentally.  You should know that should an attack come, you are ready to give it your all.  Red should be your active threat level as a police officer, it should not be the state that you are constantly in.  Being in red all the time will stress you out and make it more likely that an attack will come from somewhere else.

Panic Black

The black level of the Cooper’s Colors does not officially exist.  There are plenty of trainers who have added it in.  In their mindset, black represents a breakdown of the mental system, or a panic attack.  In the black state, you have met the threat but have frozen.

In law enforcement, you should never have the black level used to describe you.  Training at the academy, FTO programs, and continual training are there to prevent you from going to black.  If a police officer reaches black, it usually means that serious injury or death will be involved.  Attending as much training as you can and constant what if’s will allow you to be ready when the moment needs to move to red.

Black can still be used describe other people’s responses to the need to go to red.  For example, if you go to red and there is a witness nearby, do not expect them to join you in red.  Your expectation should be that they are going to go into black.  The average person lacks the proper training to assist you with a threat.


Cooper’s Colors was not developed to make officers or others paranoid.  It was developed to make them observant of their surroundings and to raise their awareness based on all of their senses.  Do not use this color scale to live life on the edge of the trigger.  Use it as another tool in your toolbox to keep you aware and ready.

For some of you, you might not have heard of the color scale before and this will be new and a good chance to learn.  Those that have, use this as a refresher and to help re-instill the importance of situational awareness.  Be safe out there.



About The Author:

Ian is a staff writer at APTI and hospital security officer at a major medical center who has a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice with a Specialization in Administration of Justice.  He has held multiple positions in the security industry from patrol supervisor to auxiliary public safety officer.  At APTI he brings his writing skills to help further the careers of others and provide quality content.  Feel free to visit his freelancing site or his creative writing site.

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