Turning Tragedy into Victory: Lessons Learned from Cops Who Have Fallen Enforcing the Law
Lawrence N. Blum, Ph.D.
After participating in too many memorial ceremonies for peace officers, I have come to believe that if surviving officers truly want to honor those who have fallen in the line of duty, then they must learn the important lessons that come from their experiences and commit themselves to the quest for mastery in law enforcement: to turn tragedy into victory.
In 2000, I wrote Force Under Pressure: How Cops Live and Why They Die (Lantern Books, 2000) as an effort to change law enforcement's historic avoidance of the psychology of the peace officer. Officers' lack of knowledge and skill in controlling the stress of the moment has increased their risk of being killed or assaulted, or making mistakes that cost them dearly in career or family relationships. In those cases, how much or how little they knew about tactics and procedure did not matter. What mattered was whether they were able to control what their brain and body did in a moment of crisis.
Since the time of writing Force Under Pressure, I became more and more concerned that, with all the knowledge possessed by law enforcement trainers, and all the research done that have documented the factors that compromised officers' tactical performance, nothing really has improved in the area of officer safety and survival.
A recent transmission of the Force Science Institute's Newsletter quoted the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, noting that, "At the end of June (2011), total duty-related fatalities in the U.S. are up 8% compared to the same time last year, according to preliminary figures from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Officer murders from gunfire are spiking an alarming 38% increase. If trends hold through the second half of the year, we could see the worst annual toll in a decade" (Force Science Institute Newsletter, Number 187, 2011).
The first decade of the twenty-first century was replete with articles, books, and seminars that discussed law enforcement training and safety issues; and saw several attempts at realistic training that made at least some reference to the fact that peace officers' exposure to high levels of stress exerted a degrading or disrupting influence upon their perception, decision making, and tactical performance. However, written knowledge of the subject and the groundbreaking research performed, for example, by the Force Science Institute (Lewinski, 2007; 2009; 2010) have been largely ignored in most police training efforts.
The assumption continues to be made that once an officer has been taught tactical principles and practices, he or she should be expected to perform them properly no matter what conditions they encounter. While verbal and written references are made to attitude and "stress" as important elements to be considered, the dynamics of officers' reactions to the stress of the moment has remained a "black hole" that is generally left out of after-action reports.
Whereas Force Under Pressure contained a discussion of the importance of the mind in police work, Turning Tragedy into Victory will identify pitfalls, errors, and traps that are created when officers lose control over how their brains and bodies react to unexpected crisis moments. The book contains information that will explain why and how this lack of control occurs and provides mental, emotional, and behavioral control tools that have proven highly effective at enhancing officers' performance; reducing the chance of officers making a catastrophic mental, emotional, and/or tactical error; and increasing the viability of their health and well-being.
In the pages that follow, incidents are presented where officers suffered serious harm in some way. Their stories also describe the struggles they went through to recover from these wounds. Few who have not been shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, or damaged in a traffic collision can truly comprehend the strength, will, and stamina it took for them to make it back to work as a cop. With one exception (Johannes Mehserle of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department), actual names are not used in this book.
I hope and expect that the reader will not interpret the discussion of these officers' experiences as being critical of those whose stories fill these pages—they are not. But there are important lessons to be learned from what these law enforcers experienced, and communicating those lessons is why I wrote this book.
The primary objective of the book is to integrate law enforcement's knowledge of how to perform effective tactical responses to threat with skills in controlling how officers' brains and bodies react to high levels of stress and crisis exposure. It is within the moment that they are confronted with unanticipated, rapidly changing, or chaotic stress that errors are most likely to be made—actions undertaken that cannot be taken back.
It is not my intent to try to include all of the possible situations in which bad things can happen in law enforcement. The officers who were interviewed for this book were generous enough to share openly their experiences and private pain with people they don't even know. Their message was simple and direct: "Tell other cops how it happened, Doc. I don't want them to have to go through the hell that I've been through."
It is true that some of the bad things that happen in law enforcement are unavoidable. There is always the chance that someone waits in ambush for peace officers and shoots or stabs them without any warning, and without any chance for officers to defend themselves. However, it is also true that most of the damage done to peace officers' lives and careers can be prevented.
In the eleven years since I wrote Force Under Pressure a new generation of peace officers has taken the reins in law enforcement. They are equipped with a more advanced technology and powerful information, surveillance, and communication systems to assist them in the performance of their work.
However, the increases in technology have not prevented peace officers from being assaulted and killed at a rate that must one day become unacceptable in a civilized society that prides itself on high moral values. From 2000 to 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that 536 American peace officers were murdered in the course of duty. During the same period of time, a greater number, 728 peace officers, were killed in traffic collisions. An average of over 54,000 officers each year were assaulted during this same time period (Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2009).
There Is No Such Thing as Friendly Fire
A police officer was killed a number of years ago during a SWAT operation in the Southwest. The event underscored the terrible damage that can be done when an officer's level of internal excitation gets so "jacked up" that the actions they take in a tactical encounter are performed without thought, judgment, or self-regulation.
At that time, as is the case with many law enforcement agencies, being a member of a SWAT team was not a full-time assignment. Officers were occupied with other duties until a call came for the team to be mobilized. Members of the team then had to shift their work orientation from patrol and detective functions to special operations that required substantially different actions and procedures than their primary duties.
SWAT teams from a number of police departments were assisting in the arrest of a dangerous fugitive. One of the locations involved in the search was a two-story residence where the suspect was known to have resided.
The SWAT team that was to search that location was made up of skilled veteran police officers that had ultimate confidence in their ability—to the point that, when they observed another team slowly going through a walk-through rehearsal with the plan they had for their assigned function, they pointed at the rehearsing team and laughed, saying, "Look at those guys." Their laughter was soon to be extinguished, however.
The officer who was killed was the newest member of the SWAT team. He was a "hard charger," wanting very much to be given the number-one position on the entry team. He asked the team leader and was granted his request. The team entered the residence and began to clear all areas of the first floor.
After the first floor was searched and cleared, preparations were made to search the second floor. In the plan they decided upon, the officer in the first position had the task of deploying a "flash/bang" grenade and throwing it up the stairs. The blinding light and concussive explosion of the "flash/bang" was intended to disorient the suspect and allow the entry team to get up the stairs and deploy in positions of advantage.
The new SWAT officer was "amped" by the opportunity to take such an active role in his team's operation. His level of excitement was such that, instead of throwing the grenade to the second story and waiting downstairs for the grenade to detonate, he tossed the grenade and immediately rushed up the stairs behind it. It was as if he were trying to race the grenade up the stairs.
Because of the positions they took, and with the intense and rapid movement up the stairs that occurred, the rest of the team had no idea that the officer had rushed upstairs without waiting and without communicating to anyone what he was doing.
One of the other officers on the entry team was now at the top of the stairs on the second-story landing, and was beginning the process of clearing the upstairs bedrooms when he observed a figure walking through the heavy smoke out of one of the rooms, carrying an assault rifle.
There was no way for this officer to know that the figure walking from the room was the young officer whose excitation had triggered his totally unpredictable behavior. In the stress of the moment, that officer, who expected to see a suspect under these conditions, fired at the figure, and the young, overly exuberant SWAT officer was killed. The officers on that SWAT team had a tragic education that day: there is no such thing as friendly fire.
One of the changes made by the grieving police department was assigning officers to the SWAT team on a full-time basis. They learned the importance of walking through and rehearsing each step involved in warrant service, and took their subsequent training with a great deal more seriousness than they had performed when their expectation was that such a tragedy was "not going to happen to us." They still feel the pain of that education several years later.
Because of mandated training content in areas such as ethics, sexual harassment, and cultural diversity—as well as fears that administrators and risk managers have of officers making claims that they were injured in training—most of the officers I have spoken with reported that they trained in a manner that replicated life-threatening conditions about once every one to two years. Only a small number of law enforcement agencies faced the risk of possible I.O.D. (injured on duty) claims from classes that, for example, included sparring or fighting on the ground in order to build proficiency, skill, confidence, and stamina in reacting to lethal levels of threat. In this time of shrinking budgets, the amount of realistic training and preparation for the field or institution has been further reduced.
I was called to help with the aftermath of the murder of a peace officer twenty-six times in the thirty-one years I've spent working with peace officers. I treated or spoke with a great many more officers who were shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned as well. It was difficult to listen to or read the after-incident reports that spoke of what the wounded or murdered officers "could have or should have done differently" that might have prevented the harm that was done. They never spoke about, nor asked, however, why the victim officer had made the judgment, or took the action that placed him or her at a greater risk of disadvantage, harm, or defeat.
Was their response to the threat they faced based upon purposeful, controlled mental activity and decision-making? Or were they so driven by a sense of urgency to close in on and seize control of a suspect that they were drawn into a position of danger from which they could not escape?
Did they expect that, because they had had successful contacts in the past with "situations like this," that this contact this time was going to go the same way? Did they fall into a trap when the conditions turned out to be different and they weren't mentally prepared for it?
Other than the pain that was caused by these harmful, often tragic events, I was struck most by statements made by a majority of the wounded officers with whom I had spoken. They told me that, prior to their contact with the suspect who had harmed them, they had experienced an uncomfortable feeling or sense that "there was something wrong with this picture."
Many of those who serve in law enforcement are in the habit of "gutting through" and paying no attention to internal feelings of concern, uneasiness, or dread about a contact they are about to make. They get into the habit of ignoring feelings of alarm, anxiety, or discomfort, because such reactions are widely viewed in law enforcement as a weakness to be avoided.
They continue at times to use the same tactics they began with, even though some (subconscious) part of their mind and memory senses that those tactics would no longer be viable. Or they remain momentarily frozen in a static, stationary position that increases the danger to them, even though their "gut feeling" is communicating to them that they are in a position of disadvantage and need to move.
The danger to new officers is that they have yet to gain the confidence to listen to their "gut feelings" about something being wrong at a particular scene. The danger to experienced officers is that they may have started to operate on a type of "automatic pilot"; not concentrating upon the current conditions, but instead performing the habitual ways they had worked in the past regardless of the here-and-now conditions (sometimes referred to as complacency or working with "your head up your ass").
Victim officers often acknowledged that they had formed an expectation—that is, a pre-judgment—about the conditions they were about to encounter. Their mind retrieved a memory of similar incidents they encountered in the past and had successfully resolved. Their conscious thoughts were along the lines of, "Oh, it's going to be one of these."
They retrieved these incidents from memory because it made them feel more comfortable and free of the tension and anxiety officers can feel when they approach unknown conditions. Having an expectation of what they would encounter allowed them to feel more in control and confident in their approach. When the actual encounter was different from what they expected, however, they were unable to shift their approach and tactics quickly enough to prevent an assault against them.
Without training and practice to the contrary, the human brain is "wired" to react to unanticipated threat with survival-oriented, instinctive and reflex actions—and not under the conscious control of the individual performing them. During these moments, officers may not be able to apply necessary self-regulation to perform the tactics that they knew or had been trained in, but which were inaccessible to them due to mental, emotional, and behavioral disruption caused by their brain's uncontrolled response to high levels of threat.
Fight, Flight, and Freeze
After eight years of exemplary police work in a large urban police department in the Southwest, Mark, an experienced and talented police officer, decided to move his family to a suburban community that was far from the high crime activity he was used to. When he first saw his new neighborhood, he joked with his young wife that they had found the real "Mayberry R.F.D." He told her that his biggest task here would be to adjust to the slower pace at his new department. On the day that he was killed, his son was nine months old.
The call received by the police dispatcher came from an employee of an insurance agency. She reported that one of their clients, a resident of the city, was threatening to kill himself. The dispatcher broadcast the call as a possible suicide attempt using pills and alcohol.
It would be logical with this information for responding officers to expect that this subject would be sedated, unconscious, or expired by the time they arrived at the residence. For some unknown reason, the dispatcher did not broadcast the fact that there had been previous police contacts at this address for shots-fired calls.
The plan that was developed had Mark in the rear of the residence just inside the cinder block wall that formed the property boundaries. He was watching the sliding glass door that opened to the rear patio. A sergeant who had been promoted four days earlier was just outside the wall.
Mark was feeling extremely uncomfortable. He had no real cover or concealment in his position, and felt vulnerable where he was. He turned to the new sergeant and said, "My position here stinks." But he remained still in that uncomfortable position for a moment too long. He was shot and killed by the individual that had threatened suicide, who then turned the gun on himself.
I visited his young widow and nine-month-old son. The widow told me that they called their son "Bubba," and that he closely resembled the father he would never know.
When an officer experiences a feeling of acute discomfort that "something is wrong with this picture," their brain is telling them that they are in a position of disadvantage. Why remain in it? The problem is that there is a strong, instinctive tendency for human beings to temporarily remain in a stationary, static position when they are startled (referred to as "stasis"). This is the behavior that is described by the word "freeze."
But movement away from a compromised position must be conscious and purposeful to overcome the brain's tendency to maintain the individual in stasis due to the shock experienced when it feels unexpectedly threatened, or when a survival-oriented instinct initiates an impulsive, defensive, or withdrawn rather than strategic action.
There is a haunting scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan where a cowardly soldier cowers on the staircase, avoiding the room where an American ranger is in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier. The film shows the aggressive and violent sights and sounds of mortal combat. The American ranger is yelling, growling, and fighting up until the point that the German soldier says something to him.
Then we see the American soldier suddenly stop fighting. In a plaintive-sounding voice, he asks the German soldier, "What did that mean? What did that mean?" He has suddenly and completely stopped all aggression. The extreme effort that characterized his earlier fighting efforts has been extinguished by some apparent need he triggered to "make it stop." The German soldier shushes him, and slowly stabs the American soldier to death with his bayonet.
Officers' expectations—prior to having to fight for their life—that they will not behave in a flight, freeze, or passive way to a lethal threat may not be accurate in those instances where they feel a loss of control over the circumstances they have encountered. The mind will not do what an officer hopes it will do in response to an unexpected lethal threat; it will do what that officer has trained and conditioned it to do over hundreds of repetitions of rehearsal practice.
I teach a class called I've Been Shot! Maintaining the Will to Survive for officers after they have been shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned. A major purpose of the class is to inoculate peace officers against the danger of inadvertently experiencing a psychology of defeat when they face what may seem to them to be an overwhelming threat. The term "psychology of defeat" refers to a perception by an individual that "this is too much for me . . . I wasn't ready for this . . . this wasn't supposed to happen. . . ."
As will be discussed later in greater detail, peace officers must, in order to prevent the possibility of a defeatist reaction to an attack against them, engage in continual activities that form victorious habits well before a dangerous contact is faced—that is, performing the purposeful acts of will that prevent their brains from believing that they may not be capable of dealing with the threat in front of them. The purpose here is to prevent any defensive, indecisive, passive, avoidant, or withdrawal behaviors when the threat confronting the officer requires decisive, aggressive, violent action for them to survive.
If officers are not made confident in their ability to manage conditions that replicate those found in the field, or are not given sufficient repetitions of practice, one cannot expect them to attain peak performance in the tasks necessary to achieve safety and proper control of a scene. Some aspect of the officer's tactical response will be compromised, and resistive or assaultive subjects will gain greater initiative control within the encounter (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 1998).
There is a quote from Vince Lombardi, the coach emeritus of the Green Bay Packers, that exemplifies the importance of the drive to mastery in one's endeavors (his quote leaves out the female gender, which should be included by the reader): "I firmly believe that any man's finest hours—his greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear—is that moment when he has worked his heart out in good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle—victorious."
To achieve mastery and excellence in one's life and one's career, however, "just doing okay" or "just passing" cannot be permitted to be acceptable standards for how one works and lives. Peace officers will one day arrive at a fork in the road where they must decide for themselves: "How good is good enough for me? How strong, worthwhile, and victorious do I want my life to be?"
It should become unacceptable in law enforcement organizations to have to wait for more officers to be harmed, ruined, or killed because no one ever trained them how to effectively manage and control their immediate reaction to stressful events.
Tactical principles and officer safety procedures exist to provide peace officers with the advantage over dangerous or disturbed people and situations. They are designed to prevent a successful assault against peace officers. Sometimes, however, an officer's sense of urgency to act—in other words, "the zeal to do the deal"—violates those principles. When in hot pursuit of a suspect, or during undercover narcotics activities, for example, violations of officer safety occur that drastically increase the risk of harm.
Although police officers are provided with tools and taught procedures with the expectation that they will be proficient and controlled in their use, it is rare for a law enforcement agency to provide its officers with proficiency in the use of mental controls to ensure that the individual responds to threat with accurate perceptions, effective judgment, critical decision-making, and strategic actions appropriate to circumstance.
I believe that it is critical for peace officers to learn and practice the tools that will ensure a strategic, rather than impulsive or delayed reaction to threat. In addition, mental processes must be learned and conditioned by officers so that they can be provided with the ability to mitigate the harm to their health caused by traumatic events.
By habituating themselves to the use of conscious mental controls during times of duress, officers will add to and alter the nerve connections in their brains and form habits that prevent them from losing control when the "Oh, shit!" moments of law enforcement occur.
The fact that peace officers' contact with continuing stress exposure and trauma causes physical and emotional injury has been documented in several studies (see Violanti et al., 1986; van der Kolk et al., 1988, 1991; Blum, 1998). That is, there is a physical and emotional price that peace officers pay because of inescapable and damaging conditions they encounter in the course of their work. Rarely, however, are peace officers prepared psychologically for traumatic events and stress exposure, and so do not minimize and extinguish the harmful impact of these work conditions.
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