Perspectives change when you are on the table

I was surprised when I heard my neurosurgeon giving his supporting staff permission to "ABLE" him


This article originally appeared in the Police1 Digital Edition, "Police Performance: Developing a Culture of Accountability." Download your copy here.

By Sgt. G Michael Vogler

Like most of you, I’m a control freak. If I’m in control, I know the job will be done right, and failure isn’t an option. I believed that being open to suggestions, especially from someone junior at best, is a sign of indecisiveness. At worse, it can put our mission at risk. We have a chain of command for a reason. Venturing outside the chain jeopardizes our time-tested process. Fate can be cruel and give us exactly what will push our buttons and teach us the lessons we need to learn.

Despite my beliefs that I’m still one of the young guns, my middle-aged body is telling me otherwise. When I developed a pinched nerve in my neck, I tried to work it out independently. When that didn’t work, I gave physical therapy a try. After a year, even that didn’t help. Reluctantly, I made an appointment with a neurologist to see what was next.

My neurosurgeon clearly and openly gave permission to everyone, including the X-ray tech student, to stop the procedure if they saw a problem or believed he was making an error.
My neurosurgeon clearly and openly gave permission to everyone, including the X-ray tech student, to stop the procedure if they saw a problem or believed he was making an error. (Getty Images)

Even after 25 years as an officer, I have never been as scared as when the doctor described inserting a needle between my vertebra and injecting a steroid right next to my spinal cord. The list of possible complications, including puncturing the spinal cord, just about had me running for cover. Of course, he said not to worry since a live X-ray would guide him while he is poking around inside my spine.

This is happening at the same time I’m being introduced to the Active Bystander for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program. As I heard about the program, I thought about how ABLE would have been beneficial training for how to better intervene on “that guy.” I didn’t give the program any thought about intervening on myself or the officers who are squared away. That’s why I was surprised when I heard my neurosurgeon giving his supporting staff permission to ABLE him. In the procedure room was the surgeon, a couple of nurses, X-ray tech and an X-ray tech student. In my amateur estimation of the medical hierarchy, neurosurgeons are near the top. I’m picturing Dr. Strange before the superpowers. I wouldn’t expect someone prone to making mistakes choosing that as a specialty.

I was listening to the surgeon go through the checklist, which seemed normal enough. He was verifying everyone on the team understood what procedure they were doing on me. What came next was the ABLE surprise. The neurosurgeon clearly and openly gave permission to everyone, including the X-ray tech student, to stop the procedure if they saw a problem or believed he was making an error. It wasn’t just the words he said. The tone made it clear, he was serious. This quick minute of conversation wasn’t just part of the script. He made it clear that he was not above making a mistake. He was human. He established that my safety was more important than anyone’s position and ego.

Back at work, I reflected on the experience and compared it to ABLE in practice. Like the medical profession, policing is about people, both citizens and officers. Does the culture in your agency value people over rank and egos? What about your detail? What about you?

I commit that I will gratefully accept intervention from any officer who sees me making a mistake, engaging in misconduct, or needing wellness assistance. My ego will recover, but my career, home and family may be gone forever without a fellow officer who truly has my back.

RELATED: Strengthening a culture of bystandership in Colorado


About the author
G Michael Vogler is a sergeant in the Denver Police Department’s Training Division.

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