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Killer Habits

Over the years we have tried lists, and videos, and posters and a whole assortment of gimmicks to keep our people safe.  Truth is, almost no one in the law enforcement profession is actually seeking safety.  Crime fighting draws a type of person known as a high sensation, or high risk personality.  Sensation seeking behavior is manifested in many ways in our profession and to go into some of them is to rehash the whole, “you bet your badge,” activity we routinely engage in.

People, who have a “need for speed!” so to speak, are going to be in danger often as they seek a constant input of sensations.  Just look how consistently we find officers who get thrust into light duty assignments due to an injury, illness or other event and then get themselves in trouble by “seeking sensations” in ways that are not acceptable to departmental or other social standards.  So the salient question is:  if we are going to constantly seek risk in our lives shouldn’t our habits, our habituated training, be congruent with that risk?

First, let’s define a habit:  an acquired behavior regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.  The example in my dictionary is:  the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.  Good habit right?  You bet unless you stop processing what is going on in the road that you are about to step into.  Every day tens of thousands of officers step into active roadways for everything from public assists to foot pursuits, so we can say for us looking for traffic on the roadway – really looking and seeing –  is an essential lifesaving habit.

Just because we are sensation seeking types certainly doesn’t mean we are injury or death seeking types.  We like risk, and the activities that go with it, but we aren’t suicidal on the whole (in a later article we will discuss suicide and the Crimefighter).  Risk takers usually seek to overcome a risk when it comes along, and have a high tolerance for what is called “voluntary risk;” that is risks we choose to face.  I have flown next to a lot of warriors that wouldn’t hesitate to be first through a door on a warrant but are “white knuckle” flyers who usually self medicate before, during and after a flight!

When we look at the all too large library of video clips of officers killed and injured we find a common theme.  Bad habits develop in the midst of our high risk activities in spite of the fact that we think this is something that just shouldn’t happen.  Good trainers know we train our essential skills to a “habituated” level…a habit.  We draw our weapons without conscious thought when the “cue” to do so is present.  The visual stimulus of a knife or gun or other weapon is all that is needed to cause a well trained law enforcement officer to seemingly produce a firearm as a magician does a rabbit.

The cry “gun” on a many a video is the final coherent word many a bad guy hears as an officer or deputy perceives and then ends an armed confrontation in a matter of a few seconds.  Stimulus leads to a habituated routine or habit and in the vast majority of instances it is a good thing and we win.

But time and again as we watch officers get injured or killed on video, we see one “bad habit” after the other.  Loitering between vehicles, hands in pockets, looking away from problem areas, letting subjects stand close, or leave their hands in their pockets and on and on.  Where the heck do such habits come from?  It is time as people in a high risk profession, filled with high sensation seekers, that we nip this in the bud and reinforce the good habits that our training gave us to begin with.

To do this we need to understand even more about habits, and recognize that they give us a result each time we do them.  Winning an armed confrontation is a powerfully satisfying and emotional reward, but day to day diligence in an interaction with a “yes” person just leaves us tired.  Searching an empty building like it is filled with deadly ninja killers keeps you safe but has a toll in the end.  Thus, so many “good” habits are actually punished by stress and fatigue, while bad habits such as relaxing too soon or just letting a subject stand there with their hands in their pockets lower the intensity with “yes” people.

Remember freshman psychology.  Operant behavior was one of the fun subjects you studied; it covered the effects of positive and negative reinforcement on rats and pigeons and even other students.  But too often the power of the third feedback mechanism is not appreciated enough, the power of punishment…the zap of an electrical charge, for instance.

Punishment is a behavior extinguisher; it eliminates behavior altogether regardless of whether it is good or bad.  All those really good habits we trained to have in the academy are constantly under assault by little micro-punishments, micro-zaps, while bad habits often have neutral or even positive reinforcements.

So fifteen years out of the academy how many bad habits do you have as opposed to good ones?  Tragically, many of our key habits for survival aren’t tried until an actual battlefield test is administered by a dirt bag or other critical circumstance; so two things have to be constantly going on in our high risk culture, training and feedback.  If we are going to overcome the effects of routine and “yes” people on our safety we need to both mentally and physically refresh our skills.

Practice makes permanent so make sure your reps rehearse what you want to do in a crisis; remember “perfect practice makes perfect.”  The other element of long term success and good habit is feedback.  It is the cheese at the end of the maze or the shock when the wrong switch is thrown.  It is the sergeants and FTOs who are the essential keys here and it is vital that supervisors know that their job is ensuring organizational goals are met; this includes officer safety which requires extinguishing bad habits!  If your folks are positioned between cars, letting subjects crowd them, or standing with their hands in their pockets…Zap!