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Why cops should add strategic mental imagery to their repertoire

Tactical mental imagery gets us through the day, but strategic mental imagery gets us through the night

The deployment from the vehicles is flawless and we quietly make our way up to the house. There is the crackle of the radio in my ear as the perimeter team announces they’re in place. The stack is set at the door and then the knock. We wait. The next thing we hear is the perimeter team calling out that someone’s trying to come out the window.

The breacher steps up to the door and takes the swing. The door cracks and splinters under the force, the team immediately flowing through the opening. It’s dark inside and as I make my way into the living room, there’s a muzzle flash, the muffled snap of a gunshot, and the smell of powder in the air. I fire at the silhouette multiple times until it crumples and everything is quiet. This is when I notice my blood leaking. I know what happened. I know what needs to be done next...

We have all been told to mentally run scenarios through our minds and work our way through critical incidents. The above paragraph is one of mine. The best officers have run thousands of if/then scenarios through their heads in an effort to develop a queue of tactical response options before they are ever needed. You can mentally prepare for use of force, vehicle pursuit, robbery in progress, and a multitude of other tasks that you may need to plan under high pressure and little time. Doing “tactical mental imagery” can save your life. We need to consider that “strategic mental imagery” can be just as life-saving. Let me explain...

Strategic Mental Imagery
There is another side of imagery that we need to introduce, and that is strategic mental imagery. What we commonly prepare for as our worst-case situation, may not come close to reaching the true level of trauma. What we prepare for is most commonly what our mind has decided we are willing to accept. Having to consider a response to the mass murder of children, your partner being shot in the passenger seat beside you, or having to deliver a line of duty death notification, are all events that even the most hardened officer is likely to avoid mentally.

In these extreme situations we would benefit from strategic mental imagery. Tactical mental imagery gets us through the day, but strategic mental imagery gets us through the night. While tactics are variable and dependent on our situation, our strategy can be somewhat fixed, with the overall goal being to consistently to recover with little or no long term mental injury from whatever trauma we face.

Make a strategic mental image that you will:

• Attend a critical incident debriefing. If not for you, to help your colleagues
• Recognize you are having a normal response to an abnormal event
• Talk to someone you trust, and then talk some more
• Keep a normal schedule and try to attend to daily tasks
• Eat healthy meals, drink water, and limit the use of alcohol
• Rest. Sleep may be challenging initially, but it will improve with time

Make this image just as real and just as detailed as those you do for tactical encounters. Where is the briefing, who do you trust to talk to, what does the day after look like? Think outside the box, and begin to prepare for incidents that you never considered both tactically and strategically. Mental imagery is an easy and cost-efficient method to save your life in the short run and for the long term.

Prepare for the Entire Event and its Aftermath
Over my career, I had done a long list of tactical mental imagery in many scenarios, and considered myself well-prepared for one of the worst situations: being shot in the line of duty. Like the narrative above, my scenarios were as realistic and contained details of the sights, sounds, smell, and feel of the situation. Making them authentic in the mind allows us to build a map we can refer back to when facing a similar experience in the real world.

This is not a new concept and multiple studies have shown its benefit in the sports world. I would make the argument that law enforcement is just about the most extreme sport on the planet, and in turn we can benefit from its use just as professional athletes.

Let’s not just get thought the day. Let’s also get through the night after.

Jeff McGill has 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has an earned doctoral degree with research that focused on the perceptions of mental health and suicide amongst law enforcement recruits. Jeff is a co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a national nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in law enforcement. He now works full time as the Director of Public Safety Training at Northwest Florida State College overseeing training for law enforcement, corrections, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.