The Aug. 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, triggered a chain of events that changed how the public perceived law enforcement. The current trend of ill will toward law enforcement by certain segments of the population is a real concern everyone in uniform has to deal with. The days of just dealing with citizens who are angry about a situation they find themselves in are long gone. We now have to deal with some citizens' open hostility.
One of the best strategies we can employ to help overcome and reverse this trend is to maintain our professional standards by calmly responding to highly charged situations instead of reacting to them. There is a real difference between the two, as responding is influenced by training and logic while reacting is guided primarily by emotion.
I am not suggesting that all reactions are bad. We need to hone several types of reactions in order to deal with exigent circumstances, such as an attack. I'm talking about the situations where you have time to make a choice before it escalates into something else. There is a brief window of opportunity that you can exploit to your favor. You need to own your role and not let yourself get sucked into the other person's agenda and the narrative that they follow.
When you react to someone's emotion, you have lost control of the one thing you can control. If you can't control yourself, there is no way you will be able to obtain control of anything else. In order to get ahead of this, you must maintain the initiative and move toward a problem-solving mode.
The main problem with a reaction response is that it is emotionally driven. If you allow yourself to be driven by emotion, you lose focus and torpedo your own efforts for securing your primary objectives. If you react instead of respond, you will most likely fall prey to the narrative instead of helping to write it.
In dynamically charged situations, responding calmly makes more sense because it's guided less by emotion and more by logic. To some, responding this way may seem more passive, but it's quite the opposite. In contrast to merely reacting to someone else's words and actions, responding requires a more active approach that allows you to inject the influence you need to sway the outcome of your interaction in a much more positive way.
When you respond, you are no longer being controlled by the event; you are taking measures to control it. Reacting creates yelling matches; responding creates useful dialogue. I have learned from experience that trying to stop your emotions is counterproductive. The trick is not to stop them but to control what you do with them. It is a lesson that ought to be stressed early in everyone's career. It would save each officer a great deal of controversy and the negativity that comes with it.
The main problem with reacting is that it seldom leads you to the best course of action and outcome. How we look at something defines our actions.
Experience teaches us that with increased anger there is increased animation. As subjects get more energetic in their gestures, there is an increased potential for the officer to misinterpret them. If unchecked, this situation could lead to an escalation resulting in an arrest, and possible use of force where none was originally needed.
When you react you make it personal. By not focusing on the job you are allowing yourself to be controlled by emotion. History shows that allowing your emotions to control you never ends well for the officer.
Here are some suggestions to help you reach a positive outcome:
- Know your buttons. Being human means just that; you are not infallible. Everyone has a button that can be pushed in order to get you to react. Everyone has a bad day where those buttons are more easily accessible. In order to lower the number of bad days, acknowledge what sets you off and be on guard for it. Understand your buttons are used against you and are a proven tactic for someone looking for an emotional response.
- Pause. Understand that every situation is different and there will be times when you don't have to act right away. Take a moment to take inventory, breathe, and take control of the reaction voices screaming in your head to cut loose. Focus instead on what needs to be done and how you are going to meet your objective for the situation.
- Use logic. What separates us from the rest of the animal world is our ability to think things through. Our biology allows us to choose our behaviors before we act them out. It may feel good to cut loose, but will it still feel good when you are in your captain's office being drilled on your choice of language or reaction?
- Learn from history. One of my wife's favorite sayings is, "So, how did that work out for you?" She usually says that when I have reacted to something instead of responding. Look at what you've done in the past. If it didn't turn out well, ask yourself why you are still doing the same things.
- Work on a better response. Since you know what your buttons are, practice your response. Visualization is a proven technique used by champions and warriors alike. Find a way to practice in order to hone your dynamic decision-making skills.
- Stop blaming others. Stop pointing fingers at people and start defining problems so you can be part of the solution. It's easy to get caught up in the fault game, but it does no good in the end. All it does is waste valuable time and fuel emotional reactions. No matter what's going on and who's doing it, you still have to do your part.
- Find middle ground. Move toward middle ground as soon as you can. Stop looking at it from the perspective of "us vs. them." Try to make a connection by saying things like, "Hey, I have kids as well. I don't want anything to happen to them either." Find a way for them to stop looking at your uniform and see you as a person.
You can choose to respond or to react. One keeps you out of the news and one places you right in the middle of it.
Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.