FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!

Departments : Best Practices For...

Training Terminology

Some trainers and agencies defeat their officers with words before they ever face a threat.

January 27, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author


There's a concept in psychology called "priming." It means the implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus.

In other words, memory and experiences are important to the way we see the world and how we act in it. I first learned of it while reading "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. And it really applies to law enforcement training.

Priming Experiments

In an evaluation devised by psychologist John Bargh, groups of students were given scrambled letter tests that incorporated specific types of words. Because of how the brain works certain outcomes emerged.

One group of students had words scrambled throughout the test such as "worried," "Florida," "old," "bingo," and "wrinkle." After completing the test, students from this group then walked out of the testing site more slowly than they first walked in. Their brains were using their adaptive unconscious and having thoughts about being old. Because they had subconscious thoughts about being old, the students became more "elderly" in their behavior, even if for just a few moments.

In another Bargh-designed test, two groups of students were subjected to priming experiments. The first group was given scrambled word tests that included words like "aggressively," "bold," "rude," "bother," and "disturb." The second group was given similar tests but incorporating words like "appreciate," "patiently," "yield," "polite," and "courteous."

After completing each test, the participants were given individual instructions to go see the person running the experiment in order to get the next assignment. The students were unaware that as a condition of the test, there would be an associate of the experiment's director blocking the doorway while engaged in conversation with the director.

You can guess what happened. The students primed to be rude waited for an average of five minutes before interrupting the conversation. Out of the students that were primed to be polite, however, 82 percent never interrupted at all.

Let me give you an even simpler example that I tested around my office. I want you to picture shoes or sneakers equipped with Velcro fasteners across the top. What was the first thing that popped up in your mind? How many of you reading this just thought of something along the lines of old people shoes? Did any of you think: "Oh, shoes for anyone that suffers from arthritis and can't use lace-ups anymore?" That's the effects of priming, an association that produces another without conscious thought.

So why then is priming so important to us in law enforcement? I'm glad you asked...

Priming for Combatives

One of the things I pondered while reading "Blink" was this statement: "...we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act-and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment-are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize." If that's true, then maybe we need to look at how we think in general.

We have been primed to fight since being little children. If you don't believe so, then ask yourself these questions:

Why is it that when we are mad enough we clench a fist?

Why is it that when we get into a fight, we have a propensity to throw a punch or try to grab someone and wrestle?

Why do people punch the face and head area when they know it's the strongest and boniest part of the body to hit?

Perhaps because they have watched someone else do it thousands of times on TV or in the movies. What would a good fight scene be without the good guy getting beaten nearly to death but only to rally with a flurry of strikes to the face of his antagonists and win the day?

The Wrong Words

I attended a police combatives instructor course last year where the founder of the system spoke about priming and its effects. During the course, he asked two simple questions: "Why do we call our efforts to obtain control while dealing with violence and aggression "defensive tactics?" And, "Why do we prime ourselves and the public to think that what we do is defensive?" Since we are the responsible party mandated to take control in a violent situation, how exactly is that accomplished "defensively?"

Because the words we use are backward, the six o'clock news is filled with stories of officers who beat the suspects they have arrested. When an officer acts, he is offensive by nature. We have to maintain the high ground. It's very hard to convince people we are doing our jobs when the very terms we use make it sound otherwise.

In a typical law enforcement combatives program, terms like "defend," "block," "countermeasure," and "redirect," are used. This instruction is priming our subconscious with the idea that we must wait for the suspect to attack before we can act. Since action is faster than reaction if we hesitate, we lose. By default a higher level of force is used because we fail to act sooner.

We are never in a fully defensive posture because at some point we have to move in and obtain control. You can't do that with Jedi mind tricks and tell the suspect to handcuff himself. As suggested in the course I attended, we should use words like pre-attack indicators, offensive strategies, immediate control techniques, threat assessments, and response to aggressive and violent resistance. To me, that sounds a lot closer to what we actually do.

Legal Consequences

Let's say you confront a suspect, he runs from you, and you give chase. You catch up to him, command him to stop but he keeps running. You tackle him to the ground, which starts a fight. His goal is to escape or hurt you or both. He goes for your gun because in his mind he is not going to jail, and it's you that stands between him and his freedom. You quickly apply a weapons retention technique while simultaneously pulling out your backup folding knife from your opposite pocket. You cut the suspect several times until he stops fighting, gain control, and handcuff him. Once he is medically cleared, you take him to central booking, and then go back to the office to finish your paperwork.

At some point in the process you will have to justify your actions. This is where we make another mistake. How many agencies use a form that is labeled, "Use of Force Report?" By doing so, we are priming the watchdogs that come after us. A jury is automatically primed to believe the officer has used force in a negative way; otherwise, why would they be hearing the case?

In an effort to help them understand what we actually do, why not label the form, "Response to Aggression and Violence" or "Suspect Aggression Resistance Report?"

An argument can be made that there is only a subtle difference in comparing the two terminologies and therefore it's not significant. That subtle difference however is not so subtle to someone outside of law enforcement, especially while serving on a jury.

Policy Manual Priming

I attended a Florida Department of Law Enforcement training workshop three years ago that included talking about priming but in a different context. This instructor talked about the negative effects of large policy manuals.

We fill pages upon pages with instructions on what we can and can't do. Why not simplify the process and focus on what we can do instead? There is less to remember and it's positive priming. Have you ever been on a call and an officer hesitates to engage? Ever wonder why? Maybe it's because he is going through the litany of things he can't do and becomes afraid of doing the things he can. He is so worried about being sued, suspended, or worse, fired, that he tries to do everything other than what the situation calls for. He is primed by his policy and procedures to believe he is in a bad spot to begin with.

There are a significant number of officers in any agency that are more afraid of being suspended than being hurt by the bad guy. The officer doesn't create this; the priming from his or her agency does.

Positive Priming

Don't get me wrong. Not all priming is bad. Priming can be used in many positive ways as well.

We can use visualization, self-talk, and other known positive reinforcement techniques to prime ourselves to understand the offensive nature of our business and that our primary functions include obtaining control.

But we should choose and use terms that are better at portraying our mission. In doing so, we can facilitate other people's understanding of the violent nature of our business from the four percent of society they don't want to deal with. By using the right terms, we can teach each other and find middle ground. 

Amaury Murgado is the Special Operations Lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired Master Sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 23 years of law enforcement experience, and has been involved with martial arts for 37 years.

 

Tags: Training, Best Practices


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Caleb Schultz @ 1/31/2011 2:18 PM

Excellent article. I think that this information is widely applicable to not only law enforcement, but other public safety agencies as well. The concept is solid, and sensible. I would highly recommend this article, and will be sharing it with my colleagues and fellow officers.

Matt V. @ 2/3/2011 12:17 PM

Mr. Murgado, I can't agree with you more. We [LEO's] have been conditioned since the academy to think defensively instead of offensively and it begins with simple vernacular, like "Defensive Tactics". Action IS ALWAYS faster than reaction. I have recently changed teaching defensive tactics to "Police Combatives". Why in the world should we wait to be assaulted if we observe one or several pre-attack indicators? We must teach our officers to think and act offensively if and when the situation dictates. Our former titled, "Use of Force" report form was changed several years ago to "Response to Resistance and Aggression" which mirrors the principles buttressed in your article. Enjoyable read.

Join the Discussion





POLICE Magazine does not tolerate comments that include profanity, personal attacks or antisocial behavior (such as "spamming" or "trolling"). This and other inappropriate content or material will be removed. We reserve the right to block any user who violates this, including removing all content posted by that user.

Other Recent Stories

Unfair Criticism of U.S. Marshals
Despite a three-year budget freeze and stagnating staff levels, the U.S. Marshals...
How to Use a Pole Camera to Clear an Attic
Known as perhaps the most dangerous "fatal funnel" in police work, police officers...
Police Product Test: Pelican Progear Vault Series iPad Case
The Pelican ProGear Vault Series cases for iPad Air and iPad Mini may be the right...
Williamsburg: Policing Where the Present Meets the Past
A former NYPD cop, Hamilton moved to this quiet Tidewater community more than 15 years ago...
Dealing with Confirmation Bias
One of the biggest things you can do to correct confirmation bias is to try to disprove...

Get Your FREE Trial Issue and Win a Gift! Subscribe Today!
Yes! Please rush me my FREE TRIAL ISSUE of POLICE magazine and FREE Officer Survival Guide with tips and tactics to help me safely get out of 10 different situations.

Just fill in the form to the right and click the button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.

If POLICE does not satisfy you, just write "cancel" on the invoice and send it back. You'll pay nothing, and the FREE issue is yours to keep. If you enjoy POLICE, pay only $25 for a full one-year subscription (12 issues in all). Enjoy a savings of nearly 60% off the cover price!

Offer valid in US only. Outside U.S., click here.
It's easy! Just fill in the form below and click the red button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.
First Name:
Last Name:
Rank:
Agency:
Address:
City:
State:
  
Zip Code:
 
Country:
We respect your privacy. Please let us know if the address provided is your home, as your RANK / AGENCY will not be included on the mailing label.
E-mail Address:

Police Magazine