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Back to Archives | Back to July 2004 Contents 

Why Things Go Wrong in Police Work

By Lawrence N. Blum, Ph.D., Police Psychologist, Los Alamitos, California, and Joseph M. Polisar, IACP President and Chief of Police, Garden Grove, California

Police executives face the consequences of mental and tactical mistakes made by police officers during difficult events. Accurate judgment and effective decision making by police officers under stressful conditions—two of the most important elements in successful police performance—are highly perishable skills that are degraded rapidly in the absence of ongoing training and practice. This article discusses the causes of police officer mental or tactical error under conditions of stress and offers police executives tools they can use to fulfill the promise of excellence in law enforcement.

Leadership Strategies

  • Programs to train the trainers (field training officers and supervisors) in tactical decision making under stress can help eliminate many of the errors made in the field by teaching all personnel how to control their judgment and decision making under crisis conditions.
  • An ongoing and permanent system to train all agency personnel in stress-exposure management can help prevent stress reactions and posttraumatic stress disorder in police officers and executives.
  • Programs in peak performance and mastery training for command personnel, supervisors, and line personnel can help police officials develop an environment where all agency employees drive toward excellence in the performance of their duties.
  • To ensure that every employee has the necessary skills to manage crisis incidents and extraordinary events, supervisors and trainers should emphasize adaptive expertise, which allows for the immediate recognition that a change in tactics is required by changes in the conditions encountered, and the alteration of tactics in real time.
  • Whereas academy and initial field training typically prepare officers events that are predictable or expected, ongoing training should teach officers and others how to adapt to the unexpected. Officers will then be experts in adapting to both routine and crisis encounters.

  • Mistakes will happen and need to be accepted. The objective is not an organizational culture where officers are not allowed to make mistakes; rather the objective is to learn from the mistakes that occur, and prevent their recurrence.

    Every law enforcement agency faces the possibility that one or more of its officers could engage in police actions that are found to be improper or incorrect. The consequences of these mistakes can be serious. Officer errors have led to the deaths of officers and others. Some have resulted in complaints and lawsuits alleging misuse or abuse of police powers by officers.

    Police executives have not escaped the consequences of things going wrong either. The number of losses among police executives to health problems such as cardiovascular death and disease is high. The stress exposure experienced daily by police executives from political and organizational pressures can be life altering.

    It is obvious to all who serve in law enforcement that today's police officers and sheriff's deputies are under the extreme pressure of scrutiny in the performance of their duties. Indeed, never before have greater-and often conflicting-demands been placed upon those who serve in contemporary law enforcement. The past years of fiscal crises coupled with increased demands for homeland security provisions has further complicated how police officers perform their duties. In today's environment the consequences for error in police performance or executive decision making have become increasingly severe.

    The Decision Process
    Although there are many people who can adjust immediately to situations that are predictable and stable, very few can adapt to unanticipated, rapidly changing, or chaotic high-stress conditions, without some degradation in their performance. Called stress-exposure events, problematic encounters have caused things to go wrong for police officers in the field. Stress-exposure events can result in prolonged posttraumatic stress reactions, physical symptoms, family problems, and a shorter life expectancy for those who serve in law enforcement.

    Unanticipated encounters, by definition, place the officer in a momentary position of disadvantage and can result in a momentary mental shock reaction in the police officer called perceptual lag. Under conditions of imminent, unanticipated, or rapidly changing threat, the spark and fuel for brain activity in the thinking brain is shifted to the reactive brain, to generate the individual's emergency response (fight, flight, or immobility).

    In the moment it takes for police officers to reorient themselves to what they have actually encountered, they are most vulnerable to error or some degradation in their performance. During the unexpected moments of police work, many officers experience a sense of urgency to catch up in order to take control, and may use degrees of force, for example, that are found to be improper or excessive. Still other officers may, in response to the same problematic conditions-for a split-second in time-remain immobile in the face of an imminent threat.

    Rapidly changing conditions require an immediate shift in officer tactics under severe time compression. Rapid change in the conditions an officer faces can result in a mental tunnel vision where the officer is less likely to be capable of adapting to changing conditions in real time. Chaotic conditions often create difficulty for police officers in prioritizing the direction, type, intensity, and pace of the actions they will take to effectively control a scene.

    Most people, when startled or acutely frightened by something, will spend a moment or more in a shocked reaction, not doing much in the way of analytical thinking or purposeful actions. They cannot immediately act upon the situation, because they are first reacting to it. This occurs because intense startle reactions or shock disrupts the part of the brain that analyzes, appraises, thinks, and decides. Think of a 12-cylinder engine in which suddenly only three cylinders are receiving spark and fuel. The engine will sputter and have gaps or lags that degrade its functioning.

    It takes a longer period of time for the brain to register what the eyes are seeing during a perceptual lag event. Unanticipated or uncontrolled conditions may lead officers to take actions outside of department policies because of how the untrained human brain reacts to shock or the perception of imminent threat.

    When a police officer experiences a threat he or she did not expect to encounter, the brain is likely, without specific training, conditioning, and practice, to attempt to countermand it, to react with neurochemical, survival-oriented instinct reactions to the perceived threat, as opposed to strategic, purposeful reactions that are based upon the conditions the officer is facing.

    The management of a police encounter in the field does not occur with the same stable pattern or predictability and controlled rate of tempo found in the classroom. Proficiency in managing rapidly changing, chaotic, or unanticipated incidents will require that officers develop a skill called adaptive expertise. This term refers to the ability of a person to shift tactics and demeanor in real time in order to meet the conditions encountered during unanticipated, rapidly changing, novel, or chaotic conditions, with no loss of mental accuracy or tactical propriety.

    Of course, many situations that officers encounter in responding to a call for service are straightforward in regard to the actions that are required to control the scene or subject. Examples of such a situation would be a consensual contact, arrest or detention, response to a crime-in-progress, felony vehicle stop, search in response to a silent alarm, or controlling traffic. For these situations, the procedures that officers are trained in during the academy and field training programs will normally give the officer success, so long as the officer accurately recognizes what is required of him or her, and has practiced sufficiently so that he or she can successfully apply the relevant skills.

    Unfortunately, those procedures may not be viable in conditions where the officer is faced with a situation he or she has never seen before, where there is no time to prepare for an unanticipated lethal assault against the officer, or where what is believed to be a minor call for service suddenly turns into a fight for the officer's life. The ability of the officer to adapt to problematic conditions and manage them effectively will require that the officer's performance not be degraded by internal, uncontrolled reactions that were based upon the brain's reaction to stress-exposure events.

    Organizational Influences
    Just as importantly, although this is rarely a target for scrutiny, a police officer's performance can be traced in a large number of cases to causal influences that are generated within the police organization-that is, actions and priorities of leadership, command and supervisory practices, the training provided to officers, and how they are influenced in early stages of their careers by their training officers and peers. A deficiency in any of the above sources of influence upon police officers increases the likelihood that some members of the organization could err in the performance of their duties. In addition, dysfunction within a police organization has been demonstrated to increase the incidence, prevalence, and severity of stress-related symptoms in its personnel, up to and including the chief executive officer.

    Several programs have been designed to enhance leadership skills and performance in law enforcement. The position of these programs is that every officer is a leader. In order to operationalize this vision steps should be taken to include training and organizational support for simple nuts-and-bolts methods that can be used to prevent errors in judgment and decision making, transient shock reactions, and the loss of concentration and focus of attention during the moment of crisis. For it is the mental errors, the shock reactions, and the loss of concentration or focus of attention during crisis that cause things to go wrong in police work.

    An environment must be created within the police agency that fosters, creates, and facilitates continuing and permanent training and supervisory skill building in tactical thinking, decision-making, and peak performance when confronted with stress-exposure conditions. There is no valid reason to ignore the individual officer's mental, emotional, and physical fitness, because these areas of work fitness will determine the outcome of his or her work and life.

    Comprehensive work fitness must become an emphasis within police training and supervision. If work fitness is not integrated into the ongoing, mainstream training and supervisory emphases, more errors will be made, and this could lead to more officers dying unnecessarily. The majority of those losses can be prevented.

    A system of training and practice that makes police personnel expert and well-conditioned in the management of stress-exposure incidents will bring about a substantial decrease in the frequency and severity of errors in their tactical responses, and substantially lower the amount of physical or emotional injury they will suffer from those conditions. The liability costs to the municipality or county for officer actions will also be substantially lowered when law enforcement personnel are experts in managing stress exposure, without any degradation in their performance or health.

    When Errors Are Made
    In the aftermath of investigations into an officer's actions during a crisis event, a careful police investigation will be able to describe the errors made during a tactical encounter. It is a much more difficult task, however, to explain to the officer or to others concerned with the incident, what had happened in the officer's brain that led to him or her to do what he or she did.

    Was the response driven by a conscious decision? Was the officer preoccupied or distracted by concerns external to the tactical encounter? Or were the actions driven by the impulsive, undercontrolled discharge of a biological survival instinct triggered by the brain's being shocked? In that instance, an officer is highly likely to engage in a fight, flee, or freeze response that has too often caused the officer to overreact or underreact when he or she was not prepared sufficiently for the encounter.

    There has been a historic avoidance in law enforcement of understanding and working with mental conditioning and stress-exposure management as an integral part of police work, even as there is general agreement that police officers must be mentally and physically prepared for whatever unexpected conditions they may encounter. It has been left up to the individual, in most cases, to develop and maintain the poise under pressure, the professional mindset, and the common sense that is expected of them regardless of the conditions they encounter.

    Police officers and police leadership generally lack any systematic program of mental and emotional-that is, work fitness-conditioning that can carry them through an unexpected crisis without loss of poise or self-control in a tactical (or politically sensitive) encounter. Nor are there systematic in-house training efforts in how to recognize, manage, and control the symptoms generated by work stresses that are inescapable in police work. Police officers are provided little or no training in developing adaptive expertise in their management and control of their bodies' reactions to alarm, threat, and psychosocial stresses encountered over time.

    Stress-Exposure Management Training vs. Police Training
    The goal of training for police work is skill acquisition and retention of learned material (such as laws and procedures) by trainees. The environment established in most contemporary training programs follows adult learning principles, as adult education or learning is known to enhance the goals of skill acquisition and retention (a quiet classroom, predictable conditions in tasks performed, and so on).

    Research was performed 20 years ago that documented limitations on the amount of transfer of learning achieved under actual field conditions, when the learning occurred according to adult education models.1

    Training police officers to effectively manage stress exposure events will require different methods and content than has been traditionally applied to police recruits and trainees. Officers must possess adaptive expertise in managing their minds, emotions, and physiological reactions in real time. The same proficiency that they develop in the use of such important tools as their service weapon, or using arrest and control techniques, can be developed in their immediate adaptation to stressful events with no loss of mental or emotional control, performance, or health.

    Stress-Exposure Management Training
    SEMT (stress-exposure management training) is founded upon three overriding principles:

    • Police officers must develop a working knowledge of, and familiarity with, the reactions of their brains and bodies under stress-exposure conditions. They need to be shown-through the video-recorded reactions they demonstrate in response to, for instance, ambush conditions-how their performance is affected by precisely the same conditions that they would encounter in the field. This task cannot be performed in a classroom setting or in scenarios where the officer may be able to predict the conditions he or she will encounter.
    • Officers must be shown how to countermand the negative effects of stress. They must be taught to control and mediate their reactions to stressful events in real time. They must learn to defuse symptoms of stress to prevent any degradation in effective performance or health under stressful conditions.
    • All officers, especially those who do not have a great deal of rehearsal experience for police work, must build a great deal of self-confidence in their performance in order to succeed in police work. The lack of mastery learning that currently exists in law enforcement must be changed. Peak performance is a difficult goal to attain under the best of circumstances, but the increase in self-confidence and skill the officers feel as they see themselves control conditions in which they initially were helpless will be of great benefit in a wide range of work and life tasks.

    Although many police commanders will proclaim that they already provide support because they give officers a training class on stress management once every two years or so, or contract with an outside resource for counseling officers and their families, the reality is that effective and poised decision making under stress, and the ability to cope effectively with police work stresses, are highly perishable skills that show a rapid decline in the absence of consistent, monitored practice and repetitive drill. Skills in the management of stress-exposure events must be integrated within the police agency if the promise of excellence in policing is to be fulfilled.

    Work Fitness
    When one is physically fit, one can adapt properly to many more tasks requiring physical effort than one who is out of condition. Similarly, the individual who is expert, practiced, and conditioned to peak performance in stress-exposure management and work performance under adverse conditions, will respond properly to many more difficult or problematic tasks than one who lacks such expertise. Training and supervision must be applied in mental conditioning activities on a continuing basis, because they, like physical fitness, are highly perishable skills.

    Law enforcement now faces the new challenges to homeland security in addition to the normal police responsibilities that must be fulfilled by agencies already cut to the bare bones by fiscal concerns. Woe will be felt by those agencies unprepared for what will be encountered by police officers if the terrorist bombings and ambushes begin in the cities and towns.

    The phrase "lead by example" is not a trivial cliché. In crisis situations, each member of the police agency, starting with the chief executive officer, will be presented with tasks they may have never experienced. When, for example, anarchists rioted at a number of World Trade Organization meetings, police executives were confronted with conditions that required police actions that differed in every way from the day-to-day experience of members of those departments. Some were prepared to shift gears and adapt immediately, decisively, and properly to crisis events; others were not. The consequences to the members-at all ranks-of those police agencies that were not, were severe and will be long-lasting, both in work and in health matters.

    In crisis situations, the conditions that law enforcement must respond to change from moment to moment. It is therefore critical that decision makers have the capacity, skill, and self-control to adapt their decision-making and tactical responses in real time to unexpected, rapidly changing, or overwhelming crisis conditions. Where any facet of a decision maker's mental and behavioral capacity to perform these tasks is disrupted or impaired by some deficit in their ability to manage the stress that they encounter, police performance will suffer in a corollary manner.

    It would be irresponsible to accept police agency performance that is merely good enough. With contemporary threats and pressures facing law enforcement, police leaders need now to establish continuing and permanent resources in their own organizations to preempt the likelihood of degradation in police performance and lower life expectancy for law enforcement personnel and the loss of police lives. Leaders must show the way to excellence by developing mastery themselves and then by helping their officers manage the inescapable work threats and pressures they will undoubtedly face.

    1 Lawrence N. Blum, Stoning the Keepers at the Gate: Society's Relationship with Law Enforcement (New York: Lantern Books, 2003), 171, 173.



    From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 7, July 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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