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Symptom = Complacency; Disease = ??

The constant lament that this officer or that deputy got hurt or killed because of complacency is a common refrain often applied to an analysis of a video or report of such an event.  The only problem I have is this is about as handy as saying a bullet or car hit the officer and that is how they got hurt.  “The speeding blue car hit the complacent officer at Vine at Olive Streets!”  Okay, what have you learned, what are the lessons, how do we prevent that?

Unfortunately, an analysis that makes learning possible from these terrible events requires a deeper understanding of the root causes of such things as complacency, improper positioning, missed body language, or the myriad other causes of harm to law enforcement personnel.  Many of these problems stem from the disease of “routine.”  How routine affects performance in the long run of anyone in a high risk profession has been the subject of great scrutiny and little result.

Aviation has turned to check lists to mitigate routine’s decrement of performance on pilots but still “human error” is the primary cause of most incidents from “near misses” to fatal crashes.  Oddly, law enforcement has actually done a pretty good job of reining in some the worse symptoms of routine by honestly analyzing officer performance and refreshing our people of the various risks we face.  Police work may only rank twelfth in dangerous occupations; but it is the only one with people actively trying to kill its practitioners!

So how does “Routine” kill us?  How does it create a complacent mindset or bad habits where we fail to do basic safety measures to protect ourselves?  Seeing how it is works shows how it is so effective.  First, routine is invisible; it is the act of doing our day to activities however dangerous.  Second it is unrelenting.  It is a constant pressure relentlessly applied for as long as we do an activity that fails to have some event that contradicts routine’s pressure. 

Our rational mind knows traffic stops are innately dangerous, but our emotional brain begins to relax our all important “pucker” factor as we do stop after stop and always deal with only “yes” people.  Most people don’t realize how critical that emotional component is to safety and when you no longer “feel” the thrill of going into a dangerous situation routine has already begun to degrade your safety! 

The “pucker” is what drives your mind to stay in the immediate “now,” maintaining an awareness of the subject’s hands, the movement of others, positioning, danger cues, gun position relative to the subjects, the need to “quick-peek” a corner and avoid the “fatal funnel!”

Routine takes advantage of our inability to see it diminish our performance.  When we search a building and find no one, we are being taught that alarms are false and searches are safe.  Not at the rational level but the emotional one.  The old principle that “if I do it, I learn it, and if I do it a lot I learn it well!” has a powerful proof in that it doesn’t matter if “it” is good or bad, we learn it well.  Good habit or bad habit, the brain doesn’t perceive either, it just learns through repetition.  If you have searched enough empty buildings I bet you have stopped quick peaking corners, tend to loiter in the fatal funnel and stopped worrying about and, therefore, stopped checking your flashlight batteries or charge.  It isn’t abnormal, you’re human, but it is dangerous and you need to fix it!

Fix what?  Your Risk Thermostat.  That internal drive for sensation is found in every every one of us and in law enforcement officers the setting tends to be damn high to begin with.  Just doing traffic stops is for the chosen ones, when one thinks of the dangers of an active roadway, bystanders, bad actors, and texting drivers!  The well trained officer takes these threats into account and does “balancing behaviors” to mitigate as many of the threats as possible. 

In traffic stop after traffic stop where the threats have not been reinforced the officer begins to stop doing the steps to balance the threats.  The officer is becoming “detrained by routine!”  In video after video we see the affect routine has had on officers with tragic results.  Lackadaisical frisks, bizarre handcuffing techniques, no searches, poor positioning and on and on.  All because routine has taken the “thrill” out of an arrest or a search or a chase, the basic principles of officer safety and training have gone away; making routine the deadliest trainer there is.  It makes your “risk” temperature feel colder so you turn your thermostat up!  You start taking chances by failing to control the risks with our trained behaviors, our good habits.

So how do we counter routine’s constant pressure to stop doing our “balancing behaviors” to mitigate our risks?  First, we need good in-service training using contextual scenarios and great sensation stimulators like simunition or airsoft.  Make sure these are intense, emotional, and safe.  This training is essentially a recharger for the emotional component of safety, putting the “pucker” back in the “factor!”

Also, each of you should regularly watch in-car or body camera action and visualize yourself in the scene.  What would you do when the gun appears, the suspect flees, the deer jumps out, or the shot is fired?  This is refreshing both your rational and emotional brains and helps inoculate you against routine.

I have avoided terms like Limbic, or Parasympathetic, or Cognitive or any of a dozen other terms we don’t remember ten minutes after reading; just remember your brain has a rational drive and an emotional drive, and emotion tends to run the show, so it must be recharged from time to time.  That is why, after the dirtbag jumps out of his car and then tries to whip your fanny and you have applied the “appropriate” force, and placed him in the back of the transport unit take a moment to thank him for the training and stopping the affect of routine!