Can we inoculate officers against the emotional wear and tear of everyday stress as we do against the sudden and immense stress of a deadly-force encounter? I believe we can--and must. We lose twice as many officers to suicide each year as we do to murder. And that's not counting the "slow suicides" of alcoholism and heart disease.
Stress inoculation is not a new idea. It was pioneered in the 1960s by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, and was designed not only to address acute stressors such as officer-involved shootings, but also chronic stressors, such as the nibbled-to-death-by-ducks stress of Mr. Congeniality mouthing off. The classical procedure involves three steps:
- Skill Acquisition and Rehearsal
- Application and Follow-Through
In the conceptualization phase, the individual identifies what specific things trigger stress and how he or she has responded. For example, an officer may find it particularly distressing to be called a racist, and may respond by becoming defensive and trying to persuade his accuser that his actions have nothing to do with race. Part of this phase is to assess how effective one's current coping strategies are. Think of it as the Dr. Phil question, "How's that working for you?" Generally, if your strategy is working, that situation is probably not contributing much to your stress load, but sometimes you have to identify a response and acknowledge its ineffectiveness before you can change it.
Skill Acquisition and Rehearsal
This phase involves figuring out an alternative to what doesn't work and then practicing the new behavior. Sometimes all you have to do is find a different response, but sometimes this phase involves redefining the stressor. To take our previous example, initially, the officer was taking the accusation of racism as a personal attack, and responding defensively. What if instead, the officer comes to see the accusation (assuming it's unwarranted) as a manipulative technique on the part of the suspect, or even the suspect's only means to have any power in the situation? By redefining the accusation, he robs it of its power to wound, because he no longer sees it as a personal attack--so he no longer needs to defend against it with the same emotional charge. Instead, he can find other ways to respond that will deflect the attack and refocus the interaction.
Application and Follow-Through
In the final phase, the person practices applying these new coping skills to progressively more challenging situations. How better to do this (you knew I'd get here eventually) than in scenario-based training? Just as we use scenario-based training to teach officers how to safely navigate the dangers of clearing a building or making a vehicle contact, why can't we also use it to teach them how to respond safely to chronic hostility on the street?
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, activists practiced responding non-violently to verbal and physical assaults. Many of the activists were young and their natural response was to fight if someone attacked them or called them vicious names. They had to be taught a different physical response, and they had to practice it under controlled conditions before they were allowed to participate in the marches.
That approach worked--because the stressors were of short duration. After the march, the marchers would go home (or get bailed out of jail) and return to their normal lives. For police, the stress is our normal lives. We cannot simply tell recruits, "Don't take it personally when someone calls you a name. Be professional." That's like telling the recruit, "Don't worry about killing another human being. Just shoot as you're trained to." Colonel Grossman knows that doesn't work for deadly force--the officer may shoot as trained, but without proper stress inoculation, the officer may not survive intact, even if he or she loses not a single drop of blood. It doesn't work for everyday encounters, either. The officer may use professionally appropriate words, but the non-verbal communication will be clear--and may generate a complaint. And the officer will go home at the end of the shift looking for a good, stiff drink or three to untie the knot in his stomach.