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Perspectives for a Dangerous World

The headline felt like a body blow.

Eleven US Officers Shot in 24 Hours is bad enough; we knew there had been a spate of officers shot lately, having seen story after story from around the country, but to see the tally in print was still a shock. Eleven law enforcement officers shot in one 24-hour period, and two dead, was bad enough. It was what followed in the Associated Press story, posted on Tuesday morning, which was the most distressing revelation of just how deadly this year has been for law enforcement: So far in January, 14 officers have been killed in the line of duty was the offending sentence; a true sentence, but one that still assaulted the senses. Sadly, by the end of January, another police officer and two correctional officers died in the line of duty, with two of the deaths resulting from felonious assaults.

We thought 2011 was supposed to be a better year. We hoped bloody 2010 was an aberration and 2011 would see a marked decline in LODD deaths. So far, that has not been the case and already in February the number has grown by two with several more receiving non-fatal wounds. That of the nineteen officers killed this year twelve have been murdered by gunfire or other deliberate attack - acts done with the intention to kill - and there are currently many other officers recovering from nonfatal gunshot wounds sustained since January 1st, and many more who have been fired on but escaped injury, we really do wonder if there is, as some have said, an undeclared war on cops.

There is really no way to tell just yet if the violence is representative of some new paradigm adopted by criminals and crackpots for confrontations with the police, or if it is merely a terrible anomalous spike that will eventually flatten out. There is no shortage of speculation about why we are seeing brother and sister officers gunned down at such a rate. Does media coverage of one killing embolden the next shooter to respond copycat style? Are fears and frustrations born of the lingering recession pushing some past the edge of rationality? Do some folks take distrust of the government to an extreme place in their brain, baste it in the rhetoric of their favorite talking heads, wildly distort the intent of the ideas, and lash out at the most visible symbols of government authority - law enforcement? Are there more severely mentally ill and dangerously violent people wandering about than ever before, for whatever reason? Or does it have to do with growing deficits in the number of officers working the streets, equipment, training, morale, or execution? The jury is still out - maybe it is a little of everything above and more - but the Justice Department is preparing a study of the phenomenon. From that, perhaps we can better tailor how we conduct ourselves to enhance safety.

For now, you must focus on what can be done, individually and together, to keep yourselves physically and psychologically safe. You know, or should know, what to do to refresh and hone your tactics on the street. Now is a good time for a self-assessment of how you do everything, from alarms to traffic stops to high-risk arrests, with the focus on never allowing complacency to gain traction. In this article, we will focus on staying mentally and psychologically sound in the wake of these tragic stories. It is normal for cops to be emotionally impacted by the onslaught of reports, as an attack on one officer is felt as an attack on all.

Maintaining emotional balance can be made easier by staying focused on the following principles:

Be vigilant without being paranoid

There are a lot of people who distrust or dislike - maybe even outright hate - the police and what law enforcement represents to them. Most would never dream of actually trying to hurt you; their disdain for law enforcement stops short of wishing harm on another. Of course, there are a smaller number who might actually wish harm on you, or feel that if a cop is hurt or killed it was a deserved fate. Still, they would be unlikely to preemptively act out their contempt. They are still sheep, even if angry sheep! Stay wary of such sheep, for even the most docile may bite or kick if panicked or backed into a corner. Then there is the far fewer, but considerably more dangerous, individuals who would lash out and attack a cop without hesitation.

Unfortunately, when you are dealing with an unknown subject for the first there is really no sure way to know into which category they fall. Unless you are supernaturally perceptive, those who love and respect you for the work you do look an awful lot like the haters. Do this job long enough and you will come to know a number of rough-looking, tatted up pussycats that hold you in the highest regard, and also some well-coifed, but hair-triggered, soccer mom types who will throw down at the slightest provocation. Profiling whackos is an inexact science!

Stay vigilant. Remember that past encounters are not always reliable indicators of future behavior, and unknown variables can push folks past the edge of sanity with little warning. Have a plan (and at least of couple backup options for when the first plan goes awry) to overcome any threat or attack. Remember the most important thing you do each workday is go home at the end of it.

Do not fall victim to the unharnessed fear borne of paranoia. The kind of fear that may keep you alive but hinder how you live, that paralyzes good actions for worry about what might happen but fuels overreaction when it actually does, and that widens the chasm between citizen and cop.

Be pragmatic without being cynical

The pragmatic cop knows to never underestimate even the simplest traffic stop, for a deadly assault can come from the most unlikely people and for the slightest reason. The cynical cop knows everyone, on every stop, is just looking for the perfect opening to attack!

Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole there, but you get the point. A little bit of skeptical cynicism comes with time on the job, and is important for personal and professional survival. Too much cynicism, and of the kind that fosters universal distrust of nearly everyone you meet who is not a fellow cop (and at least 2/3 of those who are), may be very dangerous itself in terms of psychological and even long-term physical harm to an individual.

Excessive cynicism can easily lead down a path where the officer dons blinders that allow focus to fall only on evil, chicanery, and human stupidity. In time the officers who take this path begin to see virtually all people as either inherently dangerous or beyond redemption. The pragmatic cop, however, is able to see the dichotomy that is in all persons and law enforcement's role serving and protecting this often frustrating public, and do it with healthy good humor.

Maintain a healthy perspective

While never forgetting there are some people who hate you, remember that the overwhelming majority do not.

In 2006, I was in the funeral procession of an Illinois State Police Sergeant who was not only a fellow officer, but an old friend and fraternity brother. He had been killed in a traffic crash and was being laid to rest in the city he had lived and worked most of his life. As we drove to the cemetery I was overwhelmed by the countless people who came out to stand in a frigid rain to pay their own respects. An all-age, multiethnic crowd lined the route. Several held flags, others held their hand over their hearts or saluted, and many were clearly shedding tears. As our procession made its way cars traveling the opposite direction pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the road and many drivers got out of their cars and, like so many others, stood in the rain to pay respect.

Since then, I have lost two friends from my own department suddenly to heart disease. The public response was one of heartfelt sympathy and sharing in our loss, and testaments to their character - even from some whom they had once arrested.

The haters are the minority. They just create the greatest ruckus.

Remember those who suffer the Silent Pain brought by these deaths

The silent pain is how Althea describes the pain felt by the husbands and wives, parents, children, and friends of cops everywhere. Unlike most citizens who are so wrapped up in their own busy lives, and who probably only take note of the current violence against cops if it happens to one of their community's officers, this is a group who may not wear the badge but loves someone who does. They follow the stories, cry at the newscasts of another lost, check out the police websites, go to the shift parties, and learn to care about those their loved one calls brothers and sisters.

They also worry.

Stay safe for them. Accept their gifts of support and concern, and offer them yours. Help each other stay grounded, and keep perspective.

Stay safe, keep having fun, and remember... NOT TODAY!! Not on this shift, not on this call, not on this stop! I will not be caught unaware!!