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.
Imagine or Visualize?
Train With Imagination and Emotion