Officers are responding to a report of a workplace domestic. As they approach the business, an angry-looking woman rushes out pushing a stroller with a baby in it. The officers draw down on the woman, separate her from the stroller, and one officer gingerly picks up the now-screaming baby to check the stroller for weapons. The instructor congratulates them on their tactics and concern for officer safety. After all, he says, "She could have had an Uzi hidden under the baby."
Far-fetched? Maybe a little. But as trainers, are we instilling attitudes that keep officers safe on the street or that just kill them in a different way? Too often we hype officers up with "exciting" scenarios which inevitably require shooting or fighting--or worse yet, involve ambushes. No wonder they come out on the street expecting danger around every corner and an Uzi under every baby. But that's necessary, isn't it? We want to instill that survival mindset.
Most officers accept as gospel the notion that hypervigilance is essential to survival on the street. In the words of Kevin Gilmartin, a well-known expert on police psychology, "in the interest of their own safety, officers have to view all encounters as potentially lethal." Seminars and books remind us that no place is safe, no traffic stop is routine, and the most seemingly innocent contact could go south in a heartbeat. As trainers, we want our officers to stay safe, so we train them to use sound tactics, "expect the unexpected" (somebody please tell me how that's possible to do), stay constantly aware of their surroundings, and assume that every person they deal with might want to kill them. Sounds like common sense, right?
While police work is clearly hazardous, hypervigilance exacts it own price. Kevin Gilmartin has studied the effects of constantly staying on the alert, and has shown that it costs officers dearly in emotional survival. We all know that cops have higher rates of alcoholism, higher divorce rates, and higher rates of stress-related illness than the general population. All that goes with the territory--police work is, by nature, stressful. The important thing--and what we train for--is maintaining that constant awareness of potential danger, so you don't wind up crumpled on the pavement in a spreading pool of your own blood. After all, according to the FBI, between 50 and 60 officers are murdered every year in the line of duty. Bad guys with guns are a very real danger.
Sadly, so are good guys with guns.
According to USA Today, some 450 officers have committed suicide in each of the last three years. That estimate may be high--but even if the number is only half as big, that's still four times as many as the bad guys got. Are we focusing our training on developing attitudes that ultimately hurt cops rather than help them survive? If so, can we do something different without jeopardizing officer safety?
What is Hypervigilance?
Most people ignore a great deal of the sensory information bombarding their brains. The technical term for this is "stimulus habituation." Unless something is perceived as clearly dangerous (a speeding car bearing down on you) or unusual (a person dressed as a circus clown standing in an auto parts store), most people's brains automatically screen it out as irrelevant. This ability to ignore what's not important allows us to focus and function normally. In fact, one of the characteristics of autism is the inability to screen out unimportant information.
Because of the potential hazards in law enforcement, police are taught that stimulus habituation (read: complacency) is dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. As a result, police officers learn to keep themselves in a state of constant psychological arousal on the job. As Gilmartin has shown, this psychological state produces predictable physiological changes. These biological effects can cause officers to feel energized and "alive" at work and depressed and exhausted at home. Even at work, the officer may become overreactive to perceived dangers and develop almost paranoid attitudes. Over the long term, this up/down cycle can leave the officer isolated and alienated from family and friends, can lead to ethical compromise or excessive force on the job, and can even result in self-destructive off-duty behavior.