An Uzi Under Every Baby

March 8, 2007
Are we focusing our training on developing attitudes that ultimately hurt cops rather than help them survive?

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.

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.

But we also need to teach them that sustained hypervigilance is dangerous and unnecessary. Just as a single technique does not fit all vehicle contacts, a single mindset--hypervigilance--does not fit all human encounters. We have done very well at teaching officers a range of behaviors to cover a variety of tactical situations, but we have not done as well at teaching them flexible attitudes. As trainers, we have a duty to give our officers all the tools they need to survive. Not every danger is found on the street.

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