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Columns : In My Sights

Playing the Odds

We take plenty of risks on the job, and we enjoy the thrill of them, but we should make sure that they are calculated risks.

July 01, 2008  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

A venturesome minority will always be eager to get off on their own... let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American.

Idaho Law Review, 1980 

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

Each of us is born with a propensity to take risk. Some have a very low threshold. Others need to stand on the edge of a great precipice with a chute on their back and leap into space. I find myself somewhere in between.

In fact, if you find I am ever killed jumping from a cliff with a parachute, investigate it as a homicide, for I was obviously drugged, dressed in a chute, and tossed off. On the other hand, the great risks of law enforcement I found generally quite exciting and well worth the excitement.

Scientists call this our "risk thermostat" and when we find things are getting too safe for our personal setting we will do little things to turn up the risk like speed up or stand too close to an angry drunk. When we find the right balance of our need for risk with the challenge we face we find a great deal of satisfaction. Some of us hear a little voice in the back of our heads on a traffic stop as we turn on the overheads to pull over that juvenile male in the hot car, and it says, "God, I hope he runs." Broadcast dispatchers claim they can actually hear the smile on the lips of the transmitting officer at the beginning of a pursuit.

The same is true of the thrill and fear we feel entering a building on a silent alarm and the exhilaration of announcing one in custody after a bit of a tussle. We love it; we love the risk, the thrill, the adventure.

The key is not getting too comfortable with the risks we face and seeking more of it when we are already facing a world full of risks. As Patton said, "Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash."

Gamblers know the thrill of risk. But in police work, we can't just blindly place a wager. In police work, we are betting a lot more than next month's car payment on that hot call. So you would think that would keep us sharp as a tack, and we would be balancing all those risks with really great tactics and controlling our actions to give us the edge whenever possible. But as the years go along we tend to take greater and greater risks. At least, I did. And sometimes it takes a smack in the face or some other bad event to remind us of the great risks we take and make us appreciate surviving that next traffic stop or search warrant a lot more.

I wish I could say I always was "the model of officer safety," but I'm human and can tell you many stories of stupid decisions, poorly planned actions, and sheer uncommon luck that have spared me.

I have written of many of my adventures over the last few years in this column, and if anything is obvious from my writing I hope it is this: Law enforcement is a great adventure. It is filled with risks, some seen and many unseen. And I would have chosen no other course in my life.

But I always tried to stack the deck in my favor, to get the backups I needed, to use the tactics I was taught, and practice the skill I would need. In spite of that, I often relaxed too soon, judged the situation under control when it wasn't, and ultimately found myself throwing the dice and just acting to make it through the critical incident.

So here is some homework for you: Remember how dangerous this job is but don't let it stop you from enjoying its adventure.

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