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Book excerpt: Taming the Serpent: How Neuroscience Can Revolutionize Modern Law Enforcement Training

Neuroscience research can help guide police training for better decision-making and performance under life-threatening stress

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There is a noticeable gap between the way officers are trained and how the brain processes information under stress.

The following is excerpted from “Taming the Serpent: How Neuroscience Can Revolutionize Modern Law Enforcement Training” by Michael G. Malpass, who has been in law enforcement for over 24 years as a beat cop, a tactical training officer and a SWAT officer. The book presents the science behind de-escalation, biohacks for better performance and new ideas for using neuroscience to enhance law enforcement training for peak performance under extreme pressure. Order your copy here.

When dealing with law enforcement officers and the idea of introducing new ways of doing things, we must address the question, “What’s in it for me?” Here are just a few of the benefits I believe come from understanding the brain under stress and how to apply that knowledge:

1. Understanding the brain under stress can help you learn to biohack your own brain to achieve peak performance. (Because in law enforcement, performing under stressful conditions is a job requirement.)

2. Understanding your own brain in conflict will help you understand the brain of the person you are dealing with, and aid in forming effective strategies for a safe resolution for all parties involved.

3. Understanding the brain and what happens when the balance between emotional and cognitive control is lost can aid officers and supervisors in awareness of anxiety, poor performance, signs of depression and PTSD issues.

4. Understanding the brain in conflict aids in comprehending how problems can occur, and aid in developing strategies to prevent issues such as lawful but awful incidents (police incidents that are lawful but look horrible to the public and media), mistake-of-fact shootings (a suspect reaching for an object that the officer believes is a weapon, but it turns out not to be), and excessive force.

5. Understanding the brain’s memory systems to develop better training that focuses on the brain and central nervous system for the best possible performance under stressful conditions.


The ABCs of Strategy

The A, B and C planning format is used by tactical teams around the world and is sometimes taught as a primary plan, a backup plan and an emergency plan (for when Verbal Judo fails). Unfortunately, we rarely teach these concepts at the basic academy level.

I once had a kickboxing coach named Dale Minor who helped start me down the road to preparing to become a law enforcement officer. Dale used to always say if you run to the center of the ring and just start swinging, you may show you’re tough, but you are going to take way more hits than you need to. His philosophy was to always begin with the end in mind. What does this fight look like when it’s over and how are we going to get there? ABC planning is just that; begin with the end in mind. Have an idea of what the end of the situation in question looks like and have several ideas for how you are going to get there. With that said, let’s look at the plans.

The A Plan

The A plan is the easiest plan to develop because, while there are a wide variety of calls an officer goes to, there are many tactical preparation strategies and concepts that work across this spectrum of calls. The A plan is how I want this call to go if everyone at the scene recognizes my lawful authority and is compliant with my directives. I “ask” and they agree to comply with my request. By some estimates, 98.9 percent of police calls for service go according to plan.

The most important part of the A plan is to establish your lawful presence and authority to show you’re prepared for possible trouble by how you place yourself at the scene, how you manage your emotions, and how you take control of the scene. In the end, that is exactly what police officers are paid to do: take control of whatever situation they are lawfully present for and successfully manage the situation to the most positive conclusion the parties involved will allow.

Part of the A plan are the things you and other officers do to hedge your bets in case the situation gets violent. How you look, how you act and how you communicate are all indicators to a suspect or any other party involved in the call for whether or not you are prepared. This is important because in interviews with suspects who attacked or killed law enforcement officers one of the deciding factors on whether the suspect was going to attack the officer was how prepared the officer looked, how they positioned themselves, and how direct and confident they were with their communications.

The United States Marine Corps uses a concept called left of bang to describe the fact that everything you do, see, comprehend and act on before the shots are fired or the violence begins, matters. If everything you do or don’t do before the shooting or violence starts happens left of bang and everything after is right of bang then, in your tactical planning your A and B plans happen left of bang. The C plan occurs right of bang.

There is a list too long to include all the things that can be done left of bang to either prevent violence or place yourself in the most effective position to deal with the violence. But here, at least, are some thoughts to get the ideas flowing.

  1. If this goes bad, where is my last point of cover (stops a bullet) or concealment (hides you)? The brain under stress does not perform well unless it is effectively trained to do so. By giving yourself an idea of where to go if things go bad, you are pre-loading the brain for peak performance. Keep in mind the axiom, “failure to plan is planning to fail.” The idea of last point of cover works in every law enforcement contact including traffic stops.
  2. Parking away from the scene to avoid being ambushed while getting out of the car and give yourself time to evaluate the scene gives time and space to establish your left of bang baselines. Time and distance are your friend.
  3. Bullets are less likely to deflect through a medium at a 90-degree angle and more likely to deflect at other angles due to a variety of factors. Don’t approach windows and doors head on and don’t maintain a perimeter on a location while standing directly in the line of sight of doors and windows. As a quick test, look out the front window of your home while standing about five to ten feet back from the window with all interior lights turned off. What can you see? Now stand outside of your house about ten feet back from the window looking into your house and see what you can see. All advantage goes to the person in the house, so plan accordingly. If you were a criminal standing inside your house with a scoped rifle, how easy would it be to shoot anyone directly in front of and across the street from your home? Why would you, as a police officer, want to place yourself in those positions?
  4. Don’t answer priority calls by yourself. You cannot track and control multiple people by yourself and every year officers from around the country are killed or seriously hurt trying to do so. If no one is dying, what is the rush and why go in alone?
  5. When working with other officers, position yourselves so you can see each other. If you can’t see each other, you can’t help each other.
  6. Constantly evaluate the resources you need as you are constantly evaluating your plans to bring the call to its conclusion.
  7. Use light to your advantage and understand when it’s to your disadvantage. The principle of light control is to put more light in front of you and be careful of backlighting. Backlighting is when there is a greater amount of light behind you than in front of you making it easier for someone looking to hurt you to do so.
  8. Evaluate what kind of call you are going to and what this call looks like when it’s done.
  9. Is this a criminal matter or a civil matter?
  10. Practice, practice and practice some more. Train in defensive tactics, tactical shooting and decision-making. Keep up on the laws in your jurisdiction and case law on use of force and dealing with the mentally ill.
  11. Constantly assess the surrounding area and make sure you are aware of innocent civilians and work to keep them out of potential harm.
  12. Assess your less than lethal options and have them available and positioned tactically.
  13. You choose the location of the traffic stop or contact. Always tilt the odds in your favor.
  14. Constantly practice building searches and suspect searches so you are learning to tactically cover the angles. It’s all about the angles and who uses them to their advantage.
  15. Remember the lawful but awfuls and recognize when your call or contact may be headed down that road.
  16. Learn to read people and recognize pre-flight or pre-fight indicators.
  17. Always explain your lawful authority and purpose. You would be amazed how many officers forget to establish this baseline from the start of the interaction.
  18. If you can’t see the suspect’s hands or are unsure of what is in them, move to assess and identify. Action is faster than reaction so the only way to change the suspect’s focus is to not be where they expect you to be.

Again, this is not an all-inclusive list, just ideas for some of the things you can do left of bang to try and take control of the situation. Each of these examples can and should be ingrained into your cognitive appraisal process and mental models (ABC planning).