How fear helps cops survive

Even when officers react too quickly to consciously experience fear, the brain recognizes deadly threats and kicks into hyper-survival mode


“I feared for my life.”

These are the words police officers have said all over the country after an officer-involved shooting. 

As part of my work to update the 1980 book, “Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters,” as well as my book “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” I have been honored to interview many survivors of law enforcement armed encounters.

There is no need to be afraid of fear. It is a natural process of survival. Embrace it and be grateful for the gift of fear.
There is no need to be afraid of fear. It is a natural process of survival. Embrace it and be grateful for the gift of fear. (Photo/Tony Webster via WikiCommons)

Learning about these cases, you can see how the brain clearly shifts into life preservation mode when it perceives a deadly threat. Even when officers react too quickly to consciously experience fear, the brain recognizes deadly threats and kicks into hyper-survival mode.  

Here are just a few of the dramatic changes described by the police officers who experienced these encounters.

Immediate Trained Responses

Time after time cops report, “My training kicked in,” when faced with a sudden deadly threat. For example, one officer approached what he thought was an injured person but suddenly had a handgun shoved into his face. Without conscious thought, the officer performed an oft-trained disarming technique, which worked perfectly and saved his life.

Visual Acuity

An officer was severely wounded in a dark parking lot by a suspect. After running out of ammunition, the suspect went to acquire a long gun from a nearby squad. As the wounded officer brought up his own weapon to defend himself he said he experienced, “Heightened visual acuity from an adrenaline dump, because it was like someone had turned on a light switch lighting up the entire parking lot and I could see everything clearly.”

Focus

Another officer said it is hard to relate how your perception is changed by the circumstance. That officer explained, “I clearly saw my muzzle flash and the projectile leave the muzzle and saw his gun fire with his bullet coming at me. I thought to myself, I should move out of the way, but it was coming too fast and I couldn’t. I saw my bullet hit. I could only see his gun. The muzzle looked like a cannon.”

Sound Altering

In many cases, it was common for officers to know that they were shooting, but not hear their own weapon’s report. The suspect’s weapon often sounded like a small “pop,” even when it was a large caliber or shotgun. Another officer, who was fired upon four times with a shotgun, said it sounded like one prolonged shot coming in four distinct waves.

Pain

Officers wounded during the confrontations often did not initially feel pain. In two separate situations, two officers were hit with shotgun slugs shattering their arms, yet initially, they did not notice the injury until they tried to use the arm. Another officer engaged in a prolonged foot pursuit after being shot, while another engaged in a vehicle pursuit for miles after being shot.

Time and Distance

After officer-involved shootings it is common for investigators to ask:

  1. How long did this incident last?
  2. What was the distance between you and the suspect?

Officers involved in a near-death encounter commonly have trouble estimating time and distances during a shooting. In one case an officer told investigators he believed he and his assailant were 60 feet apart. In reality, they were 12 feet apart. The same officer additionally described experiencing the incident in slow motion like he had been transported into “The Matrix.”

Strength and Details Forgotten

One cop, whose partner was shot, prepared to Fireman’s carry his wounded partner from the kill zone. He later explained, “Seeing my partner down and bleeding badly made me determined to get him to an ambulance, bullets be damned. From prior training I was aware of changes during life and death circumstances so, as I bent to lift my partner, I wondered if he would feel light, because of the circumstance. Then I thought, I hope I didn’t mess up the process by thinking that thought.

“As I lifted him, even though he weighed 10 pounds more than me, my partner felt as if he did not weigh even one ounce. A witness later said I ran with him in that Fireman’s carry and jumped a fence with him over my shoulder, but to this day I don’t remember that at all.”

Life Thoughts

It is common for officers to have detailed thoughts of wives, husbands, children, parents and even pets in the middle of these events. You would think these thoughts would be a distraction, but in each case, officers said it served to spur them on. One officer was able to overcome repeated, severe stabs that caused a great loss of blood because of the thoughts of the people he loved waiting for him at home. He went home while the suspect didn’t.

Conclusion

Interviewing these officers and my own life experiences have led me to believe that it doesn’t matter whether an officer remembers consciously fearing or not during a life or death situation. If you experience a sudden change in reality, that is absolute proof you feared for your life.

I have concluded that if fear is experienced in a potentially deadly encounter it would be one of two kinds of fear. The first causes some to freeze or run. I call that disabling fear, even though it actually may aid them in their survival.

Then there is the kind of fear described above, which most police officers experience, which becomes an ally in their fight. I call that enabling fear, as it aids in their prevailing.

There is no need to be afraid of fear. It is a natural process of survival. Embrace it and be grateful for the gift of fear.

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