Interestingly, the "Steps Leading to Suicide" listed on the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation website mirror many of the negative effects of hypervigilance.
Is Hypervigilance Necessary?
Police work is dangerous, no doubt about it. While it's not the most dangerous job in the world (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), it is unlike other dangerous occupations because in law enforcement a significant percentage of on-the-job deaths are a result of intentional assaults. Why in the world would anyone suggest that hypervigilance is not necessary if people are out to kill you? That's not paranoia, that's rational concern.
The fact is, while some people are indeed out to kill us, most are not. Every year, 50-60 officers are killed, it's true, but that's out of literally millions of contacts. There are some 675,000 sworn officers in the United States. Each officer makes contact with hundreds--sometimes thousands--of people each year. The vast majority of these contacts are benign.
Those few people who are out to kill us are also not distributed randomly throughout the population. A look at the FBI statistics on Officers Killed and Assaulted shows that cop killers are almost always males with previous arrests and criminal convictions. In fact, from 1996-2005, of the 662 individuals identified as having killed an officer, 652 were male. Almost 80% had previous arrests and almost 60% had prior criminal convictions. Could the woman at the beginning of this article have had an Uzi hidden under the baby that she planned to use on officers? Absolutely. Is it likely? Statistically speaking, it is very unlikely indeed.
Does it make sense to teach officers to remain hypervigilant at all times, when we know that to do so puts them at a risk of death by suicide that is several times greater than their risk of death from assault?
What's the Alternative?
The usual suggestion for how to deal with the bad effects of hypervigilance is to take care to maintain relationships outside the law enforcement circle, to engage in healthy stress-reduction activities such as aerobic exercise, and to plan for activities and events to strengthen family life. In other words, maintain the hypervigilance, but take steps to mitigate its damage.
Rather than managing the bad effects of hypervigilance, is there a way to avoid it in the first place, but without compromising safety? I believe there is, and that scenario-based training is key to making it work--because scenario-based training engages all three learning domains: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. Scenario-based training is an ideal arena for training both good tactics and healthy attitudes.
Why have officer deaths from assaults remained relatively constant over the last decades despite a growing population? Is it because of officers' more vigilant attitudes (affective domain) or their safer behaviors (psychomotor domain)? We have learned a lot about the behaviors that keep us safe. Most of us wear ballistic vests. We use distance and positioning to better protect ourselves from sudden assaults. We make passenger-side approaches to vehicles. We wait for back up rather than wading solo into the middle of a bar fight. We have come to use SWAT teams for a variety of high-risk calls that twenty years ago would have been standard fare for patrol officers--sometimes with tragic results. As trainers, we have done a good job of teaching our officers how to stand, how to move, how to use cover, and how to disengage (without feeling cowardly) when the situation cannot immediately be controlled.
These behaviors do not depend on hypervigilance. To make an analogy, safe gun handling does not depend on your perception of danger from a particular weapon--it depends on religiously following the behaviors dictated by the rules of firearm safety. Similarly, using sound tactics every single time you contact a citizen will go a long way to prevent assaults. Whether the person is dangerous or not, if you follow the right behaviors, you have maximized your safety. We need to teach officers to use proper tactics whether they are interviewing a witness or arresting a person on a felony warrant.