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Mark Clark

Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

A Good Argument for Thinking Some Very Bad Thoughts

Prepping for battle means more than training. It means acknowledging the threat.

March 29, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

I was talking with a fellow retired copper the other day who, like me, grew up in Southern California. He noted that as California usually hovered around the top two or three states in line of duty deaths, it wasn't difficult for him to keep informal tabs on what was happening in his anticipated career.

Such were the reasons that, from an early age, he'd gotten in the habit of playing the "what if...?" game with himself whenever he'd read the details of an officer's death.

He'd ask himself what, if anything, the cop could have done differently. But he also went beyond that, routinely coming up with alternate scenarios involving various twists on the factors in play: The number of cops or bad guys involved...what kind of firearms might be deployed...how the time of day or night might come into play...where he could exploit cover...how he could best direct resources to the affected location...

When he eventually got a job as cop in the Midwest, he continued the practice, and would in the middle of some windshield conference occasionally ask fellow cops how they planned for shootings. Sometimes, their answers took him aback.

"Now, what the hell would you want to talk about that for?" he'd heard more than once. "I don't want to dwell on that kind of thing"

The surprise he felt was matched only by his disappointment. Were there things that all cops hate to think about? Sure. But it never occurred to him that some cops would effectively take an ostrich approach when it came to the prospect of anticipating line of duty shootings.

My own curiosity spiked, I called other cops from throughout the country to see if they'd had similar experiences.

Many had not.

But more than a few had. Some speculated that their peers didn't cater to morbidity. Others chalked the reticence up to a simple lack of imagination. My admittedly limited sampling seemed to reflect it occurring primarily in rural areas. Rarely was any reason offered, but when one was, it often boiled down to one of the following:

"If it's my time, it's my time. I put my trust in the Lord."

"I know what I'm capable of and what I'm not. I don't make it a practice to get in over my head. I'm not going to spin my wheels playing f___ing 'what if' games."

"I have enough faith in my training to do what I need to do when the time comes. No sense worrying about it in the meantime."

I couldn't help but think of the adage, Trust everyone—but cut the cards.

Admittedly, I'm a heathen, and generally not one to speak on matters of religion. But I do recall something about God helping those who help themselves and fortune favoring the prepared.

Training is inarguably one of the most valuable tools we have, and thank God for those who oversee us at the firing range and tactical training.

But training goes beyond that which is communicated to us by those formally tasked with it.

From the moment we first get into the patrol car and feel that low surge adrenaline rush while rolling to our first call, our bodies and minds are continually recalibrating themselves, filing away information that will be put to use in the future.

That much of this is accomplished at unconscious levels doesn't mean that we shouldn't be consciously aware of doing things to further hedge our bets. And among these things I would count thinking about things the average citizen wouldn't.

One of the officers I interviewed for a "Shots Fired" feature made a salient observation. He'd played many rounds of situational mind games, with all manner of different permutations. The one that he hadn't factored was the one that most came to play when the bad stuff hit the rotary oscillator: How he would respond after getting shot.

While he still came out on top, he admitted that he'd wished he had included the prospect in his mental drills.

While acknowledging that some people may be predisposed to ignoring the threats inherent to the job, Don Alwes of the NTOA believes the ostrich approach may be also be reflective of another paradigm—that of the agencies the officers work for.

"My experience is that it varies from department to department and from assignment to assignment. Some departments encourage that tactical mindset. I've been fortunate in working for departments that understood that there is a harsh side to police work occasionally. Most of them encouraged their officers to get their heads screwed on straight.

"But I've seen other departments that really discouraged it. They avoided hiring people who had a tactical mindset. Maybe the officer you're talking about found himself on one of those departments," Alwes says.

And here I thought it was universally understood throughout our profession that when we fail to train, we train for failure.

Could those cops who looked at such questions as morbid merely been regurgitating what'd been fed to them by their employing agencies? I don't know. But I would also argue that there is something to be said for playing "what if...?" games. For contemplating things that we shouldn't otherwise be obligated to in a more civilized world.

By visualizing unsavory situations we help desensitize ourselves to trauma, toughen our minds, and endow ourselves with mental maps of where we're going and how we're going to get there.

But just as we should always envision ourselves coming out on top, we should also have plans in place for those situations wherein our desired plans don't mesh with reality. To that end, we have a forthcoming POLICE feature by Nebraska Sergeant Jeff Baker on taking some initiative in mitigating our loved one's trauma in the aftermath of some tragedy.

Will there always be some segment of our police community that takes an ostrich approach to one of the fundamental threats of our profession: Getting in a shooting?

I'd hate to think so.

Related:

Imagine or Visualize?

Train With Imagination and Emotion

Tags: Mental Training, Officer Psychology, Officer Involved Shootings


Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

steve @ 3/30/2011 10:14 AM

Great article could not help but think about the officers who often roll there eyes or say things like "you should not talk like that" when shooting scenario's or shooting topics are brought up.

Michael @ 3/30/2011 10:33 AM

Excellent article, as usual. I’ve played the ‘what if…’ game since the mid 80’s as a Military Policeman and have played it ever since. Call me “Tackleberry”, (a la the Police Academy movies), a ‘gun nut’ or whatever. I plan on retiring of old age. I just think of my family and that makes all the minor ribbing for having that mindset worth it. Unfortunately many others play the odds. Heck, if we all did that we’d only have a few rounds in our guns and no reloads. And that would be on the days we actually carried the thing! If I want to take a risk with the odds, I’ll buy a lottery ticket. Be safe everyone and take this first step to becoming a “Tackleberry”, it’s better to carry it and not need it, than to need it and not have it! Next step: What if…..?

Mark Tarte @ 3/30/2011 11:51 AM

I played the "what-if" from the academy. Our main RTO was a Marine combat vet from Vietnam and had gone thru the People's Park and Army Induction center riots in Oakland and Berkeley. It is something that EVERY cop should do all the time as well as mentally rob and burglarize businesses and homes in your community. I tell my students today that I robbed banks, liqour stores, burgled homes on every watch. They are a bit taken aback until I tell them it was to see how the crooks do it. Mental preparation is what helps steel us to the inevitability of the violence of the job, not just a range class or a DT class once a year. Great article Dean.

Scott H @ 3/31/2011 2:23 AM

Great article as usual Dean. It's hard to imagine there are such dolts in our line of work who don't "What if" the sh*t out of any situation. I'm not on the ground anymore, but I still "What if" situations for if our aircraft goes down or if I get into an off duty situation, especially with my family present. Bottom line, just like every good boy is taught in the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared!

Ghettocop @ 3/31/2011 10:53 AM

Not "What If"!!! It allows the possibility (and the escape) of the incident not occurring.... When/Then is how you should be thinking... As in....When I walk up on the guy in that black Honda on a traffic stop and he pulls a pistol, THEN I will: draw, fire, move to cover, etc...

Kyle @ 4/13/2011 3:42 PM

Ok, maybe I have not been running in the right circles for the last 14 years...but I have to ask...what is a "windshield conference?" Is it what I think we call "squad parked" where a couple or more cops sit door to door discussing stuff, s**t, and the meaning of life??? I have never heard that term....I like it though

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